An interfaith group held a “Peace Walk” in Sheepshead Bay on Thursday, ending at the site of the controversial Voorhies Avenue mosque as a sign of unity with organizers’ right to build. But the walk drew dozens of critics, who hissed and jeered at participants, braiding zoning objections with bigoted rhetoric.

Sheepshead Bites was on the scene, capturing video and notes during the event. To this point, we’ve held off publishing our report, preferring to digest the happening to develop a more nuanced depiction. There was more than enough mainstream media chronicling the event and turning out predictable narratives hours later.

In a nutshell, the situation is thus: Though the Park Slope-based group behind the walk said they were only there to promote harmony, they were depicted by opponents as carpetbaggers intruding on a community issue. Still, with about 150 Muslim families in the area looking to exercise their right to pray and teach peaceful, moderate Islamic values, a local mosque is a prerequisite for a more comfortable life. But before that can become a reality, mosque organizers are contending with the specter of Islamic fundamentalism, brought upon by the mosque’s sponsor, the Muslim American Society. Compounding the problem, some critics have developed a coherent zoning argument around parking, noise and traffic issues. But, at Thursday’s counter-demonstration, that faction of the opposition was marginalized by a group spouting bigoted and hateful remarks; they even shouted and cursed at a 15-year-old American-born Muslim girl passing by.

For video and further explanation, read on after the jump.

The Purpose of the Walk

For six years prior, a coalition of Christians, Jews and Muslims organized the Children of Abraham Peace Walk through the Muslim Consultative Network as a symbol of cooperation and tolerance. The event is meant to get families of all faiths side by side, and foster communication and understanding across religion. It’s to “celebrate the diversity of Brooklyn,” said Reverend Tom Martinez, of All Souls Bethlehem Church in Kensington.

This year, though, they found themselves in Sheepshead Bay. They wanted to be near a waterfront, and originally planned to walk down Coney Island Avenue to the Asser-Levy Park band shell, where they’d have performances and a meal to end the day. But NYPD officials requested a different route, as Brooklyn-Queens Day would compound problems with traffic and pedestrians. So as they began looking into alternatives in Sheepshead Bay, they came across the neighborhood’s Muslim families, and wanted to “celebrate this emerging faith community that, in actuality, has been in Sheepshead Bay for quite some time,” Martinez said.

The organizers quickly found themselves embroiled in the local politics. Their original starting point was to be St. Mark Catholic Church, but officials there cancelled, citing local complaints. It moved to the Sheepshead Bay Methodist Episcopal Church at Voorhies Avenue and Ocean Avenue. Some participants were “dismayed” to find the media focusing on the controversy around the mosque, and ignoring the broader aims of the event. Some of the participants were only vaguely aware of the local issue.

Martinez stressed that the connection to the mosque was an expression of interfaith cooperation, and not an attempt to interfere with the community’s business.

“I’d like to think the increased awareness in the Sheepshead Bay community [of the presence of Muslims] would lead to a genuine effort to have some conversations, to air their concerns, to air their hopes and aspirations and get people talking,” Martinez said. “I regret if [opponents to the mosque are] feeling ostracized in any way. That’s certainly not my intention and … the walk that we’re having today is really much larger than the mosque. We certainly didn’t come here in order to oppose that group. We’ve been doing this for seven years just trying to bring people together.”

Watch Martinez talk about the Peace Walk’s goals:

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, one of the founders of the peace walk, spoke to similar concerns.

“We’re not a march. We’re not a demonstration. We’re not a protest,” Lippmann said. “We’re trying to be a simple walk in peace – Jews, Christians, Muslims and others of good will – walking together for peace in Brooklyn.”

“We’re not from here and of course they have to live here and deal with the issues in their neighborhood,” she added. “We’re not trying to get in the midst of that, but we would like everyone to think about peaceful ways of ensuring that a group of people can build a house of worship that so many of our ancestors did when they came to this country.”

