The fight for the right to be a Muslim in America

The long read: A bitter legal row over a mosque in an affluent New Jersey town shows the new face of Islamophobia in the age of Trump

Forty years ago, Mohammad Ali Chaudry, a Pakistani-born economist, made his home outside New York City. He came for an executive job at the telecoms company AT&T, and ended up working there for decades. Like many immigrants to the US, Chaudry came to wholeheartedly believe perhaps more fervently than his native-born neighbours in the triumphal story that Americans tell about their nation: how it was always growing stronger through change, melding the many into one through the process of assimilation. Chaudry was a devout Muslim. But to him, it always seemed the things that made him different mattered less than the ways in which he had proved he was the same.

Chaudry and his wife, who is from Italy, raised three children on a street called Manor Drive, in the town of Basking Ridge, in the centre of the state of New Jersey. This is not the Jersey of popular imagination the land of belching smokestacks immortalised in Bruce Springsteens working-class anthems. Basking Ridge is out in horse country, an area of rolling green hills and white-steepled churches, not far from Bedminster, where Donald Trump has his summer estate. In keeping with the values of his adopted community, Chaudry became an active member of the local Republican party and a conspicuous civic presence, running for various elected boards. In 2004, at the height of George W Bushs war in Iraq, Chaudry became the first Pakistani-American to serve as mayor of a municipality in the US.

Long after Chaudry retired from both AT&T and electoral politics, he continued to keep a busy schedule of volunteer activities, most focused on building religious tolerance. He ran a small nonprofit organisation called the Center for Understanding Islam, and taught classes at local universities. Chaudry is bantam-sized, with a silvery moustache and a starchy manner, and despite his age now 75 he possesses a bottomless reservoir of diligent energy. He would travel the state, speaking to audiences young and old, always dressing the part of a politician, with a little American flag badge in his lapel. If there was prejudice around him in his adopted hometown, Chaudry later said that it was not obvious, or visible, or overt.

That changed in 2011, when he found a new cause: building a mosque in Basking Ridge. For years, Chaudry and other local Muslims had been using a community centre for a makeshift Friday service. But Chaudry decided that the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge needed a permanent place to pray, and he located what he believed to be a suitable site: a four-acre lot occupied by a rundown Dutch Colonial house. Soon after purchasing it, Chaudry held an open house to greet the neighbours. There was not too much tension, he said. It was kind of jovial. He put the letters ISBR on the mailbox in front of the house, to announce the Islamic Societys arrival.

Then someone smashed the mailbox. I was, of course, very surprised, Chaudry said. Under New Jerseys planning laws, the Islamic Society had to secure the approval of the municipal government to build the mosque, and from his experience as a public official, Chaudry knew that the town, which prided itself on its quaint homes and a history dating back to colonial times, was resistant to new development of any kind. But this was a house of worship, and he was someone well-known to the community. Its not that I was expecting any favours, Chaudry said. I expected them to be fair. What shocked him, though, was the hatred.

That was seven long years ago, before some townspeople formed a group calling for responsible development in furious opposition to the mosque, before the 39 planning board hearings, before the mosque was rejected, before Chaudry filed a lawsuit alleging religious prejudice, before his lawyers uncovered racially charged emails among officials opposed to his plan, before the Obama administration accused the town of civil rights violations, before national rightwing activists took notice of the dispute and began smearing Chaudry as a terrorist sympathiser, and before Trump dragged anti-Muslim conspiracy theories from the disreputable fringes into the White House. Today, Chaudry knows his town and America better.

Long before Trump came along to capitalise on it, though, Islamophobia was building in the US, bubbling up like swamp gas from the depths. Often, racial conflict would manifest itself in small, seemingly isolated local planning fights over proposals to build mosques. The US Department of Justice, which staunchly defended the rights of Muslims during the Obama administration, noted a sharp increase in such mosque disputes between 2010 and 2016. Many took place in conservative locales such as rural Murfreesboro, Tennessee. But they also broke out in unexpected places such as Basking Ridge: a wealthy and well-educated community in the outwardly tolerant north-eastern US.

