What It Takes to Build a Mosque in New Hampshire

After 18 years and $1.5 million, the Islamic Society is still struggling to build its own place of worship.

On the day after the mass shooting in Orlando, Donald Trump took the podium at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. “We are importing radical Islamic terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system. Radical Islam is coming to our shores,” he said, before putting his foot down: “The immigration laws of the United States give the president the power to suspend entry into the country of any class of persons.”

As he fulminated, Trump was standing less than four miles from New Hampshire’s only sizable mosque, which is in a mini-mall above a Fantastic Sams hair salon. Inside, some congregants were busily readying their place of worship for a Ramadan feast featuring samosas, rice, and slices of watermelon. Fluorescent lights flickered on the low ceiling, and ballroom music filtered in from the Royal Palace Dance Studio next door. The Republican presidential nominee’s handlers didn’t respond to my e-mail inquiries. I don’t know if Trump was aware of the distance between his rhetoric and the daily reality of Manchester Muslims.

Photographer: Christopher Gregory

One, Mahboubul Hassan, 66, a Bangladeshi native who’s a finance and economics professor at Southern New Hampshire University, has been trying since 1998 to build the state’s first purpose-built mosque. New Hampshire’s practicing Muslims, numbering about 1,200, are concentrated near Manchester, the state’s largest city, with a little more than 110,000 residents. New York and California have about 250 Muslim masjids apiece, but for now the pride of Islamic New Hampshire is an unfinished, 13,000-square-foot octagonal brick structure that sits under construction on a hilly, weed-infested lot. On its facade, an inscription in Arabic reads, “There is no God but Allah.”

After working with an architect, the Islamic Society of New Hampshire broke ground on its masjid in 2007; so far it’s spent about $1.5 million. The blueprints were for a minimally ornamented two-story building encircled with large radius-top windows. If ever completed, the structure will have a capacious prayer room with a modest three-step wooden mimbar (the platform at the end of a staircase from which an imam sermonizes), a tutoring center, a full basement for meetings, a lavish kitchen, and a domed roof. The foundation has been poured, and the walls are up, but there’s still about $2.5 million worth of work left to do. The long saga of the mosque’s construction is a story of American immigration—a tale of émigrés, the first of them from South Asia, yearning to find a fixed place to pray, then dreaming up an architectural plan far beyond their economic and logistical reach.

The project has mired New Hampshire’s Muslims in troubles that are, though on a smaller scale and stage, similar to those that Islamic developer Sharif el-Gamal faced when he tried to build a 15-story Muslim cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. Onetime U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich likened that project to a “Nazi sign” being planted beside the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Forty thousand protesters gathered in the street, many waving American flags. El-Gamal ultimately backpedaled and decided to build a luxury condo tower instead.

The Manchester plan has thrown up its own idiosyncratic challenges. It began hopefully in 1998, when Hassan found a flat, cleared 10-acre residential property just north of the city, listed for $400,000. “An elderly lady owned it,” he says. “She was dying of cancer, and she asked me what I was going to do with the land. I didn’t say ‘mosque,’ because she wouldn’t have understood. I said, ‘a church for the Muslims.’ ” The woman seemed to find the concept enchanting. “Oh, for you it’s $200,000,” she told him.

At the time, the Islamic Society was a new group of about 25 people who prayed each Friday in a setting even more makeshift than the current one in the mini-mall: a dance studio at the university. They were a relatively educated bunch—doctors, engineers, and professors—but they weren’t wealthy. Two hundred thousand dollars seemed to them like a staggering sum for land. They decided to pass, and Hassan, pained, kept looking. He was middle-aged and already 17 years into his New Hampshire adventure. He was terrified of driving in the snow but had no problem shoveling, even though he lost his left arm as a teen after breaking it in a soccer game, then suffering an infection and, ultimately, gangrene. “I just hold the shovel and kick,” he explains. The fall foliage sang to him, especially up north, in the White Mountains. He also developed a ritual of going to Dunkin’ Donuts every Friday after prayers. On one visit in 1998 a friend told him, “There’s land on top of Bald Hill, and somebody wants to sell it.”

Hassan drove up there, along a bumpy, cracked stretch of asphalt called Karatzas Avenue, and beheld, sparkling off to the east, the quiet waters of Lake Massabesic. The asking price for the 2.8-acre plot was $37,500; this time the Muslims bought quickly, only to discover that they hadn’t exactly scored a bargain.

