Norwalk residents deny ‘racism’ involved in opposition to mosque

A woman attending Norwalk's Common Council meeting Tuesday
A woman attending Norwalk’s Common Council meeting Tuesday smiles in response to a comment alleging prejudiced among those opposed to the mosque proposed for 127 Fillow St.

NORWALK, Conn. – There’s a buzz in Norwalk – Attorney Anna Keegan alleged at Tuesday’s Norwalk Common Council meeting that an undercurrent of racism was running through the room.

“Offensive and really just downright silly,” said “Amanda” late Wednesday in the NancyOnNorwalk comments section,” of Keegan’s comments. “Off base and offensive,” said Seth, a little earlier. “Uncalled for! …. Wayyyyyyy offffff.”

Two people NoN ran into Wednesday were more favorably inclined toward Keegan, but asked not to be quoted.

“Something we should consider in making any vote, and that’s the sort of people who are talking,” said Keegan, a Civil Rights / Fair Rent Investigator with the Norwalk Human Relations and Fair Rent Department, early in the meeting. “In this room tonight I have heard comments like, ‘Look, it’s getting to be a freak show up in here.’”

Keegan said she had been standing in the back of the room with a Muslim friend when a woman walked by and said “We don’t want you here.”

“This is not the sort of people who have credibility in their statements that they’re just here about traffic or zoning or about their property values, which incidentally are already falling because of recession,” Keegan said. “These are people who aren’t saying these things when they’re at the microphone, but they’re saying them elsewhere. I think that’s a factor you should also consider in evaluating their credibility.”

She got applause and boos.

“To the person who accused anybody here of prejudice, how dare you? How dare you?” Steve Avitabile said later. “I have been in the city 17 years. I am a white Jewish Christian, in case you haven’t noticed. I have been to Haiti on mission trips where I was the only white face around for miles and I was treated so well.”

There is no prejudice involved, he said. “Sure people have their fears, but we have tabled them and we leave them at the door with our egos and everything else,” Avitabile said.

“I love living in Norwalk. I love it for its diversity,” Lucia Molinelli said, calling the comments “nasty.”

“Maybe that was one person, but I stay here for the diversity and I respect everyone in this room,” she said. “The fact that we are all here in a very respectful way is wonderful. I think we all want to help each other. I think that this man who spoke in a very conciliatory manner, that’s what we need, that’s what we all want. No one is saying that they don’t want a mosque. It’s the size of the building that people are saying is wrong. Can we all work together? … In 43 years all I have ever seen is diversity in Norwalk. I don’t want to see it any other way.”

But Aisha Rabiu told a different story.

“I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m a Muslim. I know discrimination when I see one. This is really not fair. It is not fair for the Muslim community to be treated like this. If people were really willing to actually say, OK, let’s settle… To me it’s just a case of ‘not in my neighborhood,’” Rabiu said.

There were hoots.

Seyal Kadri’s remarks were mostly neutral on the topic of race, but he strayed when he was talking about the lawsuit as a civil rights matter.

“In civil rights matters there is no majority opinion. You know where we would all be, especially in the south, if that was allowed to stand,” he said.

A loud murmur immediately ensued. “I’m sorry, yes, that’s uncalled for,” Kadri said. “I’ll strike that.”

“You already said it,” one man said. “Terrible thing to say,” another called out.

“But it is a reality for many parts of this country and you can’t deny that,” Kadri said.

“Talk about racism,” another said. “Who’s bringing it up?” came a fourth.

“My being emotional, my apologies,” Kadri said.

Shirley Tou said she has been in Norwalk for 37 years since emigrating from Taiwan, and it’s a “beautiful diverse place.” But, “The tension, the negative energy has increased so much. I think we need help,” she said.

“It’s energy, everybody works hard, but the worst thing that we want is the tension that we have,” Tou said. “That’s not good at all. … We need help. We need to try to calm down this energy. It’s not really been healthy. For me, especially, I am a minority. I don’t want a negative impact. That’s not what we need in a beautiful city, the city of Norwalk.”

Tou said she lives right behind the site of the proposed mosque.

“You are about to have the Taj Mahal sitting on my back yard, so please be considerate. Please think about that,” she said.

Keegan also spoke of Norwalk as a diverse community.

“It’s time we embrace that,” Keegan said. “We shouldn’t be telling people that they have to worship out of their basements or find some other mythical place.” There was applause. “They have been here for decades without a place to worship. If they had some mythical place they could go don’t you think they’d have gone to it? We need to embrace them as part of our community,” she continued, before getting jeers with this comment: “In this room tonight you’re not seeing a good representation of the taxpayers.”

Mayor Harry Rilling told the crowd to be respectful, to let people express their opinion.

Keegan continued, “You’re seeing people who oppose the mosque vehemently and you’re seeing the people who support it, many of whom are remaining silent. What you are not seeing all the other taxpayers who don’t care very much about the mosque, they just care that their taxes are low. Those are people who are going to be most hurt by going to trial and losing because their taxes will go up for no particular reason that they know of.”


21 responses to “Norwalk residents deny ‘racism’ involved in opposition to mosque”

  1. John Hamlin

    The best thing the City can do to address charges of racism is to get the right result and treat the mosque application like every other religious application. There may be those who are motivated by prejudice — all you can do is be rational and stick to the facts.

  2. JoeC

    As one who’s been completely uninvolved but avidly reading about this issue, the physical facts would seem to speak for themselves: A 40000+ square foot structure and all the elements that have to go with it, especially parking, is too big for a 1-1/2 acre lot in a neighborhood of . That’s common sense, not racism. The Muslim community should have a place for worship and education, but in an area where it truly fits and is compatible with the larger neighborhood. Surely that place can be found.

