On May 8, the highest elected official in Lincoln County spoke out about the recent court ruling regarding Rowan County’s opening prayers. In doing so, Lincoln County Board of Commissioners Chairman Carroll Mitchem exposed his severe lack of tolerance toward other religions.
“A Muslim? He comes in here to say a prayer, I’m going to tell him to leave, I have no use for [those] people,” Mitchem said. “They don’t need to be here praying to Allah or whoever the hell they pray to. I’m not going to listen to [a] Muslim pray.”
He added fuel to the fire by saying “I don’t need no Arab or Muslim or whoever telling me what to do or us here in the county what to do about praying. If they don’t like it, stay the hell away.”
I have lived in Lincoln County for most of my life. I graduated from Lincolnton High School and was even born in Gordon Crowell Memorial Hospital just a few blocks away from the spot where Mitchem declared that he would not allow me to pray in a Lincoln County government building. You see, I’m Muslim. My parents, wife and daughter are also Muslim.
Telling us to “stay the hell away” because of our chosen religion is a slap to the face. We’re a family of patriotic Americans who love our country. My parents served in the U.S. Air Force and North Carolina Air National Guard. I inherited my love of country from two grandfathers who served during WWII. In fact, every Veterans’ Day our Mosque in Charlotte recognizes the dozens of vets in our Muslim community. After retiring from service in 2004, my father chose to serve the community in the position of Master Mason of the Maiden Masonic lodge. No; I don’t think we’ll “stay the hell away.”
Founded on religious liberty
There are several families of Muslims other than mine in Lincoln County. Some go to the Islamic Center in Mooresville, some to Statesville, others to the Gastonia Masjid, and a few to the prayer facility in Conover. The rest of us go to one of many mosques in Charlotte. Yes, Muslims are here in the western part of North Carolina; when we come together for our Eid prayers in Charlotte twice a year we number around 14,000.
William Lancaster of North Carolina made perhaps one of the most precise statements of all time with regard to religious liberty. Way back in 1788 during the North Carolina Ratifying Convention he said, “Religious liberty ought to be provided for. ... let us remember that we form a government for millions not yet in existence. … This is most certain, that Papists may occupy that chair (referring to the office of the president), and Mahometans may take it. I see nothing against it.”
In that moment over 200 years ago, the Founding Fathers knew of Muslims, and they decided not to place any provision limiting Islam, Catholicism, Judaism or Hinduism. All of these ideologies were directly referenced during the ratification of the U.S. Constitution; none was restricted or banned.
Not about litigation
Commissioner Alex Patton expressed concern over litigation. As a Lincoln County taxpayer, I agree. I do not believe that moral questions are best answered by legislation or litigation. I have no wish to see the county burdened with having to pay fines and penalties. Instead, I would prefer to have a discussion with Mitchem and give him some literature so that he can get to know a bit about the religion that he clearly knows very little about and which is one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Whether he loves Islam or not is beside the point; he should know that as an elected official he represents his entire constituency and not just those he ideologically agrees with.
As for the opening prayer of our county government meetings, what is so wrong with the universal prayer that I often use in mixed groups? It goes something like this: “Divine Creator of all that exists, we ask You to comfort us, to guide us and to protect us. We ask You to help us in this gathering to pursue the course of justice and peace in every aspect of our actions and decision. We ask You to calm our hearts in disagreement and guide us in committing Your Divine Will into action.”
Our Founding Fathers envisioned an America where people of every faith coexisted with respect for one another. Most of us in America today stand for unity rather than division. I’m asking the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners to join us.
Duston Barto is the editor of Muslim American, a national Muslim magazine published out of Charlotte. Email: Editor@MuslimAmerican.com.