A vote by a town board in rural Sheboygan County paved the way Monday for a group of local Muslims to establish the county’s first mosque.
The Wilson Town Board unanimously approved a conditional-use permit that would allow the newly formed Muslim Society of Sheboygan to convert a former health food store on two-lane Sauk Trail Road into a house of worship.
“We are very glad for the number of residents who came up in support,” said Mohammad Hamad, a local engineer and founding member of the Islamic Society, who serves as the mosque’s imam, or religious leader. “Let us begin focusing now on building and not anger. Let us work together and not against each other.”
The mosque is expected to draw about 100 Muslim families, many of them Bosnian refugees, from the surrounding area, according to Hamad. Many now travel to Milwaukee or Appleton for services.
The debate erupted months ago after Sheboygan physician and Islamic Society founding member Mansoor Mirza purchased the building to rent to the organization for use as a mosque. Members began worshipping there but stopped coming after neighbors and some pastors in nearby Oostburg began raising concerns about Islam and terrorism.
Society members spent the last three months and about $20,000 working to comply with requirements for a conditional-use permit. The town’s zoning board recommended approval last week, and the three-member town board took it up Monday.
Dozens of people turned out for Monday’s meeting, more than half appearing in support of the mosque during the 90 minutes of public comment.
Supporters welcomed the mosque into the wider Sheboygan County faith community. Opponents focused in part on the zoning requirements and concerns with their belief that the Qur’an advocated violence and religious intolerance.
Hours earlier, the town clerk had received a petition with 90-plus names opposing it, one of three petitions filed with the town against the mosque in recent months.
The controversy had split the religious community, with members of the Sheboygan Ministerial Alliance offering support for the mosque and a small group of pastors, primarily Presbyterian and Reformed in nearby Oostburg, in opposition.
“This is really a fear issue,” said the Rev. Gregory S. Whelton, chairman of the alliance and pastor at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Sheboygan. “Our Muslim brothers and sisters are already here. They should have the same right to worship as everyone else.”
The Rev. Walter Hackney of First Presbyterian Church in Oostburg was among the opponents.
“Nobody’s saying they hate Muslims,” said Hackney, who believes the Qur’an teaches violence against Christians and Jews. “I think there are some public safety issues that need to be addressed. I’d like to know what they’re teaching over there.”
The Islamic Society of Milwaukee had helped the Sheboygan Muslims establish their organization. And two Islamic Society of Milwaukee members, former President Othman Atta and Irfan Omar, an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Marquette University, attended Monday’s vote.
ISM President Ahmed Quereshi did not attend but had voiced concerns about one pastor’s published remarks suggesting a link between the Islamic Society and national groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations with terrorist organizations.
Omar called Monday’s discussion positive.
“Surely, there was some misinformation about Islam . . . but you can’t blame them, much of the information they are fed is wrong,” he said. “But it’s good to have that discussion.”
“One of the things that you noticed,” Omar said, “is that people who spoke in favor spoke about their experiences with Muslims. People who were opposed, their information came from the Internet.”