The property was home to a vacant, dilapidated Greek Orthodox church, built in 1948 by a local shoe factory worker from Greece, Stylianos Karatzas, after whom the street is named. (There are three active Greek Orthodox churches in Manchester now.) Local teenagers called it the Devil’s Chapel; they smashed its stonework and spray-painted its walls with pentagrams. Keg parties raged, and prostitutes used the place for assignations. The Islamic Society tore the building down, but in 1999 the city of Manchester insisted, per city regulations, that the society couldn’t build on the site until property owners along the street spent $523,650 to repave and upgrade Karatzas Avenue.

The temporary mosque.
Photographer: Christopher Gregory

Even had the city granted them a permit, the road construction cost would have been a deal breaker. The group had started out expecting to pay no more than $2 million to build; and that was a stretch—their fundraising scheme was little more than wishful thinking. The Islamic Society was squeezed by a scriptural concern: The Quran has been interpreted as advising against taking interest-bearing loans. Verse 2:275 reads, “Those who devour usury will not stand except as stand one whom the Evil one by his touch Hath driven to madness.” The dictate is strictly obeyed in most Islamic communities, particularly among Sunnis.

When Muslims buy houses, they can often work within Shariah, the Islamic religious law, by turning to friendly banks that offer rent-to-own terms. But such terms are rarely available for mosque construction, and most Islamic communities rely instead on local donations and no-interest loans from their wealthiest constituents.

Before a group of Virginia Muslims broke ground on the $4.5 million All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling, a Washington suburb, it spent 10 years pooling funds. That approach is fairly standard, but there are other tacks. The nation’s largest mosque complex—the 16-acre, $100 million Diyanet Center of America in Lanham, Md.—opened this spring largely because of massive support from the Turkish government. In Dearborn, Mich., however, the triple-domed, double-minareted Islamic Center of America was financed with seven-figure bank loans. Its congregation, most of whom are Lebanese Shiites, was, it seems, mindful of a caveat. “There is a strain of Islamic scholars who believe paying interest for a mosque is OK,” says Miles Davis, a dean at Shenandoah University and an expert on Islamic finance. “It’s regarded as a necessity, like eating pork when you’re starving.”

Donation box
Photographer: Christopher Gregory

The Islamic Society of New Hampshire has hosted an annual mosque fundraiser for the past 18 years. Each event has brought in $150,000 or so for construction. Luckily, the Muslims had an ally in Bob Baines, who, while serving as mayor from 2000 to 2006, wrote to his planning board before a May 2003 meeting that “Manchester has always been a city noted for its ability to accommodate a multiplicity of races, ethnicities, and religions.” Soon after, the city solicitor notified the board that it “lacked the authority to require the applicant to pay for off-site improvements to Karatzas Avenue under the city’s current regulatory scheme.” In 2006 new apartment buildings went up along the street, and those developers repaved much of the road anyway. Still, Baines is regarded by many of the mosque’s neighbors as a patsy. “He just took political correctness too far,” says Milton Argeriou, a retired public-health researcher.

In 2003, Argeriou and his wife, Sally, filed a lawsuit to block the construction of the mosque. The suit alleged that the Islamic Society was poised to trespass on their property. The strip of land in question was Ingraham Avenue, a 40-foot-wide street planned by the city of Manchester but never completed. The “paper street” was provisionally situated on maps to start at Karatzas Avenue between the Argerious’ plot and the mosque’s. Zoning rules for commercial buildings required that the Islamic Society have 200 feet of frontage along Karatzas Avenue. It had 195.6 feet running up to the edge of the imagined street, meaning the Muslims needed an additional 4.4 feet to build legally. But the Islamic Society reckoned it owned half the width, giving it the extra land it needed. The Argerious claimed to own the entire width.

The Argerious had a stake in keeping the land undeveloped. Sally owned a nearby 47-acre Bald Hill tract that has since been transformed into Grandview Estates. The tranquil refuge of 5,000-square-foot homes breezed through the permitting process, never encountering any public protest. It’s now billed as “Manchester’s premier subdivision.” The Argerious lost their suit, however. In 2005 a judge ruled that they owned only half of the un-street. That took care of the Muslims’ frontage problem.

