Center stage: Naperville area mosque controversy inspires play

By Susan Frick Carlman, Naperville Sun, 2/20/2015

A local Islamic organization's struggle to put down new roots near Naperville provided the impetus for a play scheduled to premiere at downstate Knox College later this month.

Set in the summer of 2014, "Mosque Alert" spotlights two fictionalized Naperville families, one Muslim and the other Christian, and each household member's distinct perspective on an effort by a group to establish a worship center for local Muslims in the city core. The play will run Feb. 25-28.

Chicago author Jamil Khoury, current playwright-in-residence at Knox, emphasized that the production is his own creation, although the story was inspired by real events in Naperville.

"The initial catalyst for 'Mosque Alert' was actually the summer of 2010, the so-called Ground Zero mosque in New York City," said Khoury, founding artistic director of the Chicago theater group Silk Road Rising. "It (the proposed Ground Zero mosque) was about reconciliation, healing and interfaith dialogue (but was) shot down, particularly in right-wing circles, with such vociferous response."

Khoury said he's seen the same response elsewhere, including in unincorporated land near Naperville. The Irshad Learning Center in 2010 took to court its attempt to win DuPage County's approval of the needed conditional use permit for a worship center on property it owns on 75th Street east of Naper Boulevard, just across the city border.

Neighbors of the 3-acre parcel had ardently opposed the center, voicing concerns about traffic, lighting and noise, with support from the Naperville Tea Patriots and the anti-Islamic organization Act! for America. After a divided County Board in January 2010 denied the request, the matter wound up in federal court, with Irshad claiming its Constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and equal protection had been denied. Northern Illinois District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer ruled in March 2013 that the county improperly withheld the permit, in part citing the outside groups' role in the process. The Irshad board is preparing to open the center later this year.

"It really was not about building a new house of worship. It was about Muslims building a new house of worship," Khoury said. "It sort of tied into that existential fear: 'Not in my back yard, they're going to hurt us somehow.'"

Nejla Ghane said she was seeing some of that mind set illustrated in her home town. The 2013 graduate of Naperville North High School, now a sophomore at Knox, is the daughter of Irshad board member Ali Ghane. Nejla said she and her family want their faith community to have a home of its own, rather than the rented space in Woodridge where Irshad's weekly communal call to worship has taken place for the past several years.

"It's really vital, growing up. It's just something sacred and safe for you, and it's nice to have somewhere to go outside of your house where you feel safe," said Ghane, 19, adding that dozens of other church congregations have places to worship in Naperville. "It would be nice for me to have a place to go where I could go any day of the week to worship, instead of only having rented space once a week."

Ghane, who is the secretary of a campus organization for Muslims at Knox, estimates there are around a dozen active Muslims among the college's undergraduate enrollment of about 1,400. As in Naperville, she is in a minority, but she said she hasn't suffered greatly for it.

"Growing up, I didn't feel like there was a negative view of Islam," she said. "That was the first time that religion had been negatively connotated in my life. I wouldn't say that Naperville as a whole is pushing back on Islam."

The play centers on a proposal from a ficticious group called Al Ulama, which has prayer space in a Naperville neighborhood but wants to move to headquarters on the actual site of the downtown Naperville Nichols Library, property owned in the play by Truth Lutheran Church. The plan calls for razing the church annex and building a new 100,000-square-foot structure on the same footprint, an Islamic worship site that's taller than the previous building. In the play a town hall meeting has been scheduled to present the plans.

"Things don't go as planned at the town hall meeting, so it has a negative impact on how this project is perceived," Khoury said, adding that the premise is that the request has been thoroughly prepared and passed the Planning and Zoning Commission's muster.

"Literally the community just dotted every i and crossed every t," he said. "So everything is looking good - until it isn't looking good."

From there, the audience becomes better acquainted with the featured characters, warts and all.

"It touches on identity, it touches on fears, it touches on dreams and aspirations, and the desire of this Muslim community to be part of the greater Naperville community - and those who would feel otherwise," Khoury said.

As happened in DuPage County, the play's mosque has non-Muslim opponents and supporters - among them the fictional wife of a DuPage County Board member who is campaigning to be Naperville's next mayor and objects to the plans. Some of the Muslim characters have concerns about the proposal being too ambitious or too risky.

"Others are, 'No, this is great, we're going to have our own community. People can learn who we are, we can learn who they are,'" Khoury said.

And as was the case with the Irshad plan, the proposal came from families supported by white collar professionals who "sort of share an economic class," Khoury said.

"The fear really is of Muslims: What's this going to do to our downtown? Is it going to scare people away?" he said.

The production has remained fluid throughout the process, director Neil Blackadder said. A theater professor at Knox, he's watched the lines shift repeatedly as opening night approaches.

"It's an interesting process, because I've never directed a play before where the script has changed as much as it has in the first few weeks of rehearsals," Blackadder said.

The students involved in the production have been surprised, he said, by some of the candid dialogue.

"I think they've been struck at how bold Jamil's writing is, how it is to grapple with the issues that he's exploring in the play and to do it in a very up-front way," said Blackadder said. "The students' reaction has often been, 'Wow, I don't believe he actually has him say that!'"

Drawn to the play after taking part in a fall workshop run by Khoury on campus, Ghane said she looks forward to being in the audience.

The struggle between ideologically disparate faith communities isn't a new one, and she expects relations among them will always be somewhere short of fully at ease.

"Honestly, it is improving, but in the future I don't think it is anything that is going to go away," Ghane said, drawing parallels with the recent confrontations between white police officers and their local African-American communities, suggesting racial tension has similarly deep roots. "I think it's just a matter of educating, of people learning more about religions that are unfamiliar to them."

Blackadder is aware of the production's currency, and he's certain the cast is as well. He knows discussion of Islam in the U.S. often accelerates when violent incidents traced to Muslim extremists return to the headlines.

"I haven't mentioned Charlie Hebdo," he said, alluding to last month's massacre, tied to Al-Qaeda in Yemen, at the Paris office of a satirical magazine. "But I'm very much aware that if this play didn't seem to have much relevance before the Paris attacks, it certainly does now."