Islam & Religious Freedom in the U.S. (by Mahmoud Harmoush)

MA student Mahmoud Harmoush

This post is written in conjunction with the Religion and Law in the U.S.” course dialogue project and is directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”

With this amendment to the U.S. constitution, I and many other religious people feel welcome to practice, establish, and propagate our faith in a peaceful and competitive multi-religious environment.  I appreciate and thank the founding fathers for their wisdom and for such a clause.  Due to my understanding of the “Wall of Separation between Church and State”, I did not ask or expect the state to help me establish my religious center (The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley – ICTV), nor did I expect the state to block my effort to establish the center for religious purposes after I met all city codes.  I expected the process to take its normal course like any other religious entity applying for a construction permit.

But as it turned out, the process took more than three years.  It cost more than average and had to go through a public hearing at the planning commission of the City of Temecula.  The city had to notify three hundred houses around the proposed site of the project and there was also an open invitation for people to come for the hearing.  There were hundreds in attendance to voice their opinions.  After more than five hours of listening to testimony and comments from both sides, the planning commission voted (5-0) for granting ICTV a permit to build.  I think they applied the “lemon test” and found our application to pass the test of secularity: no advancement of a particular religion and no governmental entanglement.

A few months later and before the expiration of filing time, the opposition filed an appeal to the City Council.  Another hearing date was set for January 25th , 2011 at Temecula New City Hall in old town Temecula.  Phil Willon from the LA Times reported: “After a marathon eight hours hearing that ended at 3:30 am Wednesday, the Temecula City Council unanimously approved the mosque, a decision officials said was based not on incendiary religious or political issues but rather on such mundane matters as traffic, parking and environmental impact.” In the same interview, I said: “This is a great day for all of Temecula” because it showed that freedom of religion is guaranteed even if it was not welcomed. (Read the article here)

For many in our society, incidents like Muslims requesting a building permit, the violent behavior of an individual Muslim, or even a political campaign like the one we have this year unfortunately trigger greater amounts of fear of Islam and Muslims.  The media and politicians, for limited popular gain, rush to denounce Sharia or to promise voters that there will not be a Muslim in their future cabinet – they inflame the negative feeling and thereby disturb the social harmony.

Mahmoud Harmoush, Born in Syria, Student at CLU, first year MA with a focus on Islamic Leadership. Imam of the Islamic center of Temecula Valley. Concern with Human Rights issues, Co-Founder of the Syrian American Council.

  • Kile Jones

    Great post Mahmoud Harmoush. Being from San Diego, I understand that places like Temecula are very homogenous–upper-middle class white, generally conservative and Christian–and this obviously made your request for a permit that much more difficult. Let’s put it this way: If you were a protestant Church, it would not have taken you three years to get where you are. I agree with you that it is important to counteract false stereotypes of Muslims in the United States.

  • Katie Kubitskey

    Really powerful post, Mahmoud, thank you! It reminded me of the Larkin v. Grendel’s Den case where the neighboring community played a major role in the expediency of opening a new establishment. It’s interesting to see the shift in “types” of people that step up to voice their opinion in these different cases. Relating Grendel’s Den and your ICTV, the community has made it seem as if “religion” appears as something to be feared when in the public sphere. Although it was a long process, congratulations on your success and I think your institution will do a wonderful job at reducing some of this fear in the community.

  • Drew Baker

    Wonderful post, Mahmoud,

    Hearing the story of your mosque reminds me of the case in Tennessee where a similar case occurred recently. Some in the opposition to that mosque argued that Islam was not actually a religion (but rather a “cult”) and therefore should not receive the right to religious freedom guaranteed by the first amendment. I agree with you that the religion clauses are powerful tools to create a just public sphere. In some ways, however, the clauses have shifted the debate; if legal rights are promised to marginalized religious communities, then the only way bigots can challenge those rights is to challenge the religiosity of the communities. Did you hear similar challenges against Islam as a “religion” in the case of your mosque?

  • Mahmoud Ali Gomaa Afifi

    Great Job Brother Mahmoud!