Another lawsuit, a dense 22-point complaint filed in 2003 by neighbor Frank Scarito, a financial consultant, alleged that in allowing the mosque construction, Manchester was failing to “protect the public health, safety, and welfare” of its citizens. Scarito’s main charge was that the parking lot was too small, and though he dropped his case after six weeks, he hasn’t changed his mind. “That lot,” he said recently, “will hold 56 cars, and they’re saying that the capacity of the mosque is 200 people. But do the math: If every person in there has a 3-by-5 prayer rug, the building could fit in excess of 500 people. Who’s going to stand at the door and say, ‘You’re guest number 201. Sorry, you can’t come in’?”

A New Hampshire businessman and blogger, Doug Lambert, was more inflammatory. On his site, granitegrok.com, he asked in 2006, “How many mosques have been used throughout the Moslem world as ammo dumps and hideouts for murderous thugs? Can you imagine the thought of a Hitler Youth summer camp somewhere in Manchester circa 1943-44?” But Lambert’s outburst had no legal consequence. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, calls out the insidious nature of the quieter complaints about infrastructure. “It’s always about the parking, unless it’s about noise or traffic,” he says. “Scratch the surface, and there’s something else there. There isn’t a mosque in America that hasn’t faced hurdles.”

Religious buildings can often be controversial. In Boca Raton, Fla., two activists filed a federal lawsuit in February aimed at halting the construction of a $10 million, 18,000-square-foot synagogue that exceeds city height limits. The suit alleges that city officials facilitated the project through backroom dealings, thereby violating the First Amendment. Still, mosques are the focus of a special, focused contempt.

“I didn’t say ‘mosque,’ because she wouldn’t have understood. I said, ‘a church for the Muslims’ ”

In 2015, working with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Race & Gender, CAIR recorded 78 attacks on U.S. mosques, the highest since it began counting in 2009. Vandals burned crosses on a New York mosque’s lawn, covered the door of a Texas mosque in feces, and laid a severed pig’s head outside one in Philadelphia. CAIR said about the report: “The 2016 presidential election has mainstreamed Islamophobia.”

The most prominent dispute about a mosque in the U.S. is set in Bernards Township, N.J., where the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued a local planning board that denied it a building permit, alleging the approval process was a “Kafkaesque” ordeal that involved 39 public hearings over four years. Lawyers in the New Jersey case accused local planners of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious speech. Since 2011, CAIR has repeatedly won construction battles by invoking the act.

Manchester’s political climate shifted rightward after Baines’s tenure. Although the largest concern of the current Republican mayor, Ted Gatsas, is rampant opioid addiction, he’s made time to loudly oppose immigration. In 2011 he asked the U.S. Department of State to halt the influx of refugees into the city, which had absorbed more than 2,000 displaced persons. (It didn’t work.) More recently, Gatsas, who’s been reelected four times and is now running for governor, has fought a federal plan to move 500 Syrians to New Hampshire, citing safety concerns.

But it would be wrong to blame all the Manchester mosque delays on Islamophobia; the principal challenge has been the site. Bald Hill is riddled with granite ledges requiring extensive—and expensive—blasting. The city sewer line sits beneath Karatzas Avenue. Connecting to it will require digging up the street at a cost of more than a quarter-million dollars. Drainage is tricky: When the snow melted this year, it seeped through the mosque’s doors, rusting some studs. Meanwhile, construction, often a charity effort, has been slow, with local Muslim craftsmen erecting the rebar and laying the concrete at steeply discounted rates. Several times the society has had to pay to renew building permits.

Scarito, the financial consultant, says he foresaw all these problems. “Building up here is difficult,” he says. “Just to get water, I dug a 900-foot well. This isn’t the right site for a car wash or a Stop & Shop, and it isn’t the right site for a mosque. And they’ve tried to do everything on a shoestring. They’ve run out of money. The building has just sat there for years, with nobody working on it. It’s an eyesore.”

Davis, the dean at Shenandoah, says he’s never heard of a small mosque that’s taken so long to build. “I’ve seen mosques in Morocco take a couple decades, but these are humongous buildings that fit three or four thousand people,” he says.

