Mosque Alert explores reactions to Islamic worship houses

Theater productions often exist squarely in the realm of fiction, but one play set in Naperville is blurring the lines.

Reality and story collide in "Mosque Alert" as the play challenges suburban responses to the integration of Muslims -- and their houses of worship -- into established communities, creators say.

The story involves the fictional proposal of a mosque at a real place, the old Nichols Library on Washington Street in downtown Naperville, which now is being used as Truth Lutheran Church for a Chinese congregation.

Playwright Jamil Khoury, co-founder of Chicago theater company Silk Road Rising, says "Mosque Alert" explores opinions of Muslim and non-Muslim characters about the mosque proposal in the days leading up to a fictional town-hall meeting to discuss whether it should be allowed. A free staged reading of the play is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Madden Black Box Theater inside North Central College's Wentz Hall at 171 E. Chicago Ave.

"The driving conflict of the play is over the proposed mosque," Khoury said. "The mosque becomes at some point in the play a backdrop for other things going on and other personal tensions between families."

The idea for "Mosque Alert" came in 2010 when a proposed mosque near the World Trade Towers, which were destroyed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, drew major opposition, Khoury said. He and Malik Gillani, his life partner and Silk Road Rising co-founder, wanted to explore the "post-911 Islamophobia," fears and perceived threats that they say arise when Islamic communities seek to build houses of worship.

"People are very interested in how is this issue of Muslim integration playing out," Gillani said.

Play creators looked to the suburbs around their base in Chicago to see examples of how mosque proposals were treated in the planning and zoning process. Gillani said they found two such instances working their way through the system in unincorporated areas near Naperville -- the Islamic Center of Naperville and Irshad Learning Center.

Islamic Center of Naperville's request for its unincorporated Will County land at 9931 S. 248th St. to be annexed into Naperville for use as a mosque was approved.

City council member Patty Gustin led the planning and zoning commission when the proposal was up for consideration, and she said the mosque didn't face any unique problems because of its Islamic religious use.

Where religious groups hit trouble, she said, is if they propose a house of worship in an area occupied by houses or in some other neighborhood where a religious venue just doesn't fit.

"I do think they do have challenges like any other parcel has when they want to construct something that is not within the character of the area," Gustin said. "But in planning and development, everything is so neutral; the use either is a use that fits there or doesn't fit there."

DuPage County Board members initially told Irshad Learning Center its proposal to build an education facility on 75th Street between Wehrli Road and Naper Boulevard in unincorporated DuPage County wasn't a fit. But Irshad filed a federal lawsuit against the county and a judge took its side. The county was ordered to pay $445,000 and allow mosque construction to begin.

Gillani and Khoury said they devised a new proposal to see how Naperville-area residents would respond to a mosque wanting to establish itself in the city's downtown.

"It was the only way we could think of to generate that knee-jerk response to enter into discussion, self-awareness and dialogue," Gillani said.

Complete with renderings and 3-D images by mosque design firm McCoy Architects, the proposed Al Ulama Library and Community Center keeps the old Nichols Library building, tears down its current annex and builds a new annex "blending traditional Islamic design elements with a sleek, contemporary American aesthetic," according to a brochure for the play.

Presentations about the themes behind "Mosque Alert" have been made within the past year at two Naperville libraries and one church. Students at Knox College in Galesburg have put on a production of the play and it's soon to be introduced in New York City during a staged reading Monday. But Tuesday's staged reading is the first to bring the production to a theater audience in the city where the play is set.

"That's hugely exciting because it's actually going to be performed for the first time in Naperville," Khoury said. "This will be the first time the story in its current iteration will be heard by a local audience."

North Central students will perform the play in fall 2016 after it's updated to reflect community reaction, Khoury said. Creators want to see how Naperville residents react to characters such as Daniel Baker, who opposes the mosque proposal and creates a website against it, or to other characters including the imam of the proposed mosque and his family and another Muslim family with young adult children.

"Different people identify with different characters. Nobody is an angel," Khoury said. "They're complicated, complex and ultimately likable."

Gustin says the play is an innovative approach to engage the community.

"I think it's an interesting way in which to make people aware of how other people feel," Gustin said. "It just opens the conversation up, which is a good thing."