Texas Town Fights Muslim Cemetery

SHAFAQNA - Burying our dead is one of the oldest rituals known to humanity, and something practiced by few other species. The ability to follow our own traditions when it comes to death and burial should seem like a basic human right, but Farmersville, Texas, doesn’t think that the region’s Muslims should be allowed to establish a cemetery for members of their community. At a vicious city council meeting, members of the mostly white audience rose up in virulent protest to insist that any requests for permits be denied, highlighting the Islamophobia creeping across the United States. Refusing to let Muslims bury their dead in peace is a tragic testimony to the current political climate in the United States.

The Islamic Association of Collin County purchased land with the intent of making it into a cemetery because it was running out of room to bury members of the Muslim community — like other religious minorities, some Muslims prefer to bury their dead in a separate area of a larger cemetery, or in a dedicated burial ground. In order to be zoned as a cemetery, a plot of land needs to meet very strict requirements, though dead bodies don’t actually pose risks to the public, particularly when they’re not embalmed, and by Muslim tradition, bodies are traditionally buried unembalmed and in simple shrouds. In a concession to Texas norms, the organization proposed following historic practices of washing and shrouding bodies but following with casketing and burying them in vaults, making the cemetery’s operations effectively identical to those seen in any other type of burial ground.

Once land is zoned as a cemetery, it can’t be used for other purposes. No segment of the land can be set aside for other development. Should someone propose development on the site in the future, a costly and lengthy process would be involved, including deconsecration, careful exhumation and respectful reburial of bodies, and more. In other words, once established as a cemetery, the ground is likely to stay a cemetery. Religious leaders chose Farmsville as one of the few locations in that region of Texas where officials could accommodate a new cemetery under zoning laws.

That hasn’t stopped Farmersville residents from insisting that if granted burial permits, the Muslim community will secretly erect a mosque or madrassa — which wouldn’t be legal under cemetery zoning in the first place. While Muslims would likely be disinclined to build a mosque in Farmersville, given the hostility with which they’re being greeted already, they’d certainly be within their legal rights to do so if they wanted, as the Constitution promises freedom of religion. Critics are also citing “health concerns,” arguing that burials at the site will somehow contaminate groundwater or pose a public health threat. It’s a chilling attitude suggesting that Muslim bodies are somehow dirty and pose a risk to the community.

One man even blustered that the ground should be covered in pigs’ blood to make it unclean in the eyes of Muslim organizers, an incredibly Islamophobic comment playing on bigoted attitudes about Muslim beliefs and tradition. While Muslims, like those of many religions, avoid pork products and would find such an act deeply offensive, it’s not necessarily because of any directive in the Qu’ran, but rather because of the naked hostility involved in vandalizing a burial ground. Accusations that wanting to build a cemetery is somehow an act of religious extremism are also being flung about in opposition to the plan.

That the community seems determined to muster incorrect and cruel arguments to oppose the right to bury the dead peacefully is a disappointment for a nation where people should be able to practice their faith, including burial practices, free of harassment.

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