Faith in America
It's as important as ever, no matter what you believe
But Khan's hopes of fostering goodwill and understanding suffered a setback earlier this year, when the mosque bought a plot of land next to a new subdivision and across the street from a Methodist church and cemetery and asked the county for permission to turn the land into an Islamic graveyard. Neighbors protested that the Muslim custom of burying the dead unembalmed and wrapped in cloth shrouds--not in caskets--would create a health hazard. "We've got underground streams in there that carry water into the lake," says Drew Johnson, whose ranch home backs to the property. "No one can tell me that's not going to create problems." Residents complained that another Muslim cemetery south of Atlanta, near Lovejoy, was a hazard and an eyesore: Graves were left open and empty to accommodate the Muslim practice of burial within 24 hours of death, while headstones and markers seemed haphazardly placed, and the grounds were poorly kept. "Imagine what that's going to do to property values," says Johnson.
County officials ordered soil-sample and water-table studies, checked with state and federal health officials, and concluded that a cemetery would pose no health hazard. In February, they approved it, with conditions: People would be buried inside wooden caskets and open-bottomed vaults, no graves would be dug more than 24 hours in advance, and an 8-foot-high wooden fence would surround the property. Leaders of the mosque agreed, even though it meant modifying their traditions. The compromise, said Khan, was "within the limits of our religion."
But the neighbors still were not satisfied, prompting some local officials to suggest that, in the aftermath of September 11, something more than health and property-value concerns was behind the opposition. "Every time we'd answer their objections, something else would come up," says Gwinnett County Commissioner John Dunn, who represents the neighborhood. "I believe that there was some religious intolerance there."
Local residents say anti-Muslim bias had nothing to do with their opposition to the cemetery. "If it was my mother who was putting in that cemetery, I would have been against it," says Johnson. And members of the mosque are reluctant to ascribe such motives to their neighbors. "Initially, a lack of knowledge had created some concerns," says Moiz Mumtaz, who attends the mosque. "We tried to alleviate them and to accept whatever the county wanted us to do and, in turn, please the neighbors. The purpose of our religion is to promote peace, and that's our goal."
But the Muslims' willingness to alter their burial customs illustrates the kinds of accommodations religious newcomers often must make in adjusting to new surroundings. "They came up with a compromise that in no way sold their religion short," says Laderman. "It was probably a big deal to make the change, because they would prefer not to." On the other hand, he says, "this is a face of Islam that we need to see more of in America, which is one that is about being good neighbors." -J.L.S.
Choosing to be Buddhist