One small town's battle for tolerance
SIDNEY CENTER, N.Y. – The cemetery lies beneath a grove of maples on a hill overlooking the farm. On a crisp November day in 2009, it received its first guest — a 28-year old stonemason killed in a car accident two days earlier.
Somberly, his Sufi Muslim brethren carried his coffin up the hill, their colorful turbans and baggy tunics a striking contrast to the rolling hills all around. Beneath a vibrant green headstone — the color of the Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani order, which runs a 50-acre farm and mosque here — the shrouded body of Amir Celoski was lowered into the ground. Mourners bowed their heads and prayed: May he rest in peace.
But that was not to be.
Instead of peace, Celoski's burial ignited a war — one that would erupt nine months later, hurling Sidney into the national spotlight, bitterly dividing some residents while transforming others who say their lives and their town will never be the same.
It all began quietly enough at a sparsely attended meeting of the Board of Supervisors last summer, after a second burial in the cemetery. At the height of a national debate about a mosque near ground zero, town leaders voted unanimously to investigate the Sufi graves on Wheat Hill Road.
The Sufis had followed proper procedures and received burial permits. But that didn't deter town Supervisor Robert McCarthy from calling the graves illegal and suggesting the bodies might have to be disinterred.
"You can't just bury Grandma in the backyard under the picnic table," he said.
With that, McCarthy, a 70-year-old retired businessman, became a poster child for Muslim-bashing everywhere. MSNBC host Keith Olbermann denounced him as "worst person in the world." Satirist Stephen Colbert direly warned viewers about Muslim vampire "sleeper-in-coffin-cells" infiltrating the Catskills.
Locals watched in horror as Sidney was branded as Islamophobic, backward and ignorant.
"It was sickening," says attorney Tom Schimmerling, 58, the son of Holocaust survivors, who immediately offered to represent the Sufis free of charge. "McCarthy was acting like this was Selma, Ala., in the '60s and he was Bull Connor."
"At first I felt so ashamed of my town," said Richard Cooley, 48, whose Main Street jewelry store has been in the family for 125 years. "And then I saw how the community reacted and I thought how amazing the way we pulled together to do away with something so wrong and make it right."
For in the days and weeks that followed, a spirited, almost intoxicating sense of mission seemed to surge through Sidney, 150 miles north of New York City. Though the town Board of Supervisors hastily dropped the cemetery issue, it had set in motion something it couldn't contain. People reached out, not only to Sufis, but to each other. They set up websites, bonded on Facebook, launched petitions to impeach McCarthy and investigate town government.
They packed into the civic center for a chaotic town meeting, where — as more than a dozen Sufis looked on — about 150 locals yelled at their board. "Shame on you!" they cried. "Apologize!"
Many had never been to a town meeting before. Many had never met a Muslim.
And they trekked to the Sufi center eight miles outside town, to sip tea with the sheik, to vow that Sidney, population 6,000, will be in the spotlight again, this time as a shining example of tolerance and understanding.
It's 6 a.m on a Saturday and business is brisk at the Trackside diner, where pancakes and bacon cost less than $3, political opinions are as strong as the coffee, and the roar of an approaching train occasionally drowns out conversation.
Here regulars, including a core group of McCarthy supporters, meet every morning for breakfast. These days, the main topic of conversation has been, as one man jokingly put it, "the turbans on top of the hill."
The door opens and two men in turbans walk in. The diner falls silent, just the clinking of silverware as people bury themselves in their breakfasts.
Though he has only been to the diner once before, everyone recognizes the taller man — Hans Hass, the chief spokesman for the Sufis and chief thorn in McCarthy's side.
Lately Hass, 40, seems to be everywhere — talking with national media, writing letters to town leaders and state officials, attending meetings of the newly formed "Concerned Citizens for Responsible Sidney Government," filing freedom of information requests. His unruffled manner and calm, authoritative voice have captivated the crowd as he persistently confronts McCarthy with the facts and the law.
As captain of the local ambulance squad, volunteer firefighter, and roofing contractor, Hass was already a familiar face in town. Now, almost overnight, he has become a community leader with many urging him to run against McCarthy in the next election.
At the diner, Hass is greeted by Carrie Guarria, a 45-year-old college assistant administrator who invited him after becoming increasingly disturbed about comments she heard at breakfast — that all Muslims are terrorists, that the Sufis have pictures of Osama