Desoto County in northwest Mississippi is one of the state’s fastest growing counties. Accompanying this growth is a demand for new houses of worship. But, one local religious minority had to fight for the right to establish their own.
The 79-acre parcel of land that Riyadh Elkhayyat and his friend Maher Abuirshaid purchasedin Horn Lake, Mississippi more than two years ago is still open and undeveloped.
But on the road fronting the property is the first official sign of what’s to come—a new mailbox emblazoned with the name Abraham House of God in gold letters.
“It’s going to be so beautiful, people are going to come look at it,” says Abuirshaid, a father of three who has lived in Mississippi for almost 20 years.
The Abraham House of God is a space he and Elkhayyat, also a father and area resident, have long envisioned—a mosque and Islamic cemetery where Muslims in Northern Mississippi can gather to worship and build a community.
The next nearest mosque is about 40 minutes to the north in Memphis, a commute across state lines that makes it difficult to attend Friday prayers and services during the holy month of Ramadan.
“From my house I can walk into probably like three churches so why can’t I have the same thing as any other Christian,” Elkhayyat says.
Abuirshaid says the site in DeSoto County, one of the state’s fastest growing areas, will be like a second home, where his children can take religion classes with their peers and the roughly 150 or so anticipated congregants can do volunteer work.
“We’re going to help everybody who needs help,” he says. “We are going to open our doors, wide and open for everybody to walk in.”
The two men are now focused on fundraising for the project, but, up until a few months ago, some tried to prevent those doors from ever opening.
“I thought there might be some pushback, but I wasn’t expecting the city official[s] would agree with these people,” Elkhayyat says, referring to a group of vocal Horn Lake residents who opposed the mosque’s construction.
The group went online and attended public meetings, making claims such as that the building would use loud speakers to broadcast the call to prayer, even though that was never a component of the proposal.
“This is wrong on so many levels. They are supposed to assimilate to our country, not us to theirs,” a member wrote in an anti-mosque Facebook group that group that appears to have been taken down, but was included in later litigation..
“There was a lot of ignorance,” Elkhayyat says.
A Planning Commission staff report said the project met all zoning requirements, but when the proposal came before the city’s governing body, only one member of the Board of Aldermen voted to approve it.
“In this case in particular, the anti-Muslim sentiment was very clear,” says Heather Weaver, an attorney with the ACLU, which then sued the city for religious discrimination on behalf of the mosque’s cofounders.
The lawsuit challenged city officials’ stated reasons for denying the land use request, including that the mosque lacked a source for water for a sprinkler system and would create noise and traffic problems.
“Typically, all you need to do is just scratch the surface a little bit, and you find there’s no evidence supporting these claims,” Weaver says, noting that the city had never done a traffic study and that the Abraham House of God’s proposal outlined plans for acceleration and deceleration lanes to accommodate for vehicles, similar to what a wedding venue across the the street had enacted.
Weaver says public comments from officials like former Alderman John Jones Jr. demonstrated conspicuous anti-Muslim bias.
“If you let them build it, they will come. So I think we need to stop it before it gets here,” Jones said in remarks at a board meeting last April.
He also expressed concerns about traffic, noise and water, and told the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, “It’s dangerous for people to be driving up and down that road listening to noise seven days a week when other people go to church one day a week and are quiet, saying their prayers and are quiet.”
“I don’t care what they say,” he added. “Their religion says they can lie or do anything to the Jews or gentiles because we’re not Muslims.”
He did not reply to email requests for comment.
In November of last year, a federal judge intervened and in January, issued a consent decreethat ordered the City of Horn Lake to approve permits for the Abraham House of God.
Outside of constitutional liberties, Weaver says there are strong federal protections under the ReligiousLand Use and Institutionalized Persons Act for houses of worship, which are designed to prevent municipal governing bodies from treating religious institutions inequitably.
“We see these cases happen in almost every state, they are not exclusive to the South or Mississippi or that region,” she says.
In a statement, Mayor Allen Latimer said that the city was pleased to resolve the lawsuit, but maintains that it did not discriminate on the basis of religion.
“The court’s decree makes no finding that the city discriminated against the plaintiffs on the basis of religion or violated any laws,” he said. “Due to this being an ongoing matter under the continued jurisdiction of the court, the city will not be making further comments regarding the matter.”
Former Alderman Charlie Roberts says there’s no doubt the city engaged in discrimination. He knows, he says because he was initially part of the problem, influenced by misconceptions about mosques.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would vote for it on the first time regardless” he says.
After encouragement from his Christian pastor and visiting an Islamic Center in Memphis, he lobbied his fellow board members to reconsider the project.
He personally apologized to Riyadh Elkhyatt, who praised Robert’s outreach.
“Everybody make[s] mistakes," he says. "They made a mistake. I think they realized it."
It’s a chance now, Elkhyatt says, for the city to turn the page and forge new relationships. Abuirshaid sees lots of opportunities for interfaith partnerships with neighboring churches.
“That’s going to build a new era,” he says. “I am very sure it will.”
For Morad Alkour, a mosque in the area will relieve his family of their almost hour-long drive from Hernando, Mississippi to Memphis for Quran classes for his daughters. He was taken aback at some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric that emerged when the plan was proposed.
“I was like: do I need to be worried now about our life here or what?” he says. “That was shocking, that was really shocking.”
But, some people he says just need a little push in the right direction.
“They are welcome when they open the mosque, just to go there,” he says “The door is always open.”
Elkhyatt will have to go back before the Board of Aldermen later this month as a formality to ask for a permit to install the mosque’s accompanying cemetery. He’s nervous some people’s anti-Muslim fears could resurface, but he knows this time, the court will be watching.
“I’m grateful for our Constitution—our first amendment, that protects minorities like us,” he says.