  • Matt Bussell

    Great post Mahmoud. Your story truly reveals how the “Wall of Separation” that Jefferson envisioned between religion and government is not in fact operative in American society. Unfortunately in many sectors of our country religion has become the central test for loyalty to the nation with Christianity seen as the model religion. I am sorry for the resistance you and your community experienced to start your center. With the approval of city council to construct the center, I hope that your religious center will provide a corrective to people’s misconceptions about Islam.

  • Saul Barcelo

    Thanks Mahmoud for your post. I’m curious to know what the arguments of the opposition were, when they filed an appeal to the City Counsel. Your case reminds me of how our Church tried to build a parking structure across the street from our Church building, in a residential area. Unfortunately in our case, We had major opposition by the residents and city officials of the of the town of Calimesa. The City requirements became too expensive and we finally decided to abandom the project. Now days, the worshipers park their cars all around the neighborhood and the land continues to be empty. Small towns tend to be closed minded and difficult to work with but I can almost guess in your case it was more than “mundane matters” that slowed the approval of the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley. I know you said, that at the end, freedom of religion was guaranteed to your community of faith even when it was not welcomed but I guess, I’m still bothered by the difficulties you guys experienced and at the same time fear that one day this freedom may not be guaranteed.

    “This is a great day for all of Temecula” because it showed that freedom of religion is guaranteed even if it was not welcomed. (Read the article here)

  • Bryan H

    Mahmoud Harmoush, I really enjoyed your post. First, I am proud to say that I am a Christian…but I am no longer with the Church. One example of why pertains to your difficulty in opening the Islamic Center. The argument is always us serving the same God, but how we get to Him is different. Well, I never hear of Muslims bashing the Christian Faith or the Christian community about their beliefs and ways of living in the US. But, currently it is self-evident that the idea of “separation between Church and State” is void in the eyes of the political bigots that entice others, even more, to cause a trouble to open up an Islamic Center, instead of a Church.

    I always thought a religion was, in the USA, one’s own choice to abide by, or not to abide with one at all. Why should I condemn another religious group that is operating under US constitutional standards when I don’t believe what they believe? The only political religion in this country is Christianity, which makes me embarrassed to have felt the way as I was growing up. The battle right now is in demise of other faiths but Christianity. I applaud you for continuing your fight to “EARN” your US Constitutional Right of Freedom of Religion!

  • Bryan Cottle

    Mahmoud,

    Thank you for your post! Also, congratulations on your success in getting your mosque approved and through all the council meetings. I can only echo as others have said how I wish that the process had not taken as long as it did. I get rather sensitive to the issue of people denying religious groups the ability to construct houses of worship especially when they go through all the proper steps to do so. Although I have not experienced first hand building issues for churches, I have read many legal battles and struggles about Mormon Temples in my own faith getting approved and constructed. Often in those cases it comes down to mundane matters like steeple hight etc. that delay the procedure. However, the idea of separation between Church and State becomes a wonderful benefit in cases like this, and more often than not situations work out because of this concept. When they don’t I feel that stereotypes and local ill feelings about the religion can contribute to the conflict. What is sad about it is the irony of the situation. How can stereotypes of religious groups be removed in society if we don’t let them move in or build their houses of worship near us?

  • Katrina

    Thanks for sharing your story Mahmoud. When you describe how the eventual building of the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley demonstrates “freedom of religion is guaranteed even if it was not welcomed,” you capture the essence of what the free exercise clause is granting. Unfortunately, you also describe all to well the difficulties that many religious minorities still face today. It is such a shame that community officials can hold you up for three years and cost you excess amounts of money in the name of “traffic, parking and environmental impact.” Have you found that other Muslim communities in Southern California to have similar experiences as yours? I am also wondering if there is any sort of action being taken by the government to prevent this sort of thing from happening? I hope that your story might remind us that “mundane things” cannot become an excuse for preventing free exercise. Congratulations on your success.

  • http://www.churchstate.org Alan Reinach

    As a veteran of several land use battles on behalf of churches, I can tell you Mahmoud, that you did well to get your approval in three years. It took one church 11 years to build an addition to their school, because of the time consuming process of dealing with planning commission and county board of supervisors. Ouch! Welcome to California!

  • Grace Yia-Hei Kao

    Mahmoud and students in my Religion & Law class:

    This is a wonderful story of perseverance and something that will serve as a great “case-study” as we discuss (later on in class) the federal statute RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) which may answer some of your questions.


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