I have lived in Lincoln County for most of my 40 years. I went to Lincolnton Junior High before it was converted to a campus of Gaston College, and I graduated from Lincolnton High School. I was even born in Gordon Crowell Memorial Hospital just a few blocks away from the spot where Board of Commissioners Chairman Carrol Mitchem declared on May 8 that he would not allow me to pray in a Lincoln County government building. You see, I’m Muslim. Not just I, my parents, wife and daughter are also Muslim. According to Mitchem’s own words he “doesn’t need” the six of us and says that we should “stay the hell away.”
Telling us to “stay the hell away” because of our chosen religion is a slap to the face. We’re a family of patriotic Americans who love our country. My native-born American parents served in the US Air Force and North Carolina Air National Guard. My mother served for 13 years while my father served for 30, retiring in 2004. I inherited my love of country from two grandfathers who were part of the Greatest Generation, having served during WWII. In fact, every Veterans’ Day our Mosque in Charlotte recognizes the dozens of vets in our community. They each take turns talking about their service and how it has shaped their lives as Muslims. In addition to serving the country, my father has served the community in the position of Master Mason of the Maiden Masonic lodge and has the respect of many wonderful people that we have been blessed to know. No, I don’t think we’ll “stay the hell away,” Mr. Mitchem.
I honestly couldn’t tell you how many Muslims are in Lincoln County. I do know that there are several families dotted around, some go to the Islamic Center of Lake Norman, which is in Mooresville, perhaps some go to Statesville while others go to the Gastonia Masjid, and the rest of us go to one of the dozen mosques in Charlotte, though I’m sure a few go to the prayer facility in Conover.
Yes, Muslims are here in the western part of North Carolina, when we come together for our Eid prayers in Charlotte twice a year we number around 14,000. The first Mosque we can point to in this area is in the early 1950s but UNC Chapel Hill and Davidson College preserve the books of a Muslim American scholar named Omar Ibn Said who lived and taught in the area in the early 1800s. I think it’s safe to say that we aren’t a “new religion” in the area, as Chairman Mitchem would believe.
Commissioner Alex Patton was far more intellectual and liberty-minded with his statements, recalling that America was founded on the principles of religious liberty and admitted that he merely didn’t know of any non-Christian houses of worship in the county. In the affirmation of religious liberty, it is William Lancaster of North Carolina who made perhaps one of the most precise statements still applicable for our time. Way back in 1788 during the North Carolina Ratifying Convention he said, “Religious liberty ought to be provided for…. But let us remember that we form a government for millions not yet in existence. I have not the art of divination. In the course of four or five hundred years, I do not know how it will work. This is most certain, that Papists may occupy that chair (referring to the office of the president), and Mahometans may take it. I see nothing against it.” In that moment over 200 years ago, the Founding Fathers knew of Muslims (they incorrectly believed we worshipped Muhammad and called us Mahometans, but I digress), and they decided not to place any provision limiting Islam, Catholicism, Judaism or Hinduism. All of these ideologies were directly referenced during the ratification of the US Constitution. None of them were restricted, banned or blacklisted.
Patton also expressed concern over litigation. As a Lincoln County taxpayer, I certainly hope that is not the case. I feel that lawsuits are fruitless in such endeavors, and I have no wish to see the county burdened with having to pay fines and penalties to alphabet soup organizations that will not benefit the disenfranchised citizens of Lincoln County in any way.
I would prefer, instead, to have a discussion with Mitchem and give him some literature so that he can get to know a bit about the religion that he clearly knows very little about and which is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Whether he loves Islam or not is beside the point; he should know that as an elected official he represents his entire constituency and not just those he ideologically agrees with.
As for the opening prayer of our county government meetings, what is so wrong with the universal prayer that I often use in mixed groups? It goes something like this: “Divine Creator of all that exists, we ask You to comfort us, to guide us and to protect us. We ask You to help us in this gathering to pursue the course of justice and peace in every aspect of our actions and decision. We ask You to calm our hearts in disagreement and guide us in committing Your Divine Will into action.”
If you ever have time, while driving through Virginia, stop by the University of Virginia to see the statue of Thomas Jefferson. Jewish sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel recognized President Jefferson’s fierce dedication to the preservation of religious freedom. He then inscribed on a tablet for the statue many of the names of the one God of us all, including both Jehovah and Allah. Our Founding Fathers envisioned a future America where people of every faith coexisted with respect for one another, 100 years ago a Jewish sculptor saw it, and today I see it. I’m asking the Lincoln County board of Commissioners to join us.
Duston Barto is the editor of Muslim American, a national Muslim magazine published in Charlotte. He can be reached by email at Editor@MuslimAmerican.com. The magazine’s website is MuslimAmerican.com