madrassa update II

Regular reader may recall that there's a Saudi madrassa operating in my neighborhood which has been the subject of a number of complaints. A ruling from the Zoning Board is due next week, and the Philadelphia Inquirer has an article with lots of details:

Foundation leaders are pledging to be better neighbors from here on, but residents are proving a tougher sell this time.

The Lower Merion Zoning Hearing Board took up the expansion proposal in November. After a second hearing in May, James Greenfield, attorney for 26 neighborhood families, asked the board to reject the zoning application, saying: "The foundation clearly will not police itself and has no qualms about expanding its use without regard for governmental regulation. The board must, therefore, regard this institution as a threat to the surrounding community."

More background on the dispute:
In 1993, the foundation, a New York nonprofit religious group headed by Saudi businessmen, agreed to buy the campus of Northeastern Christian Junior College, the former Morris Clothier estate, for $2.7 million.

About 60 families dropped opposition to the 1994 zoning change after agreeing on the covenants. The zoning board, incorporating some of the covenants in its order, then ruled that the foundation's plans posed no threat to public health, safety and welfare.

That was the high point of the relationship.

The zoning order had given the foundation approval to hold as many as six retreats a year, at least 30 days apart, and to use the college dormitories to house up to four members of the support staff and their families. Outdoor sound systems were prohibited, as were outdoor calls to prayers, or calls inside that neighbors could hear.

During the November hearing, Manal el-Menshawy, foundation general manager, acknowledged that "much more than six, about 10," retreats had been held during summers, violating the 30-day intervals. The foundation also began an elementary school in 1999 and was the site of a summer camp in 2004, neither permitted under the original zoning order.

In addition, retreat groups set up outdoor speakers whose sounds carried easily into backyards of neighbors, and refugees from Turkey and homeless people were temporarily housed in the dormitories.

Neighbors testified at the May hearing that they were especially concerned that the foundation could not provide much information on what groups used the grounds for retreats or assurances that the foundation supervised their activities.

"It gets kind of scary in terms of security and what they're doing up there," said Kent Haas, one of about 30 neighbors whose properties abut the foundation.

Exacerbating relations with neighbors were reports this year that a convicted child abuser, subsequently identified through the Pennsylvania Megan's Law Web site, had been spotted at the foundation. In addition, the foundation's Web site was discovered to link to what Greenfield said was "some material that can be construed as anti-Semitic or anti-American."

While there is no way to know everything that goes on there, what has been seen has the neighbors worried, and at the hearing it became quite clear that very little oversight or supervision is exercised by the people who are supposed to be running the place. It's right smack in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood, and is surrounded by homes with backyards abutting the madrassa.

As was made clear in the article, the problem is not that it is a Saudi madrassa, but that it simply isn't behaving in the way neighbors would reasonably expect a religious institution located in a suburban residential neighborhood to behave:

"It has very little to do with the fact it is an Islamic institution," said Township Commissioner Phil Rosenzweig, who has been heavily involved in working to bring both groups together. "It could be a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a day camp, any institution. It's about following the rules and being a good neighbor."

It was not until early 2004, after residents complained about plans to house refugees and homeless people, that the foundation applied to the zoning board to expand activities under the 1994 zoning order, according to Michael Wylie, township zoning officer.

Upon protests by neighbors, the foundation dropped plans for housing refugees and the homeless. It is seeking approval for the elementary school and for summer camps.

Approval after the fact, of course. They've been violating the original agreement without consulting anyone, and now they act as if they can waltz right through and obtain approval for things that were never agreed to, and probably would not have been. The neighbors would not feel any differently had this been a synagogue or a Catholic school.

All the neighbors want is peace and quiet. But according to the report, the Islamic Center can't seem to give them that -- not even while the hearing results are pending:

As the zoning board moves toward a decision, another incident has roiled the waters. Haas said last week that on June 11 "the foundation started blaring Arabic broadcasts at an outing once again."

Police were called, but Haas said foundation officials told officers that they had a waiver for that day.

Wylie said he was investigating, but "we didn't give any kind of approval to use any kind of amp system."

Haas said he was amazed the foundation would risk a confrontation with neighbors during its appeal to expand activities.

Menshawy, foundation general manager, denied there were any outdoor speakers. She said police had responded twice that day but "didn't hear anything."

From what I saw at the hearing, it seemed that Ms. Menshawy did her level best to deny everything that it was possible to deny.

There are, of course, larger implications than peace and quiet in a particular neighborhood.

And unlike most synagogues and Catholic schools, Saudi madrassas in general don't have the greatest track record, which means that you'd think they'd be on their best behavior. The attitude and conduct of this place towards its neighbors falls far short of what would be expected from any other religious or educational institution.

It's hardly reassuring to me.

posted by Eric on 07.06.06 at 02:41 PM


It sounds to me like the madrassa folks are trying to provoke a fight, which they can then use as "proof" that the entire West are at war against all of Islam. Expect to see this story -- or an UNreasonable facsimile thereof -- plastered all over Saudi newspapers, most likely after the next embarrassing crowd-control incident at Mecca.

I hope both the city and the media are documenting events carefully. You literally never know when the whole world will be watching.

Raging Bee   ·  July 6, 2006 4:12 PM

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