After 18 years and $1.5 million, the Islamic Society is still struggling to build its own place of worship.
On the day after the mass shooting in Orlando, Donald Trump took the podium at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. “We are importing radical Islamic terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system. Radical Islam is coming to our shores,” he said, before putting his foot down: “The immigration laws of the United States give the president the power to suspend entry into the country of any class of persons.”
As he fulminated, Trump was standing less than four miles from New Hampshire’s only sizable mosque, which is in a mini-mall above a Fantastic Sams hair salon. Inside, some congregants were busily readying their place of worship for a Ramadan feast featuring samosas, rice, and slices of watermelon. Fluorescent lights flickered on the low ceiling, and ballroom music filtered in from the Royal Palace Dance Studio next door. The Republican presidential nominee’s handlers didn’t respond to my e-mail inquiries. I don’t know if Trump was aware of the distance between his rhetoric and the daily reality of Manchester Muslims.
One, Mahboubul Hassan, 66, a Bangladeshi native who’s a finance and economics professor at Southern New Hampshire University, has been trying since 1998 to build the state’s first purpose-built mosque. New Hampshire’s practicing Muslims, numbering about 1,200, are concentrated near Manchester, the state’s largest city, with a little more than 110,000 residents. New York and California have about 250 Muslim masjids apiece, but for now the pride of Islamic New Hampshire is an unfinished, 13,000-square-foot octagonal brick structure that sits under construction on a hilly, weed-infested lot. On its facade, an inscription in Arabic reads, “There is no God but Allah.”
After working with an architect, the Islamic Society of New Hampshire broke ground on its masjid in 2007; so far it’s spent about $1.5 million. The blueprints were for a minimally ornamented two-story building encircled with large radius-top windows. If ever completed, the structure will have a capacious prayer room with a modest three-step wooden mimbar (the platform at the end of a staircase from which an imam sermonizes), a tutoring center, a full basement for meetings, a lavish kitchen, and a domed roof. The foundation has been poured, and the walls are up, but there’s still about $2.5 million worth of work left to do. The long saga of the mosque’s construction is a story of American immigration—a tale of émigrés, the first of them from South Asia, yearning to find a fixed place to pray, then dreaming up an architectural plan far beyond their economic and logistical reach.
The project has mired New Hampshire’s Muslims in troubles that are, though on a smaller scale and stage, similar to those that Islamic developer Sharif el-Gamal faced when he tried to build a 15-story Muslim cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. Onetime U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich likened that project to a “Nazi sign” being planted beside the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Forty thousand protesters gathered in the street, many waving American flags. El-Gamal ultimately backpedaled and decided to build a luxury condo tower instead.
The Manchester plan has thrown up its own idiosyncratic challenges. It began hopefully in 1998, when Hassan found a flat, cleared 10-acre residential property just north of the city, listed for $400,000. “An elderly lady owned it,” he says. “She was dying of cancer, and she asked me what I was going to do with the land. I didn’t say ‘mosque,’ because she wouldn’t have understood. I said, ‘a church for the Muslims.’ ” The woman seemed to find the concept enchanting. “Oh, for you it’s $200,000,” she told him.