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If you've followed the news in the last few years, you've likely run across stories about controversial mosques. A proposed Muslim community center near Ground Zero in New York was relabeled by opponents as a mosque. And from Los Angeles to Nashville, people have made headlines with dismay about plans for mosques in their neighborhoods.
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But once the media spotlight fades, something surprising often happens. Authorities quietly decide to allow the mosque. The number of mosques in this country has actually grown. And it's not hard to find Muslim immigrants who say they found greater religious freedom in America than in the countries from which they came. Monique Parsons reports on how this story has evolved.
MONIQUE PARSON, BYLINE: It's not easy to build a mosque in America these days. Media executive Malik Ali saw this first hand back in 2004, when he sought approval to build a mosque in his hometown near Chicago. At a raucous, three-hour public hearing in Orland Park Village Hall, Ali heard incendiary comments like this one from Michelle Pasciak.
MICHELLE PASCIAK: And now the war has been brought to Orland Park. And Orland Park is facing a big injustice if this mosque goes through. You are bringing terrorism to our back doors where our children play.
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PARSON: In the end, Ali won the vote - all the votes, actually - and the Orland Park Prayer Center now overlooks a soybean field and a Catholic cemetery. It is one of 15 mosques built in the Chicago area in the past decade, and religion scholar Paul Numrich says just that fact may be bigger news than the zoning fights that make the headlines.
PAUL NUMRICH: I think this is the lesser-told story. The story that we hear is the controversy.
PARSON: On a sabbatical last year from his job teaching world religions at an Ohio seminary, Numrich got in his 2005 silver Chevy Malibu and racked up 2,500 miles driving around the Chicago area. He counted 91 mosques. A quarter of them were built as mosques, many of them proudly so, a rate that far exceeds the national average.
NUMRICH: What was really fascinating was at times I was going down a street looking for an address and out of the corner of my eye would see a mosque that was not on any list. It had opened up recently or it had moved or something.
PARSON: It's demographics that drive this story. An estimated 400,000 Muslims live in the Chicago area, many in wealthier suburbs.
But some observers see something else going on here: a lesson in good old Chicago politics. Abdulgany Hamadeh is a pulmonologist who moved here from Syria 30 years ago. First a county board turned down his proposal for a mosque in suburban Willowbrook. But after a high-profile interfaith press conference, a meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board, and some face-to-face schmoozing with county politicians, his revised plan got the votes.
ABDULGANY HAMADEH: You have to know the right people. You have to know the right channels of communication. And eventually, I really think you need to be on the right path, and then you will get what you want.
PARSON: It's a lesson the younger generation is quick to pick up on. In Chicago, the Muslim Federation is recruiting young lawyers for a new zoning task force.
Back in Orland Park, 34-year-old attorney Mohammed Nofal is a member of his mosque's board of trustees. He also serves as a commissioner in neighboring Tinley Park and as the Muslim co-chair of a local interfaith group. He says the mosques are assets to the community. He also argues that it was the specter of contentious mosque hearings that inspired many of his peers to get more involved.
MOHAMMED NOFAL: No different than how the young generation is taking the lead in the Muslim world and putting a new face on the Arab Muslim community. And this is the start of that.
PARSON: At least three mosques are currently seeking approval to build in suburban Chicago. As for Numrich, the next time he hits the road in his Chevy Malibu, he expects to find even more.
For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons in Chicago.
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