Basking Ridge is governed by a five-person elected committee, which meets in a repurposed Tudor-style mansion. (It previously belonged to John Jacob Astor VI, an American aristocrat whose father perished on the Titanic.) One evening last year, I attended a meeting the first of many at the town hall, where the committee members sat on a long dais, discussing their usual business, such as preparations for an upcoming celebration of the signing of Basking Ridges royal charter, in 1760. When the meeting was opened to comments from the public, however, all anyone wanted to talk about was Chaudry and the mosque.

The neighbours near this proposed mosque did not sign up to live next to this house of worship, said one resident, who broke down sobbing as she spoke. They have been members of a quiet residential neighbourhood for decades, and do not look forward to having their routines and lives disrupted.

The residents said the mosque would create traffic and commotion, and would ruin their property values. But they also complained about the tactics Chaudry had employed in his bitter court battle. One middle-aged woman gestured toward the mosque opponents in the audience, saying that many had been subjected to a hateful harassment campaign by the Islamic Societys attorneys, who had served them with subpoenas seeking the contents of their personal email and social media accounts, in an effort to prove that they were motivated not by planning concerns, but animosity toward Muslims.

Mr Chaudry has waged an expensive PR campaign that has talked about people as if theyre bigots, the woman said. And personally, I think it is the ISBR group that has been bullying and bigoted. Then she invoked Trump, the inescapable presence. They talk about our current president and how he speaks about Muslims. Well, I find ISBRs rhetoric to be just as harmful.

Finally, Loretta Quick, a schoolteacher who lived next door to the mosque site, got up to speak. She was one of the neighbours who had come to Chaudrys initial open house years before. She had even voted for him, back when he was a politician. Now she was a die-hard enemy of the mosque. If you cave, she told the board, in a furious voice, youre saying that we are bigots, that we based the decision on discrimination against Islam.

Quick was one of those who had been served with a subpoena, and was being represented by the Thomas More Law Center, an advocacy group that claims its mission is to defend Americas Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values against forces waging a Stealth Jihad to transform America into an Islamic nation. Quick referenced a recent press release the Law Center had put out, which had plucked a few verses from a searchable English translation of the Quran that could be accessed on the ISBR website Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, etc to suggest that Chaudry was somehow in league with religious extremists.

These are words that seem quite intimidating and threatening to me, Quick said. I want to be protected, and you owe that to me, this township and this nation.

How did a small-town property dispute turn into a religious war, with legal and symbolic implications for all of America? Part of the answer has to do with the countrys labyrinthine land-use laws, which leave most control to state and local governments, which are in turn vulnerable to the furies of angry mobs. Part of it has to do with Americas love of litigation. The inherently confrontational and intrusive legal process had a radicalising effect on the town, driving some opponents of the development to extremes.

But something else deeper and darker seemed to be at work. Some residents openly discussed Islamophobic conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the mosque was meant to send a message of conquest, due to its proximity to the towns September 11 memorial. Such crackpot notions, promoted by far-right ideologues such as Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, used to be confined to the margins of the internet. Then Trump embraced the Islamophobes, unabashedly.

Its like his election has given permission to people, Chaudry told me the first time we met. We were at the proposed site of the mosque, sitting in the old suburban house that he was still hoping to demolish. Its living room, dominated by a large stone fireplace, was filled with boxes of donated clothes that he was preparing to deliver to a family of Syrian refugees. The many bookshelves were lined with theological texts and stacked copies of a paperback that Chaudry likes to give out, Islam Denounces Terrorism. Standing on an easel in a corner was a poster-sized rendering of the proposed mosque. In an effort to make it fit into its suburban surroundings, it had been designed to resemble a mini-mansion, with gray clapboard siding, a pitched roof with asphalt shingles, dormer windows and minarets disguised as chimneys.


