Rural Controversy: A Mosque in Sheboygan

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Beth Rooney for TIME

The Islamic center in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin

The minutes of the town of Wilson's planning-commission meeting of Feb. 8, 2010, are a record of Dr. Mansoor Mirza's trauma. The internist had applied for a permit to turn a former health-food store at 9110 Sauk Trail Road in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, into a mosque. But residents from Wilson and surrounding areas joined the meeting to make their feelings heard.

A sampling: "We're talking about a religion that has not a, not a very good track record, as we all know, nationwide, worldwide." "I don't want it in my backyard. I live three houses away. We have guys — I have good friends in the war and I have people over there, my nephew is there. I don't plain trust it." "I know they'll say there's the violent or jihad Muslims and there's the peaceful Muslims, [but] to me it doesn't make a difference because their goal is to wipe out Christianity around the world." "The basis of this community is on Christ and Christ alone ... Do we really want this in our backyard?" "If they're against Christianity, I don't want them coming after my kids." "Lest we forget, we had some troops at Fort Hood just recently who were massacred by a doctor. He was a jihad idealist."

A few voices piped up in support of Mirza and Islam ("Our own Christian religion has just as many extremists ... and I don't think that we should be making broad, sweeping generalizations"), but the doctor was stunned. He hadn't expected much trouble. "I tried to clarify things," he recalls. "I said, 'I believe in the same God you believe in.' People said, 'You don't believe in God; you believe in Allah.' Only one person asked a question about water usage ... People came to speak out against the mosque. 'The mosque will be creating terrorists.' 'We don't trust you.' They were very loud, and I was kind of shaken up. When the hearing was done, I couldn't walk. I [had] lived in New York and New Jersey, and I never expected this in my life. As a physician, I never expected that the same kind of people who came to me in the clinic and hospital and treated me with respect would talk to me like this. My lawyer helped me to settle down and took me to a café."

But in May, despite the hostility of many in the surrounding communities, Wilson's board unanimously passed Mirza's application to turn the property, which he owned, into a religious institution. Though the pastor of one church, the First Reformed Church in nearby Oostburg, was in opposition, Mirza was buoyed by some 30 local religious leaders who signed a petition of support. Soon, the building, which resembles a chalet, began renovation to better accommodate congregants. It stands in an area dotted with small homes and farmhouses, pervaded by the distinct aroma of horse manure. The first service took place on May 21, attended by 16 men and three women.

Mohammad Hamad, 38, a mechanical engineer, was designated the imam of the mosque. He estimates that only 40 or 50 families in the area actively practice Islam, even though there are between 100 and 150 Muslim families in Sheboygan County and another 30 in nearby Manitowoc County. Experts say that most Muslims in the area are from Central Europe — Bosnians and Albanians. Many were refugees from the persecution of Muslims by Christians during the genocidal years after Yugoslavia fell apart. Says Mirza: "They will not tell people they are Muslims. I'm a physician. I treat some of them, and there is a lot of trauma. You see the wounds." Many choose not to practice their religion or to keep silent about it.

But sometimes the silence is broken. Pastor Lorri Steward of the Ebenezer United Church of Christ in Sheboygan recalls a recent exchange at a forum on Islam sponsored by local churches to teach locals about Muslims. "A woman said she did not feel the Muslims spoke out adamantly enough about acts of terrorism," Steward says, adding that a Muslim in the audience responded, "How adamantly did you speak out when the Christians were persecuting and killing Muslims in Bosnia?"

Other than those from Eastern Europe, the rest of Sheboygan's Muslims are from a range of Islamic nations and cultures. Hamad was born in Gaza; Mirza is from Pakistan; others come from the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Before the mosque was established in Wilson, believers had to make a 100-mile round-trip journey to mosques in Milwaukee, Green Bay or Appleton.

Then a tragic incident occurred that somehow worked to bind many people closer together. In late June, a Muslim child who was vacationing with her family, Sofia Khan, 9, disappeared while enjoying the waters by Lake Michigan in the Oostburg area. Rita Harmeling saw the commotion from her home. A congregant of the First Reformed Church, she immediately opened her home in what was first a rescue attempt and later a recovery effort. But Harmeling took another step. "I thought, If this had happened to someone in my family, I would want to have my spiritual needs met." And so she contacted Hamad, after getting his number through her pastor, the Rev. Wayne DeVrou, who had originally opposed the mosque.

While the mosque provided a place for spiritual comfort, local residents opened their homes to Sofia's extended family. A neighbor who lived near the mosque, who had once been suspicious, told the imam to let the girl's family use his front yard for their gathering. Says Mirza: "Her family was taken care of by the same churches that were against the mosque."

Harmeling says she and her husband had attended meetings at their church that discussed why the mosque should not be approved. But, she adds, "I was never opposed to the mosque. Some people assumed we had the same views as our pastor," who remains opposed to it. She explains that she was "interested in finding as much information as I could about Islam." She still doesn't agree that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. And yet the tragedy, she says, "taught me a lot. My neighbors and I discovered that Muslims are gracious, loving people. They were open about sharing their faith and culture with us."