Temecula, CA -- The Anti-Muslim fever in this suburban Southern California community has finally broken. Late last month, the City Council definitively ruled in favor of a proposed mosque -- but not before a bitter debate that brought to light both interfaith cooperation and bitter Islamophobia.
Last year, The Islamic Center of Temecula Valley submitted a proposal to construct a mosque in a vacant plot in this small city of 100,000 just 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The City Council approved construction in Dec. 2010, but an opposition group called Concerned American Citizens filed an appeal that was heard and unanimously over-ruled in late January.
The ruling did not deter the mosque's most fervent opponents. George Rombach, a Temecula resident and co-founder of a group called Concerned American Citizens that advocated against the mosque, said in an interview with the local newspaper that "this is not stopping with this appeal if things don't go our way."
The Islamic Center currently occupies one half of a warehouse in the middle of a business park. The group rents the space from the owner of a local company that needs more room.
Protesters have gathered outside of the Islamic Center's current facilities during evening prayers to voice their opposition. Last June, they brought dogs, bullhorns, and signs that read, "Mosques are monuments to terrorism." Among the protesters has been a local pastor whose church is directly adjacent the proposed site.
"I see people blowing up, being killed, beheaded, murdered, every day in the news. And I see that they are very often -- virtually all the time -- they have a Muslim connection," said Pastor W.M. Rench of Calvary Baptist Church. "I don't see every day in the paper Baptists beheading, killing, burning, looting, suicide bombing."
Rench has made it clear that his opposition to the proposed mosque is based on its proximity to his church and the consequent traffic and space issues. Yet he is also unapologetic on the theological differences he perceives between Christianity and Islam.
"When you hear things like that in places where Islam has long held sway, you have to say: do we really want that kind of a world, that kind of America, that kind of Southern California? I don't," said Rench.
While there is vitriolic opposition to the proposed mosque, other community leaders have spoken up in support of the Muslim community and its right to worship peacefully.
"We remember when Jews faced discrimination in the U.S. and were told we could not build synagogues," said Eric Greene, Southern California Regional Director for the Progressive Jewish Alliance. "We were concerned that now there was a wave of hostility against Muslims being able to practice their religion."
The Progressive Jewish Alliance brought together dozens of rabbis to speak out in support of the mosque and the 150 Muslim families that will call it their place of worship.
"The irony is that, when Jews came to country, they were told 'you're too foreign, too alien to become American,'" said Greene. "Laws were passed to exclude Chinese, Asians, Catholics, Irish. We look back generations later and are embarrassed by the provincial prejudice they met."
Aziza Hasan, Muslim Public Affairs Council coordinator for inter-faith relations, said that the construction of the mosque "is in line with the bedrock values of pluralism in America" that define the "core of what it is to be American."
The new mosque is to be built on a thin, bucolic slice of land between the Calvary Baptist Church and a modest home nestled into a hillside and shaded by tall trees. The owner of that home, Oscar Arellano, said that he is "okay with the mosque" and that "everybody preaches getting along and loving one another, but when something like this comes along, what happened to the love?"
Hadi Nael, Chairman of the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley, says he appreciates the show of support from the community.
Even Pastor Rench believes that the first amendment is sacred, and supports the idea of a new mosque -- just as long as its not near his church.
"The tenet of religious freedom is one we'll go to the mat for. We'll die for that one," he said, referring to himself and his fellow Baptists. "I'm not of the group that holds the view that we should do everything we can to prevent them from building a mosque anywhere, anytime, anyhow. I'm not like that."
The approval of the Temecula mosque comes in the wake of the national debate over Park 51, dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York City. That proposed Islamic center sparked a flurry of heated commentary in which blatant Islamophobia was papered over with concerns over respect for 9/11 victims and their families.
Communities in Tennessee, Kentucky, and elsewhere across the nation also have witnessed heated debates over proposed mosque construction.
"In time, all new groups have become part of the American mainstream. It takes us a while to get over that fear of difference," said Greene. "I really see this incident as part of that larger story."
Chairman Nael seconded Greene's sentiment.
"This is really huge, it will set the tone for the country, that Temecula took a tough stand," said Nael. "With all that opposition, they approved it based on the merit of land use. So that will be the standard that other cities hopefully will follow."