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Mohammad Ali Chaudry, the founder and president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, in his home office. Photograph: Fred R Conrad for the Guardian

But the architecture did little to defuse tensions with the surrounding neighbourhood. Liberty Corner considered itself separate from the older and wealthier village of Basking Ridge, though they were both part of the same larger township, and few outsiders recognised the geographical distinction. And as even Chaudry and his allies admitted, some of the locals had a stubborn and ecumenical commitment to protesting anyone who dared to build anything, including Christian churches. People in Liberty Corner expressed an obstreperous ideology often abbreviated as nimby, for not in my backyard.

The opponents of the mosque told their own story of victimisation, in which they were merely objecting to Chaudrys oppressive development scheme. It was always about land use, one Liberty Corner resident told me. They made it about religion. The nimby complainers claimed that the mosque site a marshy plot on a mainly residential street was a poor location for a busy house of prayer. When the township planning board took up Chaudrys proposal in August 2012, signs soon appeared in front yards around town, reading Preserve Liberty Corner.

At one of the first planning hearings, a resident named Lori Caratzola stood up to challenge Chaudry. A law graduate, she cross-examined him about the size of the Islamic Society, accusing him of understating its membership. She revealed that she had done surveillance of a Friday service, counting 125 worshippers going into a space with a capacity for 60. After her confrontational performance, Caratzola became a leader of the opposition.

At the public hearings, Caratzola and others confined their criticisms to the nimby issues: drainage, parking, landscaping and the like. They convinced the board that a mosque would need more parking spaces than a church, because midday worshippers would come alone. When the Islamic Society submitted a new plan, with a larger parking lot, the mosques opponents protested that, too. It quickly became clear that the opposition was not solely concerned with parking.

Around the time the hearings began, some residents received an anonymous piece of mail. Inside was a letter entitled Meet Your New Neighbor, and a CD containing a recording of a radio interview in which Chaudry had offered some mildly nuanced opinions on Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah. Here in Basking Ridge, on the surface, we see the serene, grinning academic Ali Chaudry, always willing to help us better understand the version of Islam he wants us to know, the letter read. Scratch the surface a little and an uglier picture emerges.

The author of the letter tenuously linked Chaudry to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ground Zero mosque a proposed Islamic community centre in Lower Manhattan that Pamela Geller and Fox News had recently whipped up into a national controversy. It cited the term taqiyya, an obscure theological concept that Islamophobes often twist to suggest that Muslims are encouraged to lie about the true nature of their violent beliefs.

So, welcome to the neighbourhood, Ali, the letter concluded. Lets ask Ali about those Koranic verses regarding Jews and Christians in your Koran. Why are so many terroristic acts propagated by Muslims? Is it something they are taught in your mosques and at home? And what will you teach in your new Liberty Corner mosque? You wouldnt lie to us, would you? Taqiyya is wrong, right?

Just as the author of the letter accused Muslims of deception, the Islamic Society, in its lawsuit, alleged that many of the neighbours were presenting a false front, using preservationist sentiment to disguise their real, less respectable fears. The key thing to remember, said Adeel Mangi, an attorney for the Islamic Society, is that these complaints are commonly used as a smokescreen.

There is, literally, an anti-mosque playbook. Tactics were once unwritten, spread through websites and word of mouth, but more recently they were set down in a book titled Mosques in America: A Guide to Accountable Permit Hearings and Continuing Citizen Oversight. Written a Texas attorney, it was published by the Center for Security Policy, an organisation headed by Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official who has long espoused the theory that Muslims are engaged in a secret plot to impose sharia law on the US. Gaffney writes in the books introduction that it is a how-to manual for patriotic Americans who are ready to counter the leading edge of Islamic supremacism.

The manual offers lessons from cases like the one in Basking Ridge. It may be startling to consider, but Islamists are entitled to exploit liberal free speech rights to advance their political and legal operations, the author warns. It advises residents to express objections in the manner most likely to sway the authorities, avoiding mention of religious issues. Concerned citizens must learn to express questions and reservations in a manner appropriate to the relevant civic forums purpose, the manual says, instructing readers that rather than expressing alarm as hysteria, speaking to local government officials and media requires a strategic response based on reason, facts, precedents, and the law.


