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Muslim Community, Rural Residents Seek Middle Ground in Development Fight

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Teacher Shirin Ishaq leads first-grade students in a math class at Al-Huda school.
Tara Boyle
Teacher Shirin Ishaq leads first-grade students in a math class at Al-Huda school.

It's the last Friday before spring break, and teachers at the Al-Huda School are scrambling to wrap up lessons before saying goodbye to their students for a week. First-grade teacher Shirin Ishaq is in the middle of a math lesson. Several dozen girls, dressed in blue dresses and white headscarves, have their hands in the air, waving for her attention.

"Okay, we have five pennies equaling to?" she asks them.

"Nickels!" shout her students.

"Ten pennies equal to?"

"Dimes!" they respond.

Ishaq's classroom is in use all day, every day — as are all the classrooms in this school. Principal Haroon Baqai says Al-Huda has "maxed this building out."

"We're using every single room, every single closet," he says. "Some closets have been converted into office space. Some rooms that were really not classrooms, we had to convert them into classrooms."

The Al-Huda school is part of the Dar-us-Salaam Muslim community, which was founded in Silver Spring in 1995. Since then, it's moved to College Park, and its school for pre-K through 12th graders has grown from some two-dozen students to nearly 650.

Baqai says this growth has created a space crunch that doesn't just affect students. Their parents and other adults in the Dar-us-Salaam community have no room at the Al-Huda campus for their prayer services, so they hold them several miles away in a Knights of Columbus hall.

Dar-us-Salaam means the abode of peace, or the home of peace.

So the leaders of Dar-us-Salaam would like to move to a site in a rural part of Howard County, to the site of a former Catholic School called Woodmont Academy. They say the move will allow them to grow and expand the services they offer to their members. Eventually, they'd like to build a mosque.

But some residents near the site are opposed to those plans, and have created a formal coalition called Residents for the Responsible Development of Woodmont, or RRDW.

Development opposition

Chaun Hightower has lived a few miles from the Woodmont Academy since 2005, and is on the executive board of RRDW.

"The idea of having what looked like a really huge community being built out here didn't seem to fit with the landscape," she says.

RRDW members say their big concern has to do with zoning. Allowing a new large-scale development at this site, they worry, might open the floodgates to other big developments in some of the last large tracts of open space in Howard County. Hightower says the opposition is all about development, not religion.

"Our issues as it relates to the purchase has nothing to do with the fact that this is a Muslim community, nor does it have anything to do with the religion as a whole," she says. "Our issue is land use."

Paul Skalny, an attorney working with RRDW, says the group would be fine with Dar-us-Salaam's move to Cooksville if it'll agree to use the land according to the more conservative zoning rules that applied to Woodmont Academy.

"This is really about setting a precedent in the western part of this community, and allowing a zone to become prevalent where it really doesn't belong," he says.

'Home of peace'

Minhaj Hasan, a board member of Dar-us-Salaam, says he and other members of his community are still hoping Howard County officials will grant their zoning request. But he also says preliminary concerns about the size of their plan — including a proposed mosque that could hold thousands of people — have been overblown.

"If we can have a site that accommodates unlimited growth, of course, why wouldn't anyone have that? But we recognize the reality of our growth, it's not going toward 5,000. There's no Islamic center in the country that gets 5,000 congregants."

And Hasan wants residents in Cooksville to know that, if the sale of the Woodmont Academy goes through, Dar-us-Salaam will work hard to be a good neighbor and build strong ties to the local community.

"Dar-us-Salaam means the abode of peace, or the home of peace," he says. "So that's what we want — we want people to know us, not from our pamphlets and our marketing material on our website — but we want people to know us when they interact with us."

He'll find out soon whether that interaction is in the cards. Howard County planning officials will make a recommendation on the zoning of the Woodmont site to members of the County Council in the coming weeks, and the Council is expected to vote on the matter by this summer.

[Music: "New Life" by Dawud Wharnsby]

Photos: Dar-us-Salaam Community


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