Lippmann discusses the effects the walk could have on the local controversy:

The walk proceeded down Ocean Avenue, along Emmons Avenue to Bedford Avenue, and then made its way to the proposed mosque’s site at 2812 Voorhies Avenue.

A Voice for the Mosque

Whether intentional or not, the walk’s organizers found themselves mired in the neighborhood controversy. The mosque has been on the local radar at least since January, when residents against the construction pleaded with the Sheepshead Bay / Plumb Beach Civic Association to speak out against it.

The Civic refused to vote on the matter, saying that the Muslims had a constitutional right to worship, and that the building remained within zoning laws.

For the area’s growing Muslim population, a local mosque is a prerequisite for a better, safer community.

“We want the common good for the neighborhood,” said Allowey Ahmed, the head of the mosque project. “This is our neighborhood. A lot of Muslims here own their own homes, have their own businesses, they have their children going to schools in the neighborhood. This is our neighborhood, this is our home like everyone else. And we would like to have a place of worship that we have a say in, and that we can practice our freedom of religion … within walking distance. We’d like to have that without disturbing anyone.”

One resident, who asked not to be named, said that he currently spends 30 minutes traveling to his current mosque, and 30 minutes back. His 10-minute prayer session ends up taking more than an hour out of his day.

But more than just comfort, the man said he’ll patronize the local mosque to ensure his children are taught the right form of Islam. Without a local program kids can attend after school, they’re at risk of learning about the religion from distorted sources.

Proper education is necessary to “inhibit brainwashing of weak people from drifting in any bad directions. Bad directions affect Americans, and it doesn’t differentiate between Muslim Americans or Jewish Americans or Christian Americans. Muslim Americans are the most powerful people to inhibit that brainwashing,” he said.

Hear the man who says he’ll use the mosque talk about the importance of having a local establishment:


The MAS Connection

But the problem with that, according to some opponents, is that the mosque is sponsored by the Muslim American Society (MAS), a nation-wide group that shares historical ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is also the historical grandfather of groups like Hamas, the violent Palestinian faction.

That connection has fanned local fears that the mosque will be a haven for fundamentalist teachings, cultivating future radicals. While no “smoking gun” connection has been found to MAS and terrorism, the specter of such a national group imposing its agenda on a local level leaves some feeling uneasy.

But Ahmed, the project’s head, said that they’ve only signed on with MAS to provide resources for the youth program.

“The young people will have a community center where we can help them keep away from drugs and help them learn what any child” in a church or synagogue would learn, Ahmed said. “We would like to teach it to them the proper way, where they don’t go and learn it the wrong way on the internet. This is becoming more important to us now, because you see a lot of things that go wrong on the internet, where people learn the wrong points about the religion that are coming back to haunt us.”

They chose MAS for this, he said, because they have a “good program for young people where you can maintain their Islamic identity as well as their American personality.” He added that the program teaches how to “become a good American Muslim where you look for the common good of yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your community and your country.”

But though they’ll have the resources of the national organization available, control remains in local hands, and locals will set the agenda.

“All the contributions that we’ve collected so far are local,” Ahmed said. “All the money that came in is local. All the people that are controlling it are local. Everyone is local. They’re all local, and they’re all American citizens. I don’t know what else is there that we can do to alleviate the fears of our neighbors.”

Watch Ahmed discuss MAS and the importance of local control:


Building Issues

But a faction of the opposition is very clear to say they have no concern about the religious affiliation of those involved. To them, it’s very much a Not In My Backyard issue – literally.

This group of residents say they have no tolerance for their neighbors who tell them to join the opposition for fears of security or fanaticism. Before they do that, they want to see that “smoking gun,” one person who asked not be named told us.

Until then, they oppose the increased noise, traffic and parking brought on by a community facility on a residential street. Through the opposition group Bay People, Inc., they’re raising funds to fight the establishment on zoning terms, saying they need to provide parking, and calls to prayer will be a nuisance since many of these residents have backyards that face the Voorhies Avenue lot. Additionally, they’ve documented instances at other area mosques – like the one on Neptune Avenue – in which patrons end up on the sidewalk, blocking pedestrian traffic, because the building is jam-packed.