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Chaudry preparing the Bernards Township community centre for Friday prayers. Photograph: Fred R Conrad for the Guardian

Sure enough, the transcripts of the dozens of hearings held by the towns planning board, which run to nearly 7,000 pages, contain no mention of sharia, the Muslim Brotherhood or other rightwing hobgoblins. Most residents swore that religion had nothing to do with their opposition. But the Islamic societys lawyers suspected and would later allege in court that their opponents were showing another face when they talked to each other on the internet. A commenter named LC who appeared to be Caratzola often expressed anti-Muslim sentiments when the mosque was debated on local web forums and national sites with names such as Bare Naked Islam. (Motto: It isnt Islamophobia when they really ARE trying to kill you.) Caratzola was also listed as a member of a Gaffney-affiliated group set up to defend against the supposedly creeping influence of sharia on US courts. (I stand by that, Caratzola later told the New York Times, claiming that every single terrorist attack in the last 20 years was committed by Muslims.)

In December 2015, a few days after a Muslim husband and wife killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, and shortly before candidate Donald Trump proposed a total and complete shutdown of Muslim immigration, the towns planning board voted to reject the mosque.

At Caratzolas urging, the town government also adopted a new ordinance that raised the minimum size of the plot required to build any new house of worship which would effectively prevent the Islamic Society from building on its own site in the future. The Islamic Society quickly filed a lawsuit against the township, alleging the opposition was a well-funded machine that was substantially grounded in anti-Muslim animus.

The lawsuit particularly highlighted Caratzolas role as a ringleader of the opposition. In a letter to a local newspaper, she accused the Islamic Society of slander and invoked the concept of taqiyya to suggest that Chaudrys mosque proposal was not what it seemed. Many people and groups in the Muslim community, she wrote, are trying to quash what we so fervently cherish in America the freedom of speech.

The Islamic Society also claimed it had the constitution on its side specifically, the first-amendment protection of the freedoms of religion and assembly. And Chaudry could call upon a powerful ally: Barack Obama. Under his administration, the Justice Department intervened on behalf of Muslims in many mosque disputes, including a highly publicised case in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the construction of a mosque was opposed with lawsuits, protests and an arson attack. It was able to rely on a powerful legal tool: a law, originally passed with bipartisan support in 2000, that specifically bans local governments from discriminating against religious organisations when it comes to land use.

The enforcement policy reflected the fact that Islamophobia is a real problem across America, said Tom Perez, who handled the Murfreesboro case as a director of the Civil Rights Division. (He is currently chairman of the Democratic National Committee.) I think as you see the proliferation of social media, the world has gotten smaller, Perez told me. People who harbour these extreme views have a virtual platform to spread their hate.

In 2016, the US Justice Department filed its own lawsuit, claiming that the local planning board violated the Islamic Societys rights in rejecting its building plan. To Islamophobic activists, who spent the eight years of Obamas presidency promoting conspiracy theories about his birth certificate and suggesting he was secretly a Muslim, such moves were yet more evidence of the administrations suspiciously sympathetic stance toward Islam. Islamic supremacists and Muslim Brotherhood organisations called upon their running dogs at the Department of Justice to impose the sharia and usurp American law for Islamic law, Pam Geller wrote in a blogpost about the Basking Ridge mosque case. What small town can go up against the US governments vast resources and endless taxpayer-funded muscle?

The federal governments intervention had a radicalising effect in Liberty Corner. The neighbourhoods enemy was no longer a pushy former mayor; it was President Obama. Then, as if a Justice Department investigation wasnt intrusive enough, private citizens started receiving knocks on their doors from people carrying subpoenas, seeking to probe their email and social media accounts. The Islamic Societys lawyers members of a prestigious Manhattan firm that was working pro-bono wanted to prove that Caratzola was really the commenter LC, and that she and her allies were communicating their true attitudes to each other and to their elected leaders outside of the public meetings.

