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Muslim group's bid for campground strikes a nerve in Iowa
In a simpler time, no one was alarmed about the youngsters and their adult leaders who hiked, paddled and camped along the shores of Coralville Lake at Camp Daybreak.
Now, though,the former Girl Scout summer camp--vacant for more than a decade--is at the center of an emotional debate laced with stereotypes and fear, uncertainty and distrust.
Muslim Youth Camps of America, a nonprofit group in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wants to use the site to build a 17,500-square-foot conference center, 10 cabins, a caretaker's residence and a 36-foot prayer tower.
But where the camp's promoters see a place for youth to play and learn about Islam in a natural setting, some northeastern Iowa residents see a potential breeding ground for terrorism.
The Army Corps of Engineers owns the 106 acres where the proposed $2 million camp would be built. Until a 1990 fire destroyed Camp Daybreak's lodge, the federal agency leased the heavily wooded tract to the Girl Scouts for $1 a year.
Since then, the narrow strip of land that runs along a dam-created reservoir has sat vacant. Rotting tent platforms and picnic tables are about all that remains of the former camp.
Corps officials in Rock Island, Ill., expect to decide early this summer whether to enter into lease negotiations with the Muslim group. Religious affiliation, they say, won't be a factor.
But in a post-9/11 world and with America at war in an Islamic nation, the debate about the camp has become much more than just how tall the buildings should be and how the sewage should be treated.
Distrust and fear of Muslims is palpable when paging through the more than 100 letters and e-mail messages that have been sent to the corps as part of a recent public comment period on the potential environmental impact of the proposed camp.
An extensive environmental impact study was completed late last year, and the corps recently asked for public feedback.
Though the majority of the comments were based on environmental concerns, some focused exclusively on the religion of the lease applicants and fears about possible links to terrorism.
"Granted, there are some good Muslims, but their track record of late is not all that good," a Cedar Rapids woman wrote in her letter opposing the camp. "They have taught their children to hate us."
Jerry Kuhn of Iowa City wrote that the camp could provide camouflage for terrorist training or attacks. He pointed to nearby dams, a nuclear power plant and athletic events at the University of Iowa as potential targets in a letter he sent to the corps and Iowa congressmen.
"This is in no way to suggest that the application group is connected to terrorists," wrote Kuhn, a World War II veteran and retired University of Iowa professor. "Rather, they could easily, unwillingly and unknowingly, provide cover in an area where law enforcement is already inadequate."
In an interview, Kuhnsaid he believes some racial or religious profiling may be justified after terrorists struck America.
`Different kind of era'
"We're in a different kind of era. You have to think in a different way," he said. "You have to look at it for how that group could become a cover for terrorists."
Nine out of 10 public comments received by the Army Corps oppose the camp, with about 15 expressing concern about terrorism. A petition signed by more than 200 people who oppose the project for environmental reasons has also been delivered to the corps.
Beyond that, citizens of North Liberty and surrounding Johnson County say they are opposed to the project, based on inadequate roads, traffic and environmental considerations--not the group's religious affiliation.
Bob Lisenbee, who lives a few hundred yards from the proposed camp, said his opposition is based mostly on environmental considerations, although he also worries about security involving a camp that could draw visitors from across the globe.
"If this was a heavily Muslim area and someone came in here with a big cross on top of their building, what would people think?" he asked. "The Girl Scouts just wanted to come out and study nature."
Most of the immediate neighbors say they are not concerned about terrorism. In fact, they fear comments about religion and terrorism made by others may ultimately hurt their efforts to fight the project on environmental grounds.
"It's unfortunate that those things are getting mixed in," said Lynne Kinney, who lives next to the camp and once took Girl Scout troops there. "Our objection is not who they are, but the hugeness of it."
Kinney and other neighbors say they're also opposed to the proposal's year-around nature, which they say suggests the project would be more conference center than summer camp.
The camp's promoters say conferences, retreats and weddings would be used to defray the cost for youth campers. They envision 120 campers, ages 8 to 16, during summer months and about 100 adults on most weekends during the rest of the year.
Organizers of the Muslim Youth Camps of America say they picked their name so that they could use the acronym MYCA, calling to mind the well-established YMCA.
"It is not exclusively for Muslims, just like YMCA is not exclusive to Christians," said Manzoor Ali, an engineer from nearby Cedar Rapids and chairman of the group's board of directors. "Whoever wants to join, irrespective of religion and faith, is most welcome."
Jalel Aossey, another board member from Cedar Rapids, said he envisions the camp as the first in a nationwide network. The proposed Camp Heritage, he said, would be the first Muslim camp in the United States to lease federal land.Muslim groups around the nation, including the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic relations, are closely following the group's efforts.
It makes sense to have the camp close to Cedar Rapids, Aossey said, because the community is home to a significant Muslim population as well as the Mother Mosque of America, built in 1934 and believed to be the oldest mosque still in use in the U.S.
When Aossey and others began talking about a camp for Muslim youth in the mid-1990s, he said, the idea seemed uncontroversial. The group thought of the camp as a way to help young people maintain their heritage and help educate Iowans about Islam.
"Sept. 11 has made it harder," Aossey said. "It distorts it and causes fear."
Aossey's family plans to tap business connections in Islamic countries to raise money for the project, as well as seek funding from American Muslims, including those who have attended Iowa colleges and universities.
Although any decision faces a likely court challenge, the corps appears supportive of leasing the land to MYCA. The government agency is no longer entertaining proposals from other groups.
An environmental assessment prepared for the corps found the camp would have "no significant impact," although neighbors strongly disagree, pointing to sewage, plans to cut down more than 400 trees and the reduction of habitat for an endangered bat species.
The public comments will be forwarded along with the environmental assessment to Col. William Bayles, commander of the corps' Rock Island district. He is expected to make a decision in June on whether to move forward.
Corps officials say they have previously leased land to groups affiliated with one religion and that religious affiliation will play no role in the decision.
"We as the federal government cannot discriminate against anyone based on religion," said Karen Hagerty, project manager for the corps.
Ron Fournier, a corps spokesman, said background checks with the FBI and ATF have been run on those involved with the MYCA effort.
"We've found nothing to raise any red flags," he said. "The security issues at this time are not of concern."
If the camp is built on corps property, Fournier said federal agents and sheriff's deputies would routinely check on the camp and its activities. "Any suspicious activity would be noticed," he said.