Chisago is a county divided over the prospect of letting Muslims bury their dead in town.
The Islamic Community of Bosniaks, a small Bosnian congregation with a mosque in the Twin Cities, wants to build a private cemetery on a parcel of farmland in Chisago Lake Township.
It’s a modest proposal. Last year the congregation had only four deaths. They don’t expect to fill the 16 acres for generations to come.
But Chisago residents near and far have reacted as if it’s a very big deal, bringing complaints and concerns about everything from the fear of increased traffic to the fear that Muslims burial practices would pollute nearby well water. While some have gone out of their way to to make uninvited assurances that they are definitely not bigots, others have displayed their hatred of Islam openly.
These are just a few comments littering Facebook:
The county also received emails and voicemails from folks who didn't try to mask their religious intolerance.
Here are some preliminary results from an ongoing City Pages data request:
A voicemail from Bob (last name redacted by the County):
"Just calling. I've heard a little about the Muslim cemetery proposal you guys are acting on. I have huge concerns about it in a big way. But I hope that you guys just support the original investors of that neighborhood area and don't grant any variances or conditional uses to do this. I'm aware that they're probably threatening to sue. I do believe we'll have a new administration in the federal government soon that will maybe look out more for the regular people who have been here and maybe the thuggery of using the law in a way it really wasn't intended to be used will maybe go away. So I hope that you guys will stick up for the people here who have been here."
A voicemail from Kirk (last name redacted):
"Hi, I'm a resident of Chisago City. My name is Kirk ... I and many other people are very much opposed to this Muslim cemetery that's being proposed. I'm a person that works within the community of Minneapolis - St. Paul, and I'm very aware of how this works. Number one, they are trying to put an anchor point up here, and number two, most people are very much against this. And some of their beliefs are wrapping and burying them in rags instead of in a coffin or anything that protects the environment, and I understand they will be meeting on this. Number one, I am [inaudible] myself, oppose this very strongly. I've been out of town for several weeks to come back to find out that this thing will be considered up here, but this is a wonderful community, I've seen it happen numerous times before, and if you guys think there's not going to be a mosque built up here next to the cemetery, and then they start moving in here. And I'm not a prejudiced person, but I have seen the effects on the community from this. And I think Chisago County, the people do not deserve this, and they shoudl be delegated elsewhere, primarily down in the cities somewhere. But um, I would like to speak to you about this, and maybe find out what I can do. I would like to try to organize a community meeting to speak out against this and of course we don't want anything, anything to go bad or anything. But I'd like to know where we an direct the meetings that are going to be held on this and who's going to be responsible for making decisions."
An email addressed to Chisago County Commissioners Lora Walker, Rick Greene, George McMahon, Ben Montzka, and Mike Robinson, which is notable because Walker and McMahon both claimed publicly that they did not receive any racist or Islamophobic correspondence:
Enes Gluhic, the Islamic Community of Bosniaks’ representative on the cemetery project, says he’s never experienced so much discrimination in his 20 years living in Minnesota. A survivor of the 1992 Bosnian Genocide in which Bosnian Serbs killed thousands of Muslims, he escaped to America at 16.
“I have a lot of friends who are different religions. Buddhists and Christians and all kinds of friends who pointed or spoke of, ‘Oh you’re Muslim, this or that.’ None of that,” Gluhic says. “And now when I started doing the cemetery, and dealing with some of the neighbors in the Chisago area, that brought up a lot of the hatred that I felt during the war.”
In early December, the Chisago County Planning Commission approved the cemetery despite the outcry of some two dozen neighbors.
The neighbors, whose complaints were carefully limited to land use issues, claimed that the cemetery would hurt their property values, that a fence or a gate would be unsightly, and that Islamic casketless burials would poison the groundwater.
The Planning Commission ultimately disagreed on all these points because there are already a number of cemeteries near the proposed site, area farms have always had fences and gates, and there is no proof that natural burials contaminate the earth. Rather, there is evidence that exposure to embalming fluids -- per Christian funeral convention -- is harmful to human health. State law doesn't care either way.
The proposal then went to a final vote before the Chisago County Board of Commissioners on December 21.
Angry neighbors turned up again, armed with the same arguments. But this time, the county commissioners voted 3-2 to reject the cemetery.
Chairman Mike Robinson was clearly disappointed.
“There are a lot of people who are against this,” he said. “There are people who have called me up, and they’re not talking about the gate or the fence or whatever. They’re basically telling me that they don’t want it there because of the applicant's’ religion. It’s wrong what people are saying.”
Fellow commissioner Ben Montzka agreed.
“Maybe it would have been easier, if it had been a majority religion, if it had been a Lutheran cemetery or maybe a Baptist cemetery.”
Where other communities throughout the country have turned down mosques or Muslim cemeteries without good reason, they’ve usually had their decisions overturned in court.
In February 2016, Dakota County Judge David Knutson gave Castle Rock Township a tongue lashing for denying a Muslim cemetery. In that case, Castle Rock Township tried to argue that the cemetery would cause it to lose $17,000 in property tax revenue. The judge found that the township was lucky to collect more than $1,000 a year for that property.
The Chisago County commissioners were aware of that ruling at the time of their vote.
“You know, this is not the 1800s. I left Bosnia because of the persecution,” Gluhic said. “To here to be greeted by it again, I will not stand down, especially here in the United States. People come here for freedom.”