Ahmed, though, said the group is already making concessions. Calls to prayer will not be broadcast externally, and they’re considering nixing them altogether. As for parking issues, he said most attendees live in walking distance. For others, it’ll be like any business where people are dropped off. In those cases, it’s only going to busy for about one hour on Fridays, he said, “like when people pick up their children from school.”

“If you annoy your neighbor there is no guarantee that your prayer will be accepted by your lord,” he added. “You have to really be sincere in what you do.”

Watch neighbors argue over perceived parking, traffic and noise issues:

Overt Bigotry

But, despite concessions, there are plenty of people still annoyed.

As the Peace Walk arrived at the proposed site, participants came face-to-face with about 150 angry residents. It was clear in an instant that the faction that were opposed because of building issues were marginalized, and the majority of those penned behind police barricades were outraged about a Muslim presence.

“You’re not American! This is a Jewish neighborhood,” yelled one neighbor from his porch across the street. Another asked the police officers if they checked the Muslims for bombs. A woman stood at the barricade, scowling and holding a photo of Arabs burning an American flag.

Hear race-fueled shouting at the counter-demonstrators:

Some adopted the rhetoric of the faction opposing it on building issues, but quickly jumped around to mentions of safety, neighborhood character and the “kind of people drawn to this” – tried-and-true codewords fueled by fear and bigotry.

Some were just overtly racist.

Fifteen-year-old Kamela Elbassiony stood to the side of the construction site. Born in the United States, and living on Batchelder Street, the only hint to her Muslim background was the color of her skin. Before the walk, she didn’t know of the mosque. But as she walked over and saw the crowd, she asked what was going on. A woman against the mosque cursed at her, telling her Muslims weren’t welcome. Elbassiony stayed, and got a flag from the Peace Walkers, and stood in support of its establishment.

“Even if it was a little basement, it’s not the point of how big it is or how much people there is. The point is they won’t let us do something that’s not their business. It’s not their business,” said Elbassiony.

Hear Elbassiony recount her story:

Across the street at the proposed site, the Peace Walkers quietly filed into the lot, waving American flags and carrying roses.

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  • BMB

    Listen to Elbassiony speak – could she be anymore Brooklyn? Geez, she's even got an American flag in one hand.

    It's one thing to be against the mosque for traffic/noise/NIMBY issues – it's another when you're yelling at a kid because of her skin. That's going way too far.

  • Cabbie

    The anti Muslim comments made by the local residents truly shows their ignorance and low IQs. If they kept the fight against the mosque to strictly a not-in-my-backyard issue based on quality of life (noise, traffic, etc) and fought to change the zoning laws, maybe they'd have a shot at stopping it. Instead they shot themselves in the foot.

    I live nearby, and I would be against ANY house of worship built next door to me (including one of my own faith). But if present zoning laws allow it, THIS IS AMERICA! and they have the right to practice their religion. Freedom of religion is freedom of religion for ALL faiths.

    PEACE!

  • nolastname

    Well done Ned.
    Peace out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=839675042 Holly Renee Reinhardt

    This was very, very well put together, and helpful to understand what's going on with the whole mess. I am disappointed that so much bigotry still exists, it's absolutely ridiculous. Who curses at a FIFTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL? That's very sad.
    The saddest thing about all of this is, when they do finally get to build their place of worship, I am sure they will have to deal with continuous vandalism and violence. Very, very sad. We live in the most culturally diverse city in this country, but this is a problem? Really?
    And I pointed out before that the people complaining about congestion and the like are ridiculous. If you built a church or Jewish temple there or even a grocery store, nobody would complain about that.