As it’s sat vacant, the building has become a target. In 2013 two young vandals, 11 and 13, smashed almost all the windows. The damage cost more than $30,000 to repair, but the Islamic Society chose not to prosecute. “They were just kids messing around,” says the group’s president, Mohamed Ewiess. “They were brainwashed by the media, probably, and we didn’t want to do anything to harm them.”

Mohammad Islam
Mohammad Islam, a Bangladeshi émigré, is the building committee chair.
Photographer: Christopher Gregory

Are New Hampshire’s Muslims too laid-back? “They need to send out ambassadors to Muslim communities that have money—to Virginia, to L.A. and Texas,” Davis says. “I can’t believe they’d fail, because Islam gives a special place to people who contribute to building mosques. Every time someone prays in that building, you receive the benefit, even after you’ve died.”

An aggressive nationwide search doesn’t seem to be their style. “That’s a full-time job,” says Mohammad Islam, a Bangladeshi émigré who’s the building committee chair and a network and telecommunications engineer. “If you’re out there asking somebody for $50,000, you might have to stay for a while. You might have to make repeat visits, and I can’t quit my job to do that.”

The state’s Muslims set up a GoFundMe site two years ago, but so far it’s brought in less than $12,000, not even 1 percent of their $2 million goal. The annual fundraiser remains so pivotal that when I asked to go, Islam said no. “With press there, people will be afraid to donate. It’s kind of a reverse terrorism thing,” he said, meaning that contributors would fear retaliation from anti-Muslim thugs.

Windows broken by vandals.
Photographer: Christopher Gregory

In time, he changed his mind. When I reached the mini-mall mosque at dusk, about 200 men were breaking the day’s Ramadan fast as women and children gathered behind wooden partitions in the same room. The community has grown in recent years, adding large Bosnian and Iraqi constituencies. The congregation, relaxed and proudly inclusive, now encompasses citizens from 25 countries, including Bahrain, Eritrea, and Sri Lanka, and from “several Shia Muslim families,” according to Hassan, who in an e-mail added that he wasn’t sure of the exact number and claimed not to recognize the distinction. “I always take a person as Muslim (never as Shia, Sunni, etc.) or Christians (never as Catholics, Protestants, etc.).”

As night fell, a tall, extremely thin youth from London recited scripture in a high, haunting voice. Maseeh Ullah, who’s memorized the Quran, had come to New Hampshire for a month to lead Ramadan prayers. I asked him if locals had encouraged him to talk up the mosque when he returned to London. “Oh, no,” he said. “Nothing like that.”

When I ran into Hassan, he conceded that maybe Manchester’s Islamic leaders had been too ambitious, dreaming of a palatial mosque up on Bald Hill. “It’s true,” he said genially. “We were a little naive.”

I could see women moving on the other side of the partition, their stocking feet on the rug. Enjoying what organizers insist is an equal right to participate, they watched via a video feed as the keynote speaker took the mic.

Alauddin Alauddin, a life coach and family-services administrator in Columbus, Ohio, travels the country coaxing mosque money out of Muslim audiences by using humor. He’s essentially Islam’s answer to a Borscht Belt comedian. “How many of you guys here are from Sudan?” he said, warming up the crowd. Later in the evening, he asked each of the men present for $50 for “the protection of your mothers.” Moments later he said, “What? You’re going to protect your mothers but not your wives?”

Eventually, Alauddin asked, “Who can give $50,000?” He got four men to raise their hands at $25,000, and by the time he worked his way down to $500, it seemed like nothing. Huso Zukic, a 25-year-old Bosnian refugee, said yes, only to be nudged up to $650, never mind that he’s a struggling assembly line worker. “This is the first mosque we’ve built here, and I wanted to be part of it,” Zukic told me, flush with excitement. “I wanted to give hope to future generations.”

As I moved toward the door, the evening’s tally stood at $220,000, a record for the group. Over the tinny sound system, a muezzin was calling the faithful to the evening’s last prayer. I lingered for a moment on the porch by the dance studio, looking in through the window as three long rows of men prayed silently, in unison, now bowing their heads, now pressing their brows to the floor as they knelt.

This was still a novel sight in New Hampshire. For all the winters these men had endured, they were still newcomers here. And they were still $2.3 million from finding their way home.

(Corrects a caption in the fourth photo, and corrects Maseeh Ullah’s name in the 30th paragraph.)

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