Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj, Jordan
An imam who more than a decade ago turned a Doraville ranch house into a Muslim house of worship wants to take his thriving congregation 40 miles southeast to Newton County, where 135 undeveloped acres cost $675,000 last year.
When Imam Mohammad Islam’s plans for the property — a mosque, a cemetery, a school and eventually housing — became public, panic struck in the greater Covington area, and the questions began.
Who would pray at a mosque so far from Atlanta? What do they want? Why did they choose Newton County? Why do they need a compound? Plus other mixtures of “why” and “they” that boil down to why people who are different are in “our” neighborhood.
Some concerns are cloaked in quality-of-life issues such as traffic, but, like other houses of worship, mosques usually don’t clog the roads at rush hour.
Most criticisms, however, are transparently anti-Muslim, such as worries that Newton would become a destination for refugees, foment Islamist extremism and terrorism, or be infected with shariah law.
When Newton’s commissioners panicked and enacted a moratorium on new religious facilities, they followed officials in Lilburn in 2009 and Kennesaw in 2014 in embarrassing Georgia nationally.
If Baptists had bought the same site with the same idea of putting a cemetery next to the church, along with a religiously based private school and perhaps housing in the future, approval would have been quick and easy. But the Muslim plans represent the advance of the other in Newton County.
As people with a long history of suffering as the other, we Jews have an interest in the outcome. After all, how different is Imam Islam’s vision from the reality of LaVista Road between North Druid Hills and Briarcliff roads? They’re enclaves where a religious minority is concentrated enough to live like the majority — the way Christians do in most of America.
Legally, there’s no doubt what will happen in Newton County. Federal law makes it almost impossible to deny zoning approval for a house of worship. Sooner or later, with or without the threat of a lawsuit, whether it wants it or not, Newton County will get its mosque.
But there’s a bigger principle involved: the meaning of rights. Increasingly, Americans seem to believe that rights have to be justified.
We see it with the Second Amendment when people question why anyone would need a high-capacity magazine or a semiautomatic rifle that looks like a military weapon. Maybe ownership of such items should be curtailed or even banned, but the burden is on those who want to restrict a right to prove the need.
We see it with the First Amendment when people want to be insulated from words they disagree with or want to limit political speech to control the corruption of money. Yes, rights can have limits, but the burden of proof is on those who would set restrictions.
The fundamental rule for liberty in this great nation is that no one exercising a constitutional right, especially a First Amendment right, ever has to explain why. Let’s hope the Newton commissioners learn that lesson and end the controversy.