by Hugh Fitzgerald
To some people in Basking Ridge, Chaudry’s struggle looked less noble. They saw his battle with the town government as a local political feud, which dated back to his tenure as an elected official, long before he ever proposed the mosque. Chaudry had first run for a seat on the town committee in 2001. After September 11, which hit the commuter town hard, he told the local newspaper: “We are all under attack.” But a Republican party leader called him to suggest it might be better if his campaign signs, which read “Ali Chaudry”, just used his last name. “I said everyone knows who I am,” Chaudry told me. “I’ve never kept it a secret.” He won the election. But he was not universally popular.
The way the local government worked, the office of mayor rotated annually among the elected members of the township committee. In 2004, it was Chaudry’s turn. As the US’s first Pakistani-American mayor, he made a triumphant visit to his homeland, where he met with the foreign minister, and gave interviews in which he hinted that he had ambitions for higher office. But local critics found him arrogant and high-handed. The next time he was up for election, he held on to his committee seat by just 11 votes.
The local Republican party was also in the midst of a schism, and Chaudry and his allies were ultimately driven out by a more conservative faction, which ran on the slogan: “It’s Time To Take Your Town Back.” The bad blood spilled over into the mosque dispute. The most damning evidence produced by the Islamic Society in the course of its lawsuit came from the correspondence of the town’s elected officials, many of whom had formerly served and clashed with Chaudry. They expressed their hostility in raw, racially offensive terms.
No, they didn’t.
A town committee member named John Malay compared Chaudry to a stereotypically shifty native character in the 1930s film ‘The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.” “We [finally] ousted him, whereupon he went to Mecca, got a funny hat and declared himself the imam of a new mosque here in town,” Malay wrote. “Religion trumps even politics as a refuge for scoundrels, I guess.”
And what does John Malay’s crack about Chaudry, who made enemies while in office for being “arrogant and high-handed,” have to do with the mosque vote? Malay was a member of the town committee, not the planning board. And is his comment about Chaudry going to Mecca really an expression of “hostility in raw, racially offensive terms”? As far as I have been able to discover, no one in Basking Ridge ever made “racially offensive” statements about Chaudry. Some did make unflattering remarks about verses in the Qur’an, which remarks happened to be true.
The mosque opponents, according to the report in The Guardian, advanced a conspiratorial theory that Chaudry had been “engineering failure” all along, so that he could sue and win millions in damages, as other mosques had done. Why is this a “conspiratorial” theory? Didn’t Chaudry consistently refuse, through 39 hearings, to compromise with the planning board?
“I find it ironic that he served on this council for religious conflict, and what he really was trying to do here – and I don’t think he succeeded in the end, because people see through it – is create a religious conflict,” Carpenter said. “I don’t think what happened is fair to the people of the town, and I think it’s important for other people around the country to know what’s coming their way.”
As the controversy over the mosque moved toward a settlement, the town committee held a series of heated public hearings. Many members of the Islamic Society attended, to show a human face to their neighbours. They always took care to present themselves as model citizens: upscale professionals, and the parents of striving children.
“We are not some strange boogeyman that came out of nowhere,” Yasmine Khalil told me. She was a doctor and a vocal mosque supporter, who had moved to the township from Manhattan a few years before. Khalil said she had been dismayed to see the ugliness infiltrate even a private Facebook group for local mothers, where she had got into commenting wars about Islam. “When I wasn’t just quiet and silent and in the background,” she said, “they took it upon themselves to kick me out.”
At one public meeting, a white-haired man – one of the crustier opposing voices – tripped and fell, and Khalil rushed across the room, thinking he might need medical assistance. He was fine, and the meeting went on. Khalil gave a speech, introducing herself as a mother. “We are your friends, we are your neighbours – I could be your doctor,” Khalil said. “I want my kids to feel like they’re welcomed. I want my kids to feel proud of the people that we have chosen to surround them with.”
The old man she had just rushed to help piped up: “Move to an appropriate place!”
The “old man” is being misleadingly presented as an ingrate (to Ms.Khalil) and a bigot. He is neither. He did not say, as the reporter seems to think he said, “get out of our town” or “we don’t want any mosques,” or “we don’t want your kind.” He meant exactly what he said: Move the mosque to an appropriate place, elsewhere than on the too-small marshy plot on residential Church Street. And that is exactly what other opponents of this particular mosque, to be built on that particular plot, were saying.
Chaudry said non-Muslims in Basking Ridge would often pull him aside, to quietly confide that they were ashamed about what was happening to the town. He hoped that, at some point, the forces of conciliation would make themselves heard. Instead, the tenor of the debate only grew more hysterical. It reached its climax when a particularly vociferous mosque opponent named Nick Xu, a Chinese-American volunteer for Trump’s campaign, gave a speech claiming that the Islamic Society’s lawsuit was part of a “systematic plot” to wage war through the courts. “If you google ‘Islamic Lawfare’,” he said, “you’re going to see dozens, dozens of these kind of lawsuits.” In response to Xu, a man named James Rickey – a member of one of the town’s old Scots-Irish families – came to his feet, full of righteous contempt. “The tone that has been used here tonight is disgraceful,” Rickey said. “We’re all human beings. We should respect each other.”
It’s a Morality Tale: the vociferous (read: vicious) mosque opponent, Nick Xu, guilty of the primal sin of being a volunteer for Trump (how could anyone stoop so low?), and a bigot himself despite being Chinese-American, told where to get off by James Rickey, a representative of one of the fine “old Scots-Irish families” that are models of rectitude, verily the finest type of true-blue American, who stood up to deplore the “tone” of the Trump-loving enemies of Mr. Chaudry. Of course, few who read the Guardian will bother to do as Nick Xu suggests and google “Islamic Lawfare.” For if they did, they would see many examples of the same use of the courts by Muslims to ride roughshod over zoning regulations, all while complaining bitterly of “Islamophobia,” and many of them coming out way ahead not just with the zoning variance they wanted, but with, as well, multi-million dollar settlements for the mosque.
With that, and without debate, the town committee grimly voted to approve the settlement, [that had been reached between the town and Chaudry’s lawyers] agreeing to reverse the planning board’s rejection, while paying the Islamic Society $3.5m. John Carpenter was the lone dissenter. The townspeople again raised a loud clamour. “We understand your frustration,” the mayor told them. “But this is what we are required to do by federal law.”
A few weeks later, the Islamic Society celebrated the end of the holy month of Ramadan beneath a white tent set up next to a practice green at the Basking Ridge Country Club. Chaudry addressed the service while standing next to a poster-sized rendering of the mosque. “As many of you know,” he said, “we now have – alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah – a settlement with the township, which calls for us to submit a revised plan, and I am honoured to tell you that at 4.49pm yesterday I received from our engineers the plan that we intend to submit tomorrow, inshallah. Many people thought this was impossible. As Nelson Mandela said once, things seem impossible until they are done.”
Chaudry no longer considered himself a Republican, for obvious reasons, but he was still guarded in his criticism of Trump. All summer, while the president vacationed nearby, a few self-proclaimed members of the resistance would protest on a street corner in Bedminster. Chaudry never participated. Instead, he organised interfaith prayer services, and tried to be a moderating force. When an alleged Islamic State supporter from New Jersey killed eight people with a truck on a Manhattan bike path in October, Chaudry hastened to arrange a reassuring visit of police officials to a mosque near the suspect’s home, which was receiving death threats. Meanwhile, every time Trump tweeted something horrible about Muslims, Chaudry would wearily draw up a public statement. “With him, you can never tell what he’s going to say,” he said.
Chaudry’s tactics, and those of his lawyers, win him — alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah — a complete victory. But here he is, organizing “interfaith prayer services” and trying “to be a moderating force.” “Moderating” force on whom? Logically he would be “moderating” the reactions of his fellow Muslims, who perhaps might exhibit too much satisfaction, even triumphalism, at their victory, which Chaudry, though no doubt feeling the same, nonetheless knew it would be a good idea not to display such feelings too obviously.
While continuing to fight on the legal front
The Thomas More Law Center is continuing to work for several individual opponents of the mosque, who think their free speech rights were impinged on.
Chaudry is now raising funds – much of the settlement went to pay his lawyers, who are in turn donating the money to charity – while also going through the permitting process. He hopes to demolish the house soon, so he can hold a groundbreaking ceremony some time in 2018. One person who won’t be attending is the current town mayor, John Carpenter. He promptly appointed Nick Xu – the “Islamic lawfare” guy – to a pair of township boards.
Chaudry hopes, though, that constructing the mosque will pave the way for reconciliation with those opponents who are willing to listen. “I am a firm believer – perhaps I am more of an optimist than many people – but I feel that in human nature, when something has been done, people are more willing to accept it,” Chaudry said.
This is part of inshallah-fatalism.
“They will find that their fears were baseless.” He has a strong – religious – faith in the notion that differences among people are best overcome through cultural interchange. “Mosques are places where you build those bridges,” he said.
Yes, of course, mosques are “places where you build those bridges” between different peoples. Just think of all the ways “bridges” can be built between peoples: Muslims are commanded in the Qur’an not to take Jews and Christians as friends. (5:51) They are told in the Qur’an that Muslims are the “best of peoples” (3:110) and Non-Muslims the “most vile of creatures.” (98:6) They are instructed, furthermore, to hold fast to the doctrine of Al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ (Arabic: ?????? ??????? ), which is an Arabic term in Islam meaning ” loyalty and disavowal.” It signifies loving and hating for the sake of Allah. Al-wala’ wa-l-bara’ is referred to as holding fast to all that is pleasing to Allah and withdrawing from and opposing all that is displeasing to Allah, namely the Kuffar.
First published in Jihad Watch.