‘You don’t belong here’ — NJ Muslims fight back after ‘explosive hostility,’ hate crimes
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains language some may find offensive.
BAYONNE — They weren't born here, but they lived the American Dream.
Khaled Aly moved from Egypt to the United States in 1979.
Abdul Hameed Butt moved here from Pakistan in 1989.
Aly, who started off as a dishwasher at Judicke’s Bakery, eventually saved enough to buy it outright in 2000. He now owns several businesses, including Yellow Cab in the Peninsula City.
Butt managed a convenience store and raised four sons with his wife, two of whom became the first Muslim students to graduate at the top of their classes in the city’s schools.
Bayonne is their home.
But after proposing to turn a crumbling vacant warehouse into a house of worship for their Muslim families and neighbors, they say they saw an ugly side to their community.
“Go back to where you’re from,” they say a local police officer told them at a Zoning Board meeting.
“FUCK MUSLIMS … FUCK ALLAH,” someone sprayed on the Catholic school building where Muslims had been allowed to gather and pray in the basement since 2008.
On Thursday, the Bayonne Muslims group headed by Butt and Aly filed a federal religious discrimination lawsuit against this Hudson County city’s Zoning Board, arguing that the board’s denial of their mosque proposal in March was the result of “explosive hostility” and anti-Muslim bigotry.
It’s the latest legal action under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act brought by an Islamic group against a government agency in one of the most diverse states in the country. New Jersey has three times as many Muslims per capita as the rest of the nation.
The Bayonne lawsuit was filed days after another community in the state — Bernards in Somerset County — agreed to settle a lawsuit by a Muslim group that had been denied an application to build a mosque. The municipality was also sued by the federal Justice Department, and a federal judge in January ruled that the Planning Board had discriminated against Muslims by arguing that land use rules for a “church” did not apply to an Islamic house of worship.
Details of the Bernards settlement have not been made public. But such settlements can be costly for communities. In 2014, Bridgewater settled a lawsuit over a rejected Islamic center for $7.5 million.
The Bayonne Muslims have been trying to convert an ugly former warehouse on an industrial block, next to gas tanks owned by an oil company, into a house of worship since 2015.
They say they chose the the East 24th Street property because it was in a part of town with less traffic and it had plenty of on-site and street parking.
The lawsuit says the Planning Board required them to provide for more parking, even though the site already had enough to meet the city's criteria of one parking space for every four seats in a house of worship.
Houses of worship are conditionally permitted in residential neighborhoods in Bayonne, which already has nearly three dozen churches and synagogues but not a single mosque.
The application was rejected in March after it got only four votes, one short of the required five.
A spokesman for the city did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday afternoon.
The lawsuit says opposition to the mosque, whether at meetings or online, often turned to the Muslim faith and its adherents instead of land-use issues. Opponents often brought up the 9/11 terrorist attack in Manhattan, which happened within sight of Bayonne.
According to the lawsuit:
One objector testified at a meeting that there are “a lot of issues that come with [diversity],” and that the “community won’t be safe.”
A Change.org petition signer asked: “Why should Bayonne bend over backwards for these warmongers?”
Republican politician Michael Alonso told a reporter: “It’s definitely not the right time, with everything that’s happening recently and all over the world. We have ISIS. We have Christians being beheaded. We have the LGBT community being targeted. This is just not the right time ... And at the same time, residents don’t feel safe.”
Facebook group “Stop the Mosque in Bayonne posted concerns with Sharia law.
Pamphlets were circulated around the city urging a boycott of businesses owned by Muslims. Someone took out an advertisement in a local newspaper that encouraged people to boycott Yellow Cab and Judicke’s Bakery, which the ad said “have already forgotten” 9/11.
Before one Zoning Board meeting, as Muslims quietly prayed in a corner, local residents loudly recited a Christian prayer.
A local pastor testifying at a Zoning Board meeting asked whether “all the leaders in your congregation believe in Sharia Law?”
Another objector said, “People are going [to become] radical and they [will] kill people.”
Another said it was “imperative” that Muslim beliefs “be more carefully reviewed or examined before being adopted into [the] community.”
“As is happening in towns across America, phony zoning issues were used to block our mosque because of bigotry against Muslims," Butt, the president of Bayonne Muslims said Thursday in a prepared statement. "The Zoning Board subjected our application to completely different standards than those it applied to Christian churches. This project is very important to the future of Muslims in this city, and we will not give up.”
The religious group is represented by the Manhattan firm of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.