  3. EveT

    I do not see why the speaker would need to retract and apologize for stating something that is quite obvious: “In civil rights matters there is no majority opinion. You know where we would all be, especially in the south, if that was allowed to stand.”
    The hoots, boos, shouts of disapproval from the crowd are just further proof of a mob mentality that, if not downright racist, is clearly driven by xenophobia.

  4. Suzanne

    I think painting a picture of all or none does not reflect the diversity of opinion and feeling about this issue. There will be racism. There will be fear. There will also be compassion. There will also be understanding. There will also be empathy. There will also be cooler heads looking at this issue rationally. But not all of the time. This is human and the last time I checked, Norwalk was filled with human beings. To recognize the ugliness reflects on the fact that people find such expression and response ugly. Good. That means the citizens know what is good. And, in this case, being accepting, rational and firm with the facts of the matter is what is needed. That this does not happen all of the time? Welcome to humanity, on both sides of the issue.

  5. TLaw

    As I stood in that packed room among all races we said excuse me to one another, we were polite to one another and we listened intently. Not once did I hear anyone say anything like what Keegan alleged. I for one, would have called that person out directly. Certainly not the way that keegan did – childish. What’s to stop the next person from saying they heard a terroristic threat? She should be disgusted with herself.

  6. Amanda

    Here are some questions…

    I see according to the tax assessors website that the land is owned by Al Madany Islamic Center Inc and the land use description is that of a “church”. Was it purchased this way or was it purchased as a residence and ownership transferred once the original application was filed?
    Has any research/comparison been done on other religious organizations in town that have a 20K+ sq ft structure in a residential area and how much corresponding land they have?

  7. Aga Khan

    Keegan was absolutely correct and kudos to her. Many of what is occurring would not be happening if this was a church.

  8. LWitherspoon

    Suzanne’s comment hit the nail on the head.
    I have seen reference made in a few NoN articles to Al Madany’s claim that they were treated differently from other religious groups, but no explanation of how. It would be helpful to have the facts, and the City’s response.

  9. West Norwalk Neighbor

    Did the group of old white guys stand up and start reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the Common Council meeting while Mosque representatives were speaking like they did at the Public Hearing last week?

  10. RU4REEL

    Take a look at the Hour poll results from yesterdays question. Although unscientific it shows how many people don’t understand they live in a diverse community and with polling results like this it clearly shows Norwalk has some serious issues when it comes to race relations.
    I wonder what it would be like for the 67% if the Police department was all Muslim? I bet those poll results would be going heavily the other way.

  11. Bill

    Keegan is a city employee, she could not care less about taxpayers.

  12. > Many of what is occurring would not be happening if this was a church.

    Aga Khan, you are absolutely correct. I’ve never heard of a church in Norwalk buying a piece of property that wouldn’t allow them to build what they want without a zoning change, applying for a zoning change, and then accusing their neighbors of bigotry in court and in the press when they didn’t get their way.

  13. Bill

    I work with muslims on a daily basis and during Ramadan they pray in their office or around the office, no muslim I know outside of a few in Saudi Arabia has to go to the mosque 5 times a day, and they only pray 5 times a day in Saudi Arabia because the government forces businesses to close 5 times a day for prayers…it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.

  14. Suzanne

    Bill, that’s an interesting comment. I have walked the streets of San Francisco and seen Muslim men put down their rugs right on the sidewalk and recite their prayers. I was wondering about that five times a day in a mosque requirement. Likewise, a relative works in a State Government office in Sacramento with a “quiet room” that is used by Muslims for prayer. Again, no mosque is required. I was wondering if Al-Madany is a particular sect that makes this a requirement.

  15. TG

    I don’t believe it was stated as a requirement. What is a requirement is that they face Mecca. Those Muslims that want the option to pray in the mosque need it to have a Mecca orientation. But you are correct- and this has been stated before- this is why concerns that there will be people coming and going all the time in the mosque is not likely. Most people are busy working, going to school, going about life. I would expect there to be only a few people as you see only a few attending daily catholic mass.

  16. TG

    By the way, it would be helpful for all if we stopped referring to the perceived discrimination as racism. Muslims are not a race. This is an important distinction, in my estimation.

  17. Very Concerned

    If this were a church or a temple, I would still be against the building. Absolutely no difference whatsoever.

    In fact, if this were a temple or church, discussions would be over. I would be able to convince the congregation to move elsewhere.

    In addition, I would be speaking a lot LOUDER against the building if this were a church or temple!!!

  18. Suzanne

    Interesting article regarding the use of the word “racism” as opposed to, say, “prejudice” or “discriminatory” regarding Muslims:

  19. Kathleen Montgomery

    Very interesting perspective in this article, Suzanne. Thanks for sharing…still ruminating over what I read.

  20. piberman

    Curious that when 3 minority BE members publicly accused the BOE of discrimination the public largely ignored the claim save the Mayor who quickly announced he would speak to individual BOE members. But now that questions are arising about possible mean spirited motives for objecting to the Mosque the Mayor asks us to be respectful. Looks like we have a real long long way to go before we can really celebrate our diversity as a fait accompli. Imagine what our Muslim neighbors must think of their “welcome” to City politics. Hopeful one of these years City officials will bring glad tidings to the official installation of the Mosque and we’ll have more reason to celebrate our diversity. Norwalk is always a “work in progress”. Maybe we’ll even get around to celebrating Muslim festivals.

  21. Kathleen Montgomery

    And one day perhaps even the Mayor, Piberman?

Leave a Reply

Recent Comments