  • SoBrooklynman

    I agree with BMB and Cabbie. To go further, any religious facility should never be built on a residential street especially without community input. Putting the ignorance of this debacle aside, I'd like to give a first hand look as to why everyone has a right to be concerned about the noise and traffic and how this is a major quality of life issue. I have lived in Southern Brooklyn all my life. In canarsie there is a synagogue (Kevelson) which was converted to a baptist church 4 years ago. There was no community input and no advanced notice. For the past 4 years every sunday you are awoken between 8:30 and 8:45 am by the disrespectful screaming and singing. There is no reason for the service to be as loud as it is. If your windows are closed, you can still hear the service loud and clear. Vibrations from the commotion shake the house. These services can go on all day until midnight or later. They also commonly have services during the week. Parking becomes impossible. I and others have attempted to speak to the owners of the establishment peacefully asking them to simply have respect for their neighbors since they are in a residential neighborhood. The reply has been one of disgust, (I personally had someone try to pray me out.) or they tell you they don't respect the neighbors, they respect “him”. They are so obsessed with god they forget they live in a society amongst other humans. Calls to 311 and directly to the precinct accomplish nothing. Even the community board will tell you that since it is a religious facility there is not much they can do. Basically as I was told, they can make all the noise they want until 10pm and there is nothing you can do about it.
    So while they have a right to practice their religion, you also have a right to peace, quiet and enjoyment.

    A rational discussion bringing up these concerns would have accomplished much more perhaps then spouting hate.

  • Abu Aymen

    Thanks Ned, For the well-done job.

    The events was to bring everyone to be in the same boat. A boat of peace hospitality, and communication.
    The events show everyone the. Pwoer of peace, power of rights, power of support. The event;s aim was to show the support for any group that wants to serve the community as a whole.
    Yes we , as muslims, recognize our nieghbors' concern, in the mean time our right to be recognize as well.
    We are here to respond to our nighbors, to extend hands to them and as we are part of the community and will be in it. We are here to set down and answer the questions and resolve the concern. We are here and we will be , regardless, what is missing is the communication that we, as mulims are welling and ready for it.

    I hope Sheepshead Bay Bites is a perfect platform that can make both parties come together. And, again we are here to set down with our nieghbors, and try to come up with solutions that will satesfy all of us.

    Peace Upom you all…

  • MUSLIMAN

    I would like to add to your great comment that,,, Cabbie

    Place of worship, any place of worship, is a community facility, which mean it must serve the community, Other wise whom to serve
    .

    Mathematically,
    Community = Residents + Businesses + commercials + Manufacturers

    So City Planning knows what they are doing,
    GOD BLESS AMERICA..

  • http://twitter.com/nicktherat nick the rat

    i say we tare down ever house of idiocracy. ban religion today for a brighter tomorrow!

  • http://www.chickenunderwear.com ringrunner

    Now I know why I left Sheepshead Bay 25 years ago and moved to Park Slope.

  • jo_mama

    wonderful article ned! thanks for shedding light on this and getting all three sides of the story…. the peace walkers, the non-muslim residents, and the bigots.

    i wish other news outlets would make that clear that not everyone in sheepshead bay are bigots. these non-muslim residents have a good reason to complain and it is within their right to do so. i just hope they can work together with their muslim neighbors and find a compromise because the muslims also have a right to their own place of worship.

    as for the bigots, i wish they were the one who left. they are making a bad name for the residents of sheepshead bay and it's so childish and low-level of them to accuse their muslim neighbors as non-american and a threat.

  • jo_mama

    ps…. kamela is awesome! you go girl!

  • nolastname

    I just read the Bay News, never had a problem with the reporting before.
    Obvious to me is the direction of this one sided article. Maybe that's why the literature is free on street corners.

  • bababooey

    wonderfully written, balanced article. shame most mainstream media can not conduct themselves in the same manner.

  • http://www.chickenunderwear.com ringrunner

    I was just thinking.

    If this is about parking, why are they waving flags? Why are they evoking patriotism when “I ain't a raciest, I just don't want nobody double parking if front of my house”.

