In the small town of Sidney, New York, officials are attempting to force a Muslim group to remove a tiny graveyard on private property. The town says the burial site is illegal and against zoning regulations, and that anti-Muslim prejudice played no role in their decision. They want the two bodies buried there to be exhumed and moved to another location.
A spokesman for Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani, the Sufi religious order responsible for the cemetery, told the NY Daily News he had filed burial permits for both of the bodies and no objections had been raised on either occasion. In addition, the group has a 2005 letter (via NPR) from Sidney’s Code Enforcement official stating that he “inspected the above referenced property and hereby state that a cemetery at this location would be an allowed use according to the Town of Sidney Zoning Ordinance.” According to the NY Daily News, the town zoning code permits graveyards on private property and there are no state regulations restricting burials on private property.
Nonetheless, in August the town board passed an injunction against Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani, seeking to stop them from using their land as a burial ground and to force them to disinter the bodies that are currently buried there. Their justification is that if the cemetery is abandoned, the town (and thus, taxpayers) will be forced to assume its upkeep. Town Supervisor Bob McCarthy insisted the “burials were done illegally,” even though he admitted he didn’t “know what the exact law is.”
Spokesman Hans Hass told the NY Daily News that Mr. McCarthy only began raising objections to the burial ground when protests against the Park 51 Islamic Community Center in New York City began. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” he said. He believes the town’s newfound insistence on moving the graveyard comes “out of bigotry.” Given the spurious legal grounds on which the town board is objecting, and the suspicious timing of the injunctions, that’s not an unreasonable inference.
In the furor over the proposed Park 51 Islamic Community Center, anti-Muslim rhetoric, lies, vandalism and violence have been sweeping across the country. Though their freedom of religion is supposedly guaranteed, Muslims face discrimination at work, at school, and by police. I am sorry to say that even some Care2 members have created a few vicious anti-Muslim actions, like this petition, which argues that “an American who practices the Islamic faith fully must necessarily commit acts of sedition,” and states that allowing Muslims into the country will lead to the establishment of sharia law and the end of freedom, and calls for an end to all Muslim immigration into the United States (the petition is no longer open on Care2).
While it probably can’t be proved that Sidney’s “dig up your loved ones’ graves” attack is connected to the overall pattern of Islamaphobia surrounding the Park 51 controversy, it’s one more dart thrown at American Muslims: Sidney is saying “Whatever letters you might have and permits you might have filed, you are not welcome here. We will destroy your sacred space whenever we decide to.”
What Is Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani?
The question here should really only be whether or not the burial ground is legal. There should be no question of whether or not Muslims have a “right” to live and worship in American towns. Unfortunately, it appears that Mr. McCarthy is seizing upon a non-issue in order to make sure Muslims in his community know they are not wanted. Who is it, specifically, he is targeting?
Members of Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani have been in Sidney since 2002 and are Sufi, following practices of Islamic mysticism. As Fareed Zakaria describes on CNN (via Crooks and Liars), Al Qaeda despises Sufis and sees them as liberal heretics because of their focus on tolerance and love. Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani’s website describes Sufism as “the way of purifying oneself from bad manners and characterists in preparation for passing clean to the afterlife” and “the spirituality in Islam.”
Here are some of the nefarious activities Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani engage in, besides burying two bodies on their private land: Tedding hay on a tractor. Quality time with horses. Photographing the beauty of a New York ice storm. Preparing to go on the Hajj, a sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. Listening to discourses on subjects like how the “Mission of All Prophets is to Teach Servanthood.” Communal prayers, lessons from leaders, and zikir, a kind of singing. Celebrating Muslim holy days. Sufi music in concert. Wearing turbans. (Gasp!)
On their wesbite, Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani includes texts of sohbets (discourses, speeches like sermons) for the edification of their members and other website visitors. Most of their discourses focus on cultivating humility and an attitude of servanthood toward Allah and each other, turning away from materialism and ego, and rejecting violence. They speak well of Pope John Paul II for his humble, spiritual mindset and condemn Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s lust for power. As I read through sohbets, not every message sits well with me — though violence and especially violent power grabs are roundly condemned, leaders also occasionally express a distaste for democracy, which in their opinion leads to arrogance and greed instead of humility. Some discourses also warn against becoming overly Westernized. In short, Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani a religion rather like any other — some of their beliefs fit neatly into what I think of as “American values” and some don’t. They don’t approve of all the U.S. government’s actions, but their love for the land on which they’re living is palpable. They try to follow zoning ordinances, and they want their dead to stay buried. And they live in the United States, where the First Amendment guarantees our freedom of religion.
Respecting the Order’s right to be treated without prejudice doesn’t mean endorsing each and every one of their beliefs and actions, though respect would entail engaging with them and trying to understand their unique perspective rather than seeing them as part of a monolithic Muslim mass. Rather than giving in to the current popularity of Islamaphobia, we should remember the promise of our Constitution, and enforce our laws — including our zoning regulations — fairly.
Photo of Muslim gravestone from cosmonautirussi's flickr, licensed for reuse through Creative Commons.