MANCHESTER, N.H. — From a distance, it appears an elegant structure. It sits, unfinished, on a grassy hillside at the edge of town, a bold octagonal statement overlooking lush green mountains that was supposed to have been the state’s first permanent mosque.
But come a little closer, and the scars are visible. Windows have been broken by vandals. Graffiti mars the half-built entrance. Construction has inched along for so long — more than a decade — that some of the work inside is failing and needs to be replaced. Surveillance cameras and fencing keep trespassers at bay, but they can’t stop the rocks that are regularly hurled over the fence.
Painful words are also being flung its way.
“The Islamic Society of New Hampshire is a terrorist safe haven . . . and there is a strong likelihood violent jihadist activity will be conducted by ‘sleeper terrorists’ attending this particular mosque,” Greg Salts, a former state legislator, said before the Board of Aldermen on a sweltering night in August, reading from a report by a retired federal agent. “The mosque should be closed down immediately.”
The report went viral — though only locally. A radio program advised residents to be wary of the Muslim group, which has been operating out of a temporary mosque in a strip mall while the permanent structure is under construction. Worried citizens called police. But in the end, local law enforcement dismissed the allegations, and two weeks ago even Salts backed off the charges and shook hands with one of the mosque’s leaders outside the aldermanic chambers.
“They say if you see something, say something, so that’s all I was trying to do,” said Salts, a tractor-trailer driver. “But I have to say, it does seem far-fetched. I throw up my hands.”
“Please, you must come and visit the mosque,” responded Amjad Rana, mosque treasurer. “We are open 24 hours a day.”
The episode is a microcosm of the fragile hopes and sometimes fraught relations in small-city America today, but it is also part of the tale of one immigrant community’s determined effort to set down roots. For Manchester’s Muslims, the controversy is the latest in a series of hurdles they have encountered as they have worked to bring the mosque to the mountain.
While the current confrontation has subsided, Muslim leaders remain concerned that the ripple effect of the public debate, exacerbated by the current political climate, will impede fund-raising efforts already difficult at best. The numbers are daunting: Eighteen years after the project was first envisioned, the community has raised $1.5 million toward the mosque. Another $2.5 million is needed to finish it.
“Will this episode affect people who do not know us and might have given?” said Mahboubul Hassan, a mosque board member and an economics professor at Southern New Hampshire University. “Maybe. But I believe there is something good in Americans. They can figure out who is good and who is not. History will show this as an aberration.”
Plans date from the 1990s
It was Hassan who first conceived of the mosque back in the 1990s, some years after he arrived in the United States from Bangladesh. At first, he and the city’s scores of other Muslims routinely prayed while kneeling on sheets in a campus dance studio. They graduated to a classroom, then to the basement of an apartment building in Manchester. For the past several years, they have met in a temporary mosque in a mini-mall above Fantastic Sam’s hair salon, where Friday prayers are packed with up to 500 Muslims.
In 1998, the Islamic Society of New Hampshire was formed and Hassan collected $37,500 to buy the remote hillside property. He explained to the owner’s son that he wanted to “build a Muslim church,” suspecting the seller would not know what a mosque was.
The response to the purchase came fast, and tied the project up for close to a decade. First, the city demanded that the rutted roadway running along the site be paved before construction could begin, until a city attorney told the board that no such requirement was allowed. Then two neighbors sued in 2003, contending that the project had insufficient frontage and not enough parking, among other things. Neither claim prevailed. Some felt the actions were fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment, but Hassan says most of the opposition had to do with parking. Muslims, he declares, always seem to have parking issues.
“Our people do not park properly,” he exclaimed. “It’s prayer time and they’re always in a hurry to get there so they park anywhere. They always park in front of fire hydrants.”
While the legal issues were being worked out, the Muslims moved to develop their plans, but suddenly a different, and terrifying, hurdle intervened. Three months after they signed an agreement with a local architect in 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center came under terrorist attack. Outside funding for the mosque vanished.
“The partners were very nervous about it,” recalled the original building designer, Craig LaCroix of Bedford, N.H. “I had the design up on the board and immediately someone took it down. People didn’t want customers to know we designed that thing.”
Finally, in 2007, with a construction permit in hand, the Muslims were ready to break ground. Then, the issue confronting them was money. Muslims are forbidden from paying interest, according to a common interpretation of the Koran, making it difficult to finance costly projects. Their plan was that the state’s several thousand Muslims would chip in and that area tradespeople would take on some of the construction work. Local Bosnians, for example, pledged to help with carpentry and plumbing. One family would provide the mosque’s carpeting, another the front door. And when it came time to clear their wooded site, many picked up their chain saws.
