Residents of the area around a proposed Islamic community center on Armstrong Mill Road have publicly voiced concerns about traffic, loss of green space and other issues, but an undercurrent pointing to politics or religion as other possible concerns also ran through a recent neighborhood meeting.
Mahmoud Shalash, president of the Islamic Center of Lexington, told attendees at the River Park Neighborhood Association meeting Tuesday that "we want to make sure we are friends."
"The purpose of us coming is to try to remove the misunderstanding if there is any," he said, adding that people fear what they don't understand.
As he continued, a woman in the audience stood up and asked Shalash to stop, saying that the neighborhood's apprehensions were not about his religion.
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But after Shalash left the meeting at Tatesbrook Baptist Church, the floor opened up for discussion of the project and more misgivings were voiced.
It was pointed out that the building would be on a high point in the neighborhood and would be taller than other buildings nearby, giving people on the property a good vantage point to see down into the backyards of surrounding homes.
There was laughter when one woman took that idea a step further and said she thought they would be watching with a telescope, maybe even to see inside houses.
Someone else mentioned "no-go zones," where non-Muslims are not welcome.
"They may form a mini state within a state," said Charles Payne, president of the River Park Neighborhood Association. "There's other communities around the world that's dealing with some serious issues now because they didn't nip it in the bud, so to speak."
When asked about his "state within a state" comment in an interview later in the week, Payne said "that's a hypothetical situation."
"It could occur," he said. "Will it occur here? Doubtful."
He said the situation in France "is obviously on some people's minds," though.
Payne also mentioned a 2006 opinion piece in the Washington Post on the topic of domestic violence among Muslims and how a specific verse in the Koran should be interpreted. The verse indicates that a man may beat a disobedient wife as a last resort. Shalash was quoted in the column as follows: "They should beat them lightly," he explained. "It's in the Koran."
"I'm not entirely convinced that I want an organization, if you want to call it that, that's going to condone domestic violence," Payne said.
Shalash responded in an interview later in the week that he is "an advocate of the rights of women" and said any idea that he condones domestic violence is "absolutely false."
"Anybody who puts his hand on a woman is a coward," he said.
As to possible political concerns about the gatherings that would take place at the community center, Shalash said: "It's not for political things. We don't talk about politics."
He said Muslims have been gathering at the Islamic Center's current facility on South Limestone Street across from the University of Kentucky since the early 1980s.
If they were planning to create a "mini state," "Why didn't we create a state there?" he said.
"We do not condone any violence, any terrorism," Shalash said. "I don't like violence. Islam is a religion of peace ... God gives life and God only can take life."
Payne said emphatically that he does not want religion to be a part of the discussion about the proposal for the community center.
"If I see that the neighborhood is going to go that way then they'll have my resignation," he said. "...They've got the right to practice their religion however they want. If the neighborhood wants to make this a religious issue then I'm off."
Shalash agreed that he does not want religion to be an issue.
"I wasn't up there to talk about religion," he said of the neighborhood meeting. "The board of adjustment is not about religion. ... I'm not about to dig into it or uncover it."
The Islamic Center of Lexington's proposal includes a prayer hall that would accommodate 300 people, a multipurpose room for potluck dinners, weddings and the like, and a gym with a running track above it. The center would have about 200 parking spots.
The 9-acre property is zoned for agricultural use and has a house on it facing Armstrong Mill Road. The plan calls for the house to remain, with the community center to be built behind it.
In the long term, Shalash has said he would like a larger religious facility to be built at the front of the property, since the Islamic Center has outgrown its space on South Limestone.
A public hearing on the conditional-use permit is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Jan. 30.
Payne said the neighborhood association has not taken a vote on whether it will take an official stance against the center, but residents at the meeting Tuesday discussed plans for arguments against it at the hearing, and petitions against it are being circulated.
Eighth District Urban County Councilman Fred Brown told the audience at the meeting that if a church wanted to build on the property, it would have to go through the same process the Islamic Center is going through.
"Although some of us probably have some convictions, you've got to let those out and let the democratic process work," he said.
Brown said he is "concerned myself" about the project.
"I'm concerned with the three entrances," he said, which could increase traffic on surrounding neighborhood streets.
Brown acknowledged in a later interview that with "what's going on in the world today, people are a little leery."
But regardless of that, he said, "you can't discriminate."
"What if a Baptist church wanted to go in there?"
"You've got some people that are not receptive to anything new," he said, but "cooler heads prevail as far as the leaders of the neighborhood association."