    These Voorhies Avenue people should shut up. They have no idea how many Muslims live in Sheepshead Bay and a religious center should be right smack in the middle of anyones community not on the outskirts.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    I can't wait to see what's gonna happen the next time a new temple or church tries to set up on a side street.

    Nothing, of course.

  • ElCid

    American Muslims missed the opportunity to denounce all those who that have made the world a dangerous place in the name of Islam on 9/11/01. Many in the American Muslim community fail to accept the fact that every single terrorist, on the FBI’s most wanted list, plus everyone that attacked us on 9/11, and afterwards, share one thing in common; they are all Muslims. They wants us to learn that to learn that Islam is a religion of peace. I’d like them to understand that the American people, thanks to Islamic terrorists, have learned not to live in fear of Jehovah Witnesses flying planes into our buildings, or of born-again Christians yelling “Hallelujah” before blowing themselves and others up, nor of Hindus teaching their children to be suicide bombers.

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  • proudteacher

    This child was such a bully in her elementary school. The whole deal; stole kids lunches, made fun of their weight, got a litttle physical sometimes. And now she is bothering the kids not in support of this mosque. I am a teacher and witnessed all this

    • Crazychick269222

      good lie u PROUDteacher

  • proudteacher

    This child was such a bully in her elementary school. The whole deal; stole kids lunches, made fun of their weight, got a litttle physical sometimes. And now she is bothering the kids not in support of this mosque. I am a teacher and witnessed all this

  • Jimmylaz

    #1 Telling her she's not American and get out of the country is not bullying? #2 Prove what you claim

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

      And even if she was a bully in elementary school it’s irrelevant. That doesn’t mean she is now.Not that I believe one word of what this “teacher” wrote was true in a strict sense of what is true. I do believe it is possible that she was accused wrongly of such things. Such is the mentality of some people..

  • nolastname

    An illiterate teacher who needs to go back for grammar and punctuation.

  • Good Morning America

    OH MAN FROMTHE MORNING,,
    WE HAVE EVEN A RACIST TEACHERS,,

    COME ON

    GIVE ME A BREAK…

    HOW MANY Muslim STUDENTS IN YOUR CLASSROOMS,,??? LOL

  • Blah

    i totally understand the people in sheepshead bays claim. They all live in peace, the Jews, the Christians. Thats basically how it is. As much as we try to convice ourselves every terrorist is tied to a mosque. They are horrible people that hate white people.

  • Smith Winston3

    Blah, I think you are a horrible person who hates Muslims.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    Probably hates black people as well.

    This individual picked a perfect name. Just a lot of blah.

    Indeed, a horrible person who should crawl back under their rock again.

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  • YEMENZHOTTIE92

    well, well, well, PROUD TEACHER!!!!!!!!!! look how great we have pathetic u sound talkinq about a student who had attended p.s52k!!!!! now lets see… how many students are there who are muslims in p.s52??? if it wasnt for these muslim students i doubt the school wouldve been how it is today. it is very rediciouls to see and to hear how a teacher would speak bout a previous student. it shows how much honor and respect there is in this school, btw this is not the first teacher who had spoken like this. due to all respect TREAT OUR ALL MANKIND CHILDREN EQUALLY!!! PLEASE AND I SAY THIS AGAIN, TREAT THEM ALL EQUALLY, CUZ “WAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND HONEY!”

  • Barkingspider07

    I have lived in Sheepshead Bay all of my life (50 years). It has always been a community full of closed minded, prejudiced individuals. It has not changed a bit – and never will. I have no problems with a mosque being built here. THIS IS AMERICA EVERYONE – LAND OF THE FREE – CONSTITUTIONAL FREEDOM OF RELIGION!!!! Grow the hell up – the majority of residents here are immigrants, doesn’t matter where they come from. They all have rights. Muslims have lived in our community for years and have never caused problems in the neighborhood.

  • Barkingspider07

    yeah, right – you sound like a hater to me

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  • sandddyyy

    LALAS AMAZINGGGG , i lovee youuu & shess totally righttttt <33 – sandddyyy♥