At the end of what city officials referred to as the longest meeting in city history, the City Council early Wednesday morning voted 4-0 to deny an appeal of the Planning Commission's Dec. 1 approval of the Temecula mosque plans. The 3:34 a.m. vote means the Islamic Center of Temecula Valley can move forward with the first phase of its mosque project absent any legal challenge.
Before casting his vote, Councilman Jeff Comerchero said he received an e-mail recently from someone who asked him what he would tell his children and grandchildren if he voted to deny the appeal. "I'll tell them I was proud to sit up here and uphold the Constitution," he said, garnering applause from the folks who made it to the end of the eight-plus-hour hearing.
Around the stroke of midnight, the mood in the chambers seemed to swing and a hearing that had been staid and full of planning jargon became a sort of free-wheeling debate pitting area Muslims and local members of the interfaith council against opponents of the mosque project. Speakers directly challenged the Islamic leaders sitting in the audience. And more than one person criticized the Islamic ideology, saying it fosters abuse of women, violence and other alleged societal ills.
This portion of the hearing also featured speakers who defended the Islamic faith and said the people opposed to the plans for a mosque in Temecula were not motivated by their concerns about traffic issues or the construction of a building in a flood plain. "It pains me to see Imam (Mahmoud) Harmoush dragged through the mud," said Rev. Joe Zarro, a Murrieta pastor who serves as co-chair of the local interfaith council.
At one point, Harmoush was targeted by a speaker, Rabbi Nachum Shifren of Santa Monica, who asked him to denounce Hamas, a militant group in the Gaza Strip that has been labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. When someone in the audience shouted out that the topic wasn't an issue related to the mosque proposal, Shifren shouted back, "That's exactly the issue!"
Residents opposed to the mosque formed a group calling itself Concerned American Citizens last summer and they have made their feelings known about the project during public meetings, a protest at the center's headquarters on Rio Nedo and lectures at area churches and the city's Community Recreation Center.
The mosque project has been a flashpoint for controversy in Southwest County since the plans were unveiled last summer. Some residents oppose the project for the planning reasons detailed above, but there also are some residents who say they oppose the construction of mosques because they think the facilities are not houses of worship but places where people are "brainwashed" with an ideology that fosters violence and a subjugation of the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Area residents who have come out in support of both the mosque project and the families that make up the Islamic Center have said the anti-mosque group does not represent the majority of the people in Southwest County. They have said the project should be allowed due to the protections and rights afforded religions under both the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
Larry Slusser, a self-identified Mormon, said the U.S. erred following the attack on Pearl Harbor by putting Japanese-Americans in camps and he said there was a danger of making a similar mistake with Islam if we, as a country, blame the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or other terrorist acts on a small band of extremists. "It's wrong to transfer fear to a race. It's wrong to transfer fear to a religion," he said.
Another member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a young man named Braden Harter, also used examples from history to make a point, saying the opposition to the mosque was based in fear. Harter said it seems, based on his reading of history, that this treatment of Muslims by a lot of people in the country is similar to how numerous ethnic minorities were treated throughout the years.