Understandably, though, the private citizens felt threatened by the intrusion. Their complaints attracted the attention of the Thomas More Law Center, which intervened on the behalf of residents seeking to quash the subpoenas, claiming that the demand would have a chilling effect on free speech. On its website, the Law Center decried the outrageous unconstitutional intimidation, alongside a heroic photo of Caratzola standing in front of an American flag. Lori Caratzola, the caption read. Persecuted for opposing the mosque.

On 31 December 2016, a federal judge issued a preliminary decision in the Basking Ridge case, finding that the planning board had exercised unbridled and unconstitutional discretion in requiring the mosque to have more parking than other houses of worship. Though the case was far from over, it was clear that the law favoured Chaudry. The victory rang hollow, though. Trump had just been elected president, giving a jarring rebuke to liberal values, and placing Muslim-Americans like Chaudry in a newly precarious position.

As a candidate, to bolster his call for a ban on Muslim immigration, Trump had often cited the research from the Center for Security Policy, Gaffneys group. (Very highly respected people, who I know, actually.) Some of his most important advisers, such as Steve Bannon and Mike Pompeo, soon to be named the CIA director, were outspoken Gaffney admirers. Gaffney saluted the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions the 2015 winner of the Center for Security Policys Keeper of the Flame award for his vigilance against all enemies, foreign and domestic. With Sessions and other members of the nativist right in charge of the federal government, the Justice Departments commitment toward protecting Muslims and their mosques looked shaky.

On a chilly Friday in April last year, still early in Trumps presidency, I helped Chaudry as he performed his weekly ritual, carrying items from the garage of the old house in Liberty Corner to his gold Toyota SUV. In went eight rolled-up prayer rugs, then the plastic donation boxes, the folding music stand that serves as a lectern, the sound system, the digital clock, which was synchronised with Mecca, and four decorative mats, which Chaudry uses to slightly sanctify the drab walls of the community centre that the Islamic Society currently uses for its Jummah service. When the SUV, known as the Mosque Mobile, was full, Chaudry would drive it across town for prayers. Im just overwhelmed with everything that is going on, he said as we got in the car. For the past few months, Trump had been fighting to impose his ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority nations, sparking court confrontations and massive protests.

Chaudry was responding to the crisis with a characteristic burst of civic activity, participating in political forums and interfaith vigils. The relationship between Muslim communities and their government was wary at the best of times, and Trump was making it much worse, but Chaudry saw himself as a trust-building emissary. He served on advisory panels to law enforcement. A few weeks before, hed spoken about discrimination and the travel ban at a worried meeting between Muslim leaders and many prominent New Jersey politicians. At the forum, as he did nearly everywhere he went, Chaudry promoted an earnest personal cause, asking everyone present to take a formal pledge hed composed, to Stand up for the Other.

The Mosque Mobile turned on to Church Street, the main road through Liberty Corner. The neighbourhood traced its name back to the American revolution, and the whole town took great patriotic pride in the role it had played in the independence struggle, as a stronghold for George Washingtons army. Chaudry took a roundabout route, pointing out horse farms and new tract developments, and a park where the Islamic Society prayed when the community centre was used for a summer camp. Where the flag is, this is the 9/11 memorial, Chaudry said. I was on the township committee when we did that. Eighteen people here died. A wooded road took us into Basking Ridge. In the yard of its Presbyterian church, founded in 1717, stood an ancient tree known as the Holy Oak, where Washington is said to have picnicked with the Marquis de Lafayette.


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The Liberty Corner Presbyterian church, a few blocks away from the proposed Islamic Center of Basking Ridge. Photograph: Fred R. Conrad for the Guardian

At the community centre, we were joined by Chaudrys wife, Victoria. We rolled out the mats and set up the speakers, and used a 30-metre (100-ft) sound cable to connect the small main room with an adjacent annex, which was used for overflow. Chaudry pointed, proudly, to his name on a plaque on the wall he had helped to establish the centre. About a decade before, he and around a dozen other Muslims had started gathering there. But there were more Muslims around than he realised, working as doctors in the areas hospitals, or as scientists in its many pharmaceutical firms, or as engineers at a big telecommunications company. The Islamic Society had long ago outgrown its temporary space.

