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Tolerance in a Small Town

Residents rally for their Muslim neighbors when authorities target the local Islamic center.

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Last summer, during the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy, the battle for tolerance spread to upstate New York, where the sleepy town of Sidney, population 5,993, suddenly found itself in the media spotlight.

Sufi Muslim Center photos by Osmanli Traveller

Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani Dergahi is a Sufi Muslim center in Sidney, N.Y.

Photo courtesy of Osmanli Traveller.

A Sufi Islamic center and farm in the town contains a small cemetery on its grounds. When a member of the Sufi community was killed in a car accident and buried there, Sidney’s town supervisor Robert McCarthy called the cemetery illegal and said its two graves might have to be moved. In August 2010 the town’s board of supervisors tasked its attorney with researching how to close down the cemetery.

The Sufis, who had in fact obtained the necessary burial permits, expressed outrage at a heated town meeting in October. “Nobody called me. Nobody sent us a letter. You made assumptions about us that were not true,” said Meryem Brawley, one of the center’s owners.

Amid an overflow crowd of 150 people, one community member after another spoke out in support of the town’s Sufi neighbors. In reference to the media’s coverage of the controversy, town resident Patrick McElligott said, “For a while, Sidney was put in the hot seat and started to look like the butt of a national joke, but we’ve overcome that because everybody came together.”

The repercussions of the controversy have gone far beyond the town meeting. Two groups—Impeach Bob McCarthy and Sidney First—formed to change the town’s leadership.

According to McElligott, more Sidney residents are reaching out to their Muslim neighbors and visiting the center.

Tom Schimmerling, the Sufis’ lawyer and the son of Holocaust survivors, was so inspired by the events that he plans to travel across the country in his new turban (a gift from the Sufis) this spring to see for himself what it’s like to be Muslim in America. 


Sven Eberlein wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.

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