“Everyone helped,” said Dr. Salman Malik, an oral surgeon from Pakistan. “It was incredible.”
Many of the volunteers also participate in the community’s annual fund-raisers, which net about $150,000. Money trickles in from a variety of other sources, occasionally from outside the community. For five years, for example, an anonymous Christian trust has donated $5,000 annually. One year, a Muslim woman donated a gold earring. Another year, someone donated a gold coin that turned out to be worth $10,000.
“There are always four or five kids who bring their piggy banks,” explained Mohammad Islam, chairman of the mosque’s building committee and a director in advanced technical support for AT&T.
Tariq Omer, whose parents are from Sudan, is one of them, or he was when he was a child. Now 22, he has been turning over bits of his allowance to the mosque for almost his entire life, a total contribution of about $150.
“When I was a kid it felt like this thing was taking forever,” Omer said after prayers in the temporary mosque recently. “Now I understand the struggle more. I’m still optimistic.”
Mosque leaders acknowledge that not all in the community are so patient. Some people, concedes Dr. Shuja Saleem, mosque board chairman and a recently retired gynecologist, are worn down by giving for so many years. Families, he adds, “just want a mosque where they can bring their children. Now.”
Making matters worse, delays have taken their toll on the unfinished building, an ambitious design by almost any measure at 17,5000 square feet. Roof leaks have caused damage and some of the original steel beams, long exposed, are rusting. Islam, the building chairman, hovers over the structure like a mother hen, periodically changing the locks and tucking loose insulation back into cracks.
He and other mosque leaders declare confidently that the mosque will be completed, even if it is no longer the first in the state; three other mosques have already been built. But some admit that they are beginning to have doubts.
“Honestly, I’m just not sure,” sighed Malik. “Maybe the project is bigger than what it should have been.”
Many incidents of vandalism
Manchester Police Chief Enoch Willard is a 25-year department veteran and a Catholic. He is also a friend to the mosque.
“These people talk openly about their religion. It is different from mine,” Willard said. “But I can drop in any time at that place and I am welcome.”
Not everyone in town feels as he does. Four years ago, teenagers broke all the windows in the mosque, and that cost $30,000 to repair. Right before Election Day last November, someone cut the wires to the outdoor security cameras. Although a wire fence was erected around the structure, it hasn’t stopped the rocks from sailing over.
“They don’t just get here on their own,” sighs Islam, the mosque building committee chairman, picking up a dozen rocks on an upper deck. “It’s kids. And haters, too.”
There have been problems at the temporary mosque, too. As Donald Trump was beginning to emerge on the political scene, leaflets with swastikas showed up on cars outside. Then, two men wearing T-shirts reading “F___ Islam” made obscene gestures before the security camera. As some Muslims headed indoors this past Ramadan, people sitting in trucks outside shouted obscenities.
“They shouted, ‘Terrorist, go back home!’, ‘Towel-head,’ ‘This is not for you,’ ” said Mohammed Ewiess, the board’s president. “People were so afraid.”
In August, the latest chapter in the mosque’s saga began to unfold when Salts, a Republican, read the accusatory report. It was written by Dave Gaubatz, a retired member of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations who alleged that he had found terrorist literature advocating jihad during a June visit to the mosque. Richard Girard, host of the local radio program “Girard at Large,” invited Gaubatz onto his program.
“I don’t think it’s beyond the pale for people in this community to be concerned about whether or not the mosque in their region is a fountainhead of hate,” said Girard, a member of the Manchester Board of School Committee.
Willard, the city’s police chief, said he conferred with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, which found no substance to the allegations. He called Gaubatz a “crackpot,” and questioned whether Gaubatz, who claims to have investigated 280 mosques around the country at the request of concerned citizens, had ever come to Manchester at all.
But the issue wouldn’t die. Salts, stung by accusations that he was peddling hate speech and Islamophobia, went back before the aldermen in September and complained that his right to free speech was being violated.
In an impromptu encounter with Ewiess, the mosque president, in the hallway afterward, Salts snapped: “I was publicly vilified. All I did was read the report, and I was publicly shamed. What are we supposed to do, just put our heads under water?”
Salts and Ewiess have since moved on; Salts has accepted an invitation to visit the mosque, and the two men even describe one another as friends. For the Muslim community, the task now is to find a way to complete their mosque.
“Obviously, we’re committed to this road,” said Ewiess. “Whatever comes next, we’re ready for it. And it probably will come.”