Rural Wyoming Town's First Mosque Sparks Anti-Muslim Rhetoric
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Muslims in Gillette, Wyo., recently opened the town's first mosque. It is set in a house, and it didn't get much attention at first. But then, several residents formed a Facebook group called Stop Islam in Gillette. Fears of a terrorist attack in America are higher than at almost any time since 9/11. And that has led to anti-Muslim rhetoric across the country, including in rural Gillette. Wyoming Public Radio's Miles Bryan reports.
MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: Stop Islam in Gillette founder Bret Colvin says he started the Facebook group for one reason.
BRET COLVIN: Well, I don't want Jihadis in my neighborhood.
BRYAN: Colvin's a Catholic ex-Marine. He lives in this small house with a roommate and a few pet turtles, swimming in the tank behind him. Like a lot of people, he's afraid that refugees from countries like Syria could be resettled in his community.
COLVIN: We don't want to take the chance of having a problem.
BRYAN: But that can't happen here because Wyoming is the only state without a refugee resettlement program. Still, Colvin says he's worried.
COLVIN: Why let them all in and then see what happens when you can just nip it in the bud?
BRYAN: But without any refugees in Wyoming to focus on, it's Gillette's local mosque that's been on the receiving end of much of the group's attention. Last month, Colvin confronted local mosque-goers during Friday prayer. Since then, his Facebook group has grown to about 350 members. In online posts, group members have belittled local Muslims and even threatened to throw bacon at the mosque. The sentiment is more complicated in person, in downtown Gillette.
SCOTT WADE: Everybody's entitled to their freedoms and everybody should practice what they believe.
JAMES HANCE: It's basically a terrorist group. Their religion don't like us.
CAITLIN BLACK: We definitely shouldn't refuse any religious beliefs to anyone. On the other hand, with everything that's been happening, I don't blame people that are a little nervous about the mosque.
BRYAN: That was Scott Wade, James Hance and Caitlin Black. One of Gillette's few Muslims is Aftab Khan.
AFTAB KHAN: The rhetoric has gotten so bad, so negative, so harsh that it's just stunning everybody. I mean, it's just unprecedented. It's never been that way for us, even after 9/11.
BRYAN: Khan says when people talk about Muslims around here, they're usually talking about his family. There are about 30 Khans living in Gillette. A couple of them bought an old house and turned it into the town's mosque. The family is originally from Pakistan, but they've been in Wyoming since 1960's. Aftab grew up here.
KHAN: I went to the University of Wyoming, and I've been in Gillette for the last six - almost 16 years. I mean, you can't ask for anybody who's, basically, you know, been more of a Wyoming person than me. My whole life I've been here.
BRYAN: Aftab runs a hotel in town. He says Gillette's been a great place to raise a family, until recently.
KHAN: People have attacked my family and threatened us physically. I'm not going to sit here and deny the fact that I'm a little bit nervous and a little bit worried.
BRYAN: Each Friday, Aftab and other local Muslims gather at the mosque for prayer. During a recent sermon, a heavyset white man knocks on the front door. Erich Schlup's been reading a lot about this place on Facebook. He says he's here because he doesn't know anything about Islam, and he wants to learn.
ERICH SCHLUP: Honestly, from what little I've seen, because I caught the tail end of the...
SCHLUP: ...The sermon was - it's not entirely unlike what I've experienced when I've gone to church.
BRYAN: Speaking outside the mosque, Schlup says he's lived in Gillette for years and grew up Baptist. His cousin is part of the Stop Islam in Gillette group, which recently changed its name to Stop Forced Syrian Immigration to Gillette. But Schlup says after coming here, he has no reason to be nervous. The Gillette residents that are afraid, he says, might benefit from doing the same.
SCHLUP: Everyone wants to be peaceful and coincide with each other. And how can we do that without understanding each other? So why not come check it out and learn a few things?
BRYAN: Organizers of Gillette's mosque say other locals looking to learn about Islam are welcome any time. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Gillette, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.