Proposed Muslim Cemetery Rattles North Texas Town
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A proposed cemetery sparked a lively debate in small-town Texas. An Islamic group wants to build a cemetery in Farmersville, an hour north of Dallas. That's led to some heated rhetoric from a number people who want to stop it. KERA's Lauren Silverman visited the town of Farmersville.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: This town used to be the onion capital of north Texas. And although the Collin County Sweets it became famous for had a mild flavor, resident Medford Sumrow has some harsh words for the proposed cemetery.
MEDFORD SUMROW: We don't need that crap up here. What the hell they want to come up here and jack with Farmersville for (laughter)?
SILVERMAN: On a recent morning, Sumrow was sitting on a bench downtown, watching folks drive along the red brick road. Farmersville is quiet, but Sumrow says the Islamic Association of Collin County's recent land purchase has riled him up. He's especially upset by what he's heard are Muslim burial practices.
SUMROW: They just scrub them down, wrap them up, put them in the grave, you know, and that's without a casket, without embalming.
SILVERMAN: That's not going to happen here, says Khalil Abdur-Rashid. He's with the Islamic Association. He says bodies will be placed in wooden caskets and then in cement vaults. Since the nonprofit bought a patch of land along the highway into town, he's heard plenty of rumors.
KHALIL ABDUR-RASHID: The fact that the land used to grow onions and now it'll grow dead bodies. Some folks have said if they go forth with this, we'll just pour pigs blood on it. That is something that has just been very hurtful.
SILVERMAN: There are more than 20,000 Muslims in Collin County, but hardly any live in Farmersville, which is why Abdur-Rashid, who's wearing dress clothes and a traditional white cap, stands out in downtown's Freedom Plaza. Most men here wear blue jeans or overalls and cowboy boots. He explains the reason the Islamic Association bought the land is simple - they're running out of room to bury members of the faith.
ABDUR-RASHID: Nobody's looking to come in and change anything. We saw this land and saw this property and we thought it would be a beautiful place to preserve the memory of folks that we thought were beautiful.
SILVERMAN: Abdur-Rashid says he didn't expect so much vitriol and opposition.
ABDUR-RASHID: We have enough bridges to build as an American Muslim community for our living. I didn't know we had to do that for our deceased as well.
SILVERMAN: Local Diane Piwko is against the cemetery and says it isn't about religion or health.
DIANE PIWKO: We don't like the fact that we seem to be portrayed in the media as radicals against Islam. We don't want to be dumped on. We want to have say over how our community grows.
SILVERMAN: To find out how city officials are handling all this, I walked a few blocks - past Lovey's Cafe, the town's old onion shed and an antique shop with a speaker out front.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI-FRUTTI")
LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) Tutti-fruitti, oh rutti. Tutti-fruitti, oh, Tutti fruitti...
SILVERMAN: City manager Ben White is in no dancing mood, though he says the controversy has made his head spin.
BEN WHITE: I've always felt like when you have knowledge, it helps a lot. And I'm always recommending to people that they talk to the - directly to the people involved.
SILVERMAN: Which is why White met with the Islamic Association. He says so far the proposal, which includes an open-air pavilion and small retail space, has met all development and health requirements. Still, some members of the planning and zoning commission have received threats.
WHITE: Certainly is unnerving to the people that it's happening to. In the city of Farmersville, we take that very, very, very seriously.
SILVERMAN: Not everyone hanging around Freedom Plaza has a problem with the cemetery. Harvey Sisco has lived here for more than 60 years. He says he has a good relationship with the few Muslim people he knows. Besides, he says it seems a little silly to be afraid of the dead.
HARVEY SISCO: I mean, once you're gone, you're gone. They're not going to come back and haunt us.
SILVERMAN: The debate in Farmersville isn't going anywhere for now. Between city approvals and permitting, it could be years before the drama plays out. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.