Feud may cast mosque beside swine

Times Staff Writer

While Kamel Fotouh makes plans to build a mosque on 11 acres of pasture here, neighbor Craig A. Baker is making plans of his own -- plans to hold pig races.

Baker figures he’ll need a tent, souvenirs and a track for the pigs to race on, all in full view of the Muslims next door, for whom pigs are forbidden as food.

As a bonus, Baker will host the competition on Friday -- a Muslim holy day.


This is not meant as a slur on Islam, Baker said. It’s a dispute between two neighbors. “A lot of people are making this into a racist situation, a redneck guy from Texas saying ‘We’re going to put on pig races,’ ” he said. “But I’m standing up for property rights.”

The trouble started in October, shortly after the Katy Islamic Assn. bought the land next to Baker’s marble business.

Katy, population 13,000, is a mix of largely white, middle-class housing developments, shopping centers and fields. Until now, it was mostly known as the home of a Rice Harvest Festival, an outlet mall and actress Renee Zellweger.

Like many drawn to a quieter lifestyle and lower housing costs, about 500 Muslim families have moved to Katy over the years and become an accepted part of the community. “I have never once felt discrimination,” said Fotouh, an engineer and president of the Katy Islamic Assn., who has lived here for 20 years.

Baker has even longer roots in Katy -- his family settled here during the 1800s and never left. The street that runs past the mosque site is named Baker Road.

Baker and Fotouh both say their first meeting was initially cordial. Baker readily agreed to remove his cattle from the association’s land. He also offered to donate granite fill for the group’s new driveway.

But Baker says that as their meeting wound up, Fotouh suggested that he move, in order to keep the place of worship separate from the business. Fotouh denies making such a request.

“We would not go to a land owner and say ‘We’re moving in, you move out.’ It does not make sense,” he said.

Baker insists that Fotouh asked him to leave, and has offered to pay for lie detector tests to prove it.

After Baker moved his cattle, Fotouh sent a thank-you gift -- a crystal clock. Baker returned it.

Baker, 46, said he was going to let the matter drop until a second incident occurred. At a homeowner’s association meeting, someone asked a mosque representative why Baker was asked to leave his land. The representative said that Baker was a liar and that the exchange had never happened, Baker said.

Fotouh said in an interview that Baker had not been called a liar.

But Baker believed he’d now been insulted twice, and decided to retaliate with an insult of his own: Friday pig races.

“I was called a liar in front of my friends, neighbors and prospective customers,” Baker said. “You don’t do that to someone from the South.”

Baker has since put up a website, “I will use my property as I see fit,” Baker wrote on the opening page.

He continued: “My only objective here is to protect my property rights and the American values and traditions that the Baker family has enjoyed on Baker Road since the early 1800s.

“It is high time that we as Americans ‘Take A Stand.’


Another resident’s website, anonymously registered, features an odometer-like counter that keeps track of attacks that “Islamic terrorists have carried out” since Sept. 11; a link to the FBI; and a link to a recording of the Muslim call to prayer. “Get used to it,” reads the tagline. “You will be hearing it 5 times a day 365 days a year.”

Affluent residents in neighborhoods near the planned mosque have said they are concerned that noise, traffic and flooding from the mosque property would lower their property values.

“Do I want something with a big gold dome behind my house? No. Do I want to keep hearing the call-to-prayer thing? No,” said Laura Hughes, a member of the newly formed Preserve the Lifestyle and Neighborhoods of Katy.

Hughes’ husband, Michael, bristles at the idea that residents’ objections are related to religious intolerance. “I don’t care if it’s a Catholic church or a mosque,” he said. “This home is my retirement, and I’m going to protect its value.”

However, Jackie Lockwood -- who works in the Hugheses’ neighborhood but lives elsewhere in Katy -- said the residents didn’t know what to expect and that was a problem. “It’s the terrorist connection.... I think people make that connection and they’re not happy about having a mosque here because of it.”

Recent polls show that residents here aren’t alone in their fears. About a quarter of respondents in a Gallup Poll in the summer said they would not want to live next door to a Muslim. A third thought that Muslims in the United States sympathized with Al Qaeda.

An independent poll released by the Council on AmericanIslamic Relations found in March that one in three Americans associated the word “Islam” with “war,” “hatred” or “terrorist.”

CAIR spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed said it was not uncommon for people to say that a mosque would bring down their property values. “In order to stay away from being labeled racist, they try to come up with a more sophisticated response to support their opposition,” she said.

Not everyone is against the mosque, said Katy Islamic Assn. spokesman Yousof Allam. After a recent homeowners meeting, “a lot of people stood up and shook our hands and said they supported us,” he said.

County Commissioner Steve Radack said that he had received fewer than 10 complaints and that residents were getting worked up about issues that could be solved. Traffic at the mosque can be controlled by off-duty sheriff’s deputies. Flooding and draining issues will have to be resolved before new construction can begin.

Fotouh said that daily calls to prayer would be made inside the building. “Someone will not be yelling on top of the roof,” he said.

He envisions a 25,000-square-foot mosque and community center that would offer after-school activities, housing for senior citizens, and play areas for children. An architect hasn’t been hired yet, and construction won’t start until a $900,000 loan for the land is paid off, he said.

Meanwhile, Baker, financed by wealthy neighbors, has offered to buy the land from the association for $1.2 million. Fotouh said he wasn’t interested in any deals the neighbors might put together.

“We are not moving no matter what we are offered,” Fotouh said. “We are here to stay.”

Baker said he has no intention of leaving either. “I’m going to live here for the rest of my life,” he said.

The pigs, 24 so far, wriggle and roll in the sun-warmed dirt in pens edging the property line.

“KIA Community Center Coming Soon,” reads a large yellow sign at the site of the future mosque.

Hanging from a trailer on Baker’s land is an equally large yellow sign. “Friday Night Pig Racin’, " it says. “Good Family Fun.”