WELCOMING FRIENDS Mohammed Azimi at his home in Winslow.
On a Friday afternoon during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, drivers stuck in traffic on Washington Avenue may be listening to drive-time talk-radio hosts ranting about the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York City. But it's a fair bet none of them know they're actually driving right past Portland's first Afghan masjid.
Other Islamic centers in town have existed for years, like an existing mosque near Ground Zero that is often mentioned in the escalating debate over whether lower Manhattan is "hallowed ground" for Americans, and, specifically, whether the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedoms permits barring Muslims from worshiping nearby.
Portland's masjid is pretty much invisible — for lack of funds, its exterior is that of the former occupant, a TV-repair shop. It has been in the news recently, though — not because of anti-Muslim protests like those in New York; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; and Temecula, California — but rather because of an obscure provision in Portland's zoning rules.
Maine first welcomed Afghan refugees in the mid-'80s, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since then the small group has congregated in some of Portland's more unsavory locations, including a bar basement. A few years ago, the members collectively purchased a building on Washington Avenue to use as a community center for prayer and education.
After some time, a neighbor filed a complaint against the masjid, saying its parking lot channeled rainwater onto her lawn. The innocuous disruption started a domino effect: City Hall required the owners to remove the asphalt lot, then realized the function of the building, and threw zoning regulations at the owners. This was a residential and commercial zone, city officials said; religious activities were not allowed.
The year-long dispute ended recently, thanks in large part to legal action backed by the Maine Civil Liberties Union. The city's regulations were overturned in the name of religious freedom, and the center is officially approved.
Sadhi Shir, who holds the deed to the community-purchased building, sits cross-legged with several community elders in the center's back room after Friday prayer. "Since the '80s we've been struggling to find a place, and get permission," he says in his measured, Afghan-accented English. "So this is great news for us. And coming during the time of Ramadan that is even more great for us. We are a small community and we need a place, we worked hard."
A Cape Elizabeth resident, he has always felt welcome in the area: "We don't have a problem with people, no. Maine is the best place to live, to raise a family" — he laughs and looks at his aging companions — "and retire."
When I mention media-blitzed diatribes against their faith from some high-profile Americans, Shir tilts his head as a father might when instructing a child. "We were here way way way before Ground Zero," he says. "One politician's opinion doesn't bother us. You know as well as us, history speaks for itself — this country was founded on religion. All of your ancestors, all of Sarah [Palin]'s ancestors, were persecuted in their former countries, and they came to this country to seek freedom and religious freedom. We know the Constitution and we know who is protecting us."