The worshippers began to arrive, most of them men coming from office jobs, plastic ID badges hanging from their belts. They dropped their shoes in an unruly pile near the centres doorway, and used a cramped galley kitchen to perform wudu, the Muslim washing ritual. Then they knelt down as the muezzin sang a call to prayer.

Because it lacked a permanent home, the Islamic Society had no imam, and it relied on a rotating cast to lead services. This weeks visitor, Chaudry told me, was known as the crying imam. That week, dozens of Syrian civilians, including many children, had been killed in a poison gas attack, and the night before, Trump had fired cruise missiles in reprisal. The imam, dressed in a long black robe, led a prayer for our brothers and sisters in Syria. His voice trembling, he sobbed, Give peace to this region.

Thats one of his characteristics, Chaudry said after the service. He does become emotional. Most of the worshippers, who numbered around 70 in all, quickly returned to their cars and hurried back to work. Chaudry repacked the Mosque Mobile.

Ive been carrying these rugs for more than 10 years now, and Im tired of doing it, he told me. We need to have a place of our own.

As we drove out of Basking Ridge, Chaudry pointed out the Holy Oak, standing tall in the churchyard. The tree was rotten, he told me. Later that month, it would be cut down, and its dead branches handed out to townspeople as patriotic keepsakes.

Despite Trumps election, Chaudry still retained his hope for justice, at least for his congregation. The case was now in the courts, which meant the Justice Department couldnt easily abandon it. The towns government, facing an almost certain legal defeat, was under pressure from its insurance company to settle its lawsuit with the Islamic Society quickly, before a trial.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2017, negotiations dragged on over a settlement, which would include a large damages payment to the Islamic Society. I attended endless meetings of the townships elected committee, at which angry citizens would demand information from stone-faced board members, inveighing against the settlement in increasingly apocalyptic terms. Chaudry attended with other members of the Islamic Society. He sat in the front row but said nothing, keeping his head down and scribbling in a pad, showing no emotion even in the face of incendiary provocations.

The opponents were a surprisingly diverse lot. There were some old-money Protestants, who complained that the hubbub would bother their horses. But some of the most emotional speakers were new residents, many of them immigrants from south and east Asia. At one meeting, one of the Islamic Societys closest neighbours, a medical professional from India who was building a large house directly behind the mosque plot, stood up and addressed the Muslims in the audience directly.

If you are somehow able to get a mosque built, you will create a divide which you will not be able to bridge, he said. On the other hand, if the site would move to another appropriate location, you will earn our respect, and you will truly earn the right to build a mosque in this town. What is it that you want, to just build a mosque, or set an example for the whole country?

By the perverse logic of the mosque opponents, it was the Islamic Society that had brought discrimination upon itself, by suing over discrimination. There was only one thing the Muslims could do to prove themselves worthy neighbours: go somewhere else.

It wouldnt be fair to say, though, that everyone who spoke against the mosque was religiously motivated. Many, if not most, of the adversaries appeared to be genuinely impassioned in their opposition to development in Liberty Corner. Sure, theres a 5% lunatic fringe, Paul Zubulake told me one evening while sitting on a bench outside the town hall, waiting for yet another meeting to begin. But he said that for him, and many others, religion was beside the point: Its about our quality of life. Its going to destroy our community.

To show me what he loved about Liberty Corner, Zubalake invited me to visit his home, a few doors down from the Islamic Society property. When I arrived, on a rainy Memorial Day in late May, a soggy town parade was making its way down the main thoroughfare, Church Street. As Zubulake was introducing me to his family explaining that his son has autism, and they had moved to the area for his schooling he spotted the mayor marching by with other members of the township committee. He dashed down to the roadside and shouted: Theres still time!

The politicians frowned and kept marching down Church Street. I just want them to know how pissed off I am, Zubulake said.

