When it’s not Islamophobia; Muslims self-examine

May 12, 2011

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Suburban Chicago’s Muslim population’s growing and, in many ways, integrating into existing communities.  

Their children play on the same soccer teams as non-Muslims... parents are friendly and may even be Facebook friends.

But Chicago area Muslims are having a hard time integrating their houses of worship and their schools into the suburban landscape.

Some blame Islamophobia.

But one Chicago-area Muslim is asking his community... maybe it’s not them... maybe it’s us.

HUSSAIN: Al Hamidullah... (prayer in Arabic) (fade under)

Attorney Faiyaz Hussain gathered dozens of men and women in the basement of the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, about 30 minutes west of Chicago.

<sound up on prayer>

Hussain is with the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, or CIOGC.

He’s convened what he’s calling a “Not in my Back Yard” zoning summit to talk about a trend:

A Muslim group wants to build or expand a mosque or a school.

The local government denies the petition on a zoning technicality.

Some Muslims feel like their community is under attack.

But Hussain wants them to consider something new: maybe they’re partly to blame.

HUSSAIN: If there’s Islamophobia, we will certainly fight it. Similarly, I think that we then also need to take a step back and not... we shouldn’t go down the path of Islamophobia too quickly, because there may be some very well-intentioned, well-meaning  public officials who are simply trying to do their job.

Hussain remembers what got him to first consider the hard questions...

He was on his morning commute to Chicago, chatting with older ladies on the train.

HUSSAIN: One of them, a lady that’s known me for two or three years, was sort of one day talking about this project that was going on. She’s like, ‘Oh Faiyaz’ -- and I’ve known her, I’ve talked about her kids, her grandkids, I know the whole story. And she tells me, ‘Faiyaz, you don’t know these people who are moving in, they’re trying to put in this temple, and I don’t know what’s going on, I’m afraid they may have bombs,’

It turned out she was talking about MECCA, the Muslim Educational Cultural Center of America... a project proposed in DuPage County.

HUSSAIN: I looked at myself thinking I’ve been riding the train with her for three or four years, I probably haven’t done a good job explaining who we are as Muslims, and here she was thinking MECCA... And I was just shaking my head thinking, ‘wow.’

MECCA recently won approval to build a school, worship space, and recreational center.

It was a long fight... but one that Hussain hopes others will learn from.

MECCA members put lots of time into meeting one-on-one with county officials.

Tony Michaelassi is a county board member... he says putting that personal face on a petition helps push it through the process:

MICHAELASSI: when it comes to DuPage County, we like to hear from the community itself, we like to hear testimony from the members of the organization that’s petitioning us.

Michaelassi says small groups often make the mistake of taking a purely legalistic approach.

They rely on expensive lawyers to present their case... when it’s just as important for the petitioners themselves to show up, network, and make themselves known.

One group that’s learned this lesson is the Muslim Community Center School in north suburban Morton Grove.

School Chairman Rizwan Kadir says when the group sought zoning approval in the late 80s, it hit a wall of opposition from neighbors.

KADIR: If they knew us at a personal level, things would have been a lot different.

Kadir says school administrators and parents have worked hard since then to let the neighbors know them.

They have open houses.

They let neighborhood kids play in school fields.

And the school’s a polling place during elections.

Kadir hopes all that will help him fix what he considers a major compromise that the school had to make.

KADIR: We could not have a high school right now. So we are strategizing our plan in how to approach the village in getting rid of some of these restrictions.

Kadir feels confident that by now, the school’s relationship with its neighbors is good enough to make this an easy win.

But he won’t know for sure until he submits his requests...sometime this summer.