Religion Today

Walkersville, USA - A Muslim group's plan to build a mosque and convention site on a 224-acre farm has met with resistance from many residents of this rural, overwhelmingly Christian town who fear its tranquility and security may be jeopardized.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA insists it will be a friendly neighbor, but its proposal — including an annual national gathering of thousands of Ahmadis — could be blocked by a measure under consideration by the town commissioners.

"Muslims are a whole different culture from us," said the mayor, Ralph Whitmore, taking a break at his livestock feed store. "The situation with the Muslims is a touchy worldwide situation, so people are antsy over that."

Two days after Ahmadiyya leaders fielded questions at a public forum in August, town Commissioner Chad Weddle introduced a zoning amendment that would prohibit places of worship, schools and private clubs on land zoned for agriculture — including the farm the Ahmadis have contracted to buy.

If the five commissioners approve the measure in a vote expected as early as next week, the Ahmadis could be blocked from building a mosque on the site. Even if the amendment fails, the group still would need a special exception to proceed — their request for one is pending before the town's planning commission.

To some, Weddle's amendment smacks of discrimination.

"The situation indicates this is an action that is being directed toward one specific faith community and, as such, that makes it highly suspect," said Roman P. Storzer, a Washington attorney who has been retained by the land's prospective seller, David Moxley.

Muqtedar Khan, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, said the blunt opposition voiced by some Walkersville citizens is reminiscent of the persecution Ahmadis have endured in Pakistan. There, they are forbidden to practice their religion because they believe there was a prophet after Muhammad — Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who died in 1908.

"It is quite ironic," Khan said, that the Ahmadis — allowed to worship freely in the United States — "are suffering a backlash because of their association with Islam."

But Syed Ahmad, a federal economist who is managing the Walkersville project for the group, said the persecution in Pakistan is far worse.

"Here, people are civilized and they get up and they talk and they oppose you," Ahmad said, "but they're not going to kill you."

Ahmad, who emigrated from Pakistan in 1980, says members of his community won't go where they're not wanted. The group's leaders have gone door-to-door to persuade Walkersville residents that Ahmadis are not terrorists.

Ahmad acknowledged that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S. campaign against terrorism have made residents wary.

"They hear 'Muslims,' and they don't know anything beyond that," he said. "To me, it's natural until they get a chance to ask questions what our beliefs are — and then they realize these are good people."

Some residents aren't convinced. When the Ahmadis visited Kambra Minor, a clerk at the Walkersville Market, "I told them, you have to understand — there's a certain connotation to a Muslim group, especially in a blue-collar area like this," Minor said.

Resident David Sample testified during a hearing last month that he is an intelligence officer whose office at the Pentagon, about 40 miles away, was destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I just stress to the board and the community that we pay attention to what's going on, what the motive is, who the people are," he said.

Others worry about the traffic that large-scale Muslim gatherings would generate in the town of 5,600. Mark Mowen suggested that the Ahmadis continue holding their conventions at an exposition center in Chantilly, Va., where this year's three-day event drew about 4,200 participants a day.

Weddle said he offered his amendment not to block the Muslims but as part of a plan to preserve open space and help the Banner School, a private, nonsectarian institution for grades K-8. The school, now located in nearby Frederick, won a special exception last year to build on a tract of Walkersville farmland, but construction was stalled by Frederick County's refusal to extend public sewer lines to land zoned for agriculture.

The town responded by rewriting its comprehensive plan to include a new "institutional" zoning category, Weddle said. The commissioners approved the category during the same meeting in August at which Weddle offered his amendment barring schools and places of worship on agricultural land. The timing, so soon after the Ahmadis' community forum, was coincidental, he said.

Weddle said the Banner School plans to have its land rezoned for institutional use, and the Ahmadis could do likewise.

"My ordinance should benefit that group if they want to build on that property" because without rezoning, the site can't be served by public water and sewer, Weddle said.

However, Ahmad said the Ahmadis plan to use the farm's private well and septic systems and won't need public water and sewer.

Resident Kris Anderson said he doesn't trust the Ahmadis and that unless they're stopped, "we're opening the door to something we may not know and we may not like."

But others, including two neighboring farmers, said the community should welcome the Ahmadis as property owners who will help preserve open space.

As for the once-a-year traffic congestion, said 64-year-old farmer Robert Ramsburg "that's no worse than the carnival, and I've learned to live with the carnival."