Chaudry, meanwhile, had organised a contingent from the Islamic Society to march in the Memorial Day parade. They met in front of the house, next to a sign that Chaudry had staked in the yard, reading: Proud to Be An American. Whether by chance or intention, the parades organisers had put the Islamic Society at the very rear, right behind another marginalised group, the local Democrats. Chaudry coaxed the children who were marching with the Islamic Societys banner to stay in a tight formation. Good morning! he called from beneath a big black umbrella, waving an American flag with his free hand. The parade route ended at a war memorial, where Chaudry left a wreath with a mosque insignia.

My advice to the community has always been that this is not the time to hide, Chaudry told me later. You have to be out there, fighting for your rights.

To some people in Basking Ridge, Chaudrys 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. Ive 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 Chaudrys turn. As the USs 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.


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Chaudry speaking during Friday prayers at the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge. Photograph: Fred R Conrad for the Guardian

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: Its 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 towns elected officials, many of whom had formerly served and clashed with Chaudry. They expressed their hostility in raw, racially offensive terms.

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.

Other emails contained jokes about Muslims, pigs and Barack Obama. Man child, John Carpenter, another committee member, wrote of Obama. The product of fools, raised by idiots and coddled by affirmative action. Behold the beast. The emails revealed that Carpenter had even lobbied to prevent Chaudry from participating in a September 11 commemoration ceremony, alleging he was an extremist. [Find] a real moderate Muslim, he wrote. There must be one. We shouldnt look the other way on his views we owe that to our dead residents. Lets make it happen without that fool. When the correspondence came out in court filings, Carpenter offered no apologies. You should not confuse contempt with bigotry, he told a newspaper. Im allowed to not like the guy.

Hes just a funny guy with this identity thing, Carpenter told me when we met for coffee at a diner over the summer. He was known as, quote, Mr Muslim.

Carpenter, a tall, balding salesman, had served on the town committee for more than a decade, and was running for re-election. He was outraged that his unguarded words had been used to portray him and the entire township as racist. When government tries to see into someones heart, thats when we fall into totalitarianism, he told me.

He advanced a conspiratorial theory, which I heard from other mosque opponents, that Chaudry had been engineering failure all along, so that he could sue and win millions in damages, as other mosques had done. He said he believed that Chaudry and the Obama administration had been conspiring. A Justice Department official involved in the investigation of the township, he noted, served with Chaudry on the board of a local universitys Center on <a href=”” data-link-name=”auto-linked-tag” data-component=”auto-linked-tag” class=”u-underline” in-body-link–immersive”>Religion, Culture and Conflict. (Chaudry says they never discussed the case.)

I find it ironic that he served on this council for religious conflict, and what he really was trying to do here and I dont think he succeeded in the end, because people see through it is create a religious conflict, Carpenter said. I dont think what happened is fair to the people of the town, and I think its important for other people around the country to know whats coming their way.

Carpenter said he had been hopeful that Trumps election would bring a little sanity to the Department of Justice, and a reversal of its stance on the mosque case, but so far, he had been disappointed. He knew the president was spending his summer vacation at his private club in Bedminster, though, just a quick drive away from Basking Ridge. Hes there for three weeks, joked Carpenter, an avid cyclist. Maybe I could sneak in, ride my bike up the back road: I need to speak to the president!

All year long, as I kept returning to see Chaudry, Donald Trump loomed over our conversation. One Saturday morning in September, on my way to meet Chaudry at a Lutheran Churchs symposium on Race, Hatred and Bigotry, I looked up in the sky and saw the presidential helicopter heading toward Bedminster. Trumps embrace of the worst in politics fanning terrorism hysteria, retweeting racist memes, refusing to condemn the white nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville had real consequences on the ground. People are emboldened to come out and say things that they never felt they could say before, Chaudry told the symposium. They have a licence, because the person in the highest office of the country is engaging in that kind of language.At one point, the room suddenly filled with a disconcerting roar from low-flying military jets.

Chaudry introduced a pair of high school girls, one of whom was wearing hijab, who eloquently described their experiences with bullying confrontations on the school bus and social media platforms. I would say to my non-Muslim friends: this is the Muslim community, Chaudry said when they finished their presentation.

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 wasnt just quiet and silent and in the background, she said, they took it upon themselves to kick me out.

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