Mon, Dec 27, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Memphis residents protest Muslim cemetery plan

INTOLERANCE Neighbors of an old sod farm are opposed to the idea the property be used for a Muslim cemetery, saying it could be used by terrorists

AP , Somerville, Tennessee

Muslims planned to turn an old sod farm near Memphis into a cemetery, but angry neighbors protested, complaining the burial ground could become a staging ground for terrorists or spread disease from unembalmed bodies.

It was not the first time a group faced opposition when trying to build a cemetery or a mosque, but the dispute stood out for the clarity of its anti-Muslim rhetoric.

"We know for a fact that Muslim mosques have been used as terrorist hideouts and centers for terrorist activities," farmer John Wilson told members of a planning commission last month.

Similar disputes have arisen elsewhere when Muslim groups sought to develop mosques or cemeteries, which are often the first Islamic institutions in some US communities. Opponents of a proposal to open a mosque in Voorhees, New Jersey, distributed a flier warning that Muslim worshippers might include "extremists and radicals." Arguments over a proposed Muslim cemetery near Atlanta persisted for more then a year before officials approved preliminary plans.

Critics of the projects generally complain about potential damage to the environment, reduced property values and traffic congestion, but many also associate Islam with terrorism.

Rabiah Ahmed of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said she noticed more protests of Muslim building proposals after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, so she was not surprised by the cemetery critics near Memphis.

"It's not shocking, but it is discouraging," Ahmed said from the council's headquarters in Washington. Opponents told the Fayette County planning commission in November that power lines would be prime targets for terrorists in the region about 32km east of Memphis.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you may think this is farfetched, but that is what the Jewish people thought when the Nazis started taking a small foothold, a little at a time, in their community," Wilson said.

In a telephone interview later, Wilson said he and his neighbors are primarily worried about their property values, but, he added, news reports cannot be ignored.

"I don't think anyone who has read the newspaper or seen what investigations have gone on about other mosques would not have those kinds of concerns," he said.

Belinda Ghosheh, owner of the 2 hectare plot being considered for the cemetery, said a meeting of planning officials drew such a hostile crowd she feared for her safety. One woman yelled, "We don't need bin Laden's cousins in our neighborhood."

Ghosheh and her husband, a native of the Middle East who has been a US citizen for more than 20 years, live in neighboring Shelby County. "These people would possibly have been our neighbors if we had decided to build on that property," she said. "If this doesn't go through, we're still getting rid of it. I would never live out there now."

Critics also complained that the cemetery could be a health hazard because Muslims traditionally do not embalm their dead. But Muhammad Zaman, a physician and associate professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee, said the practice is safe. "The decomposition of the human body does not add anything different than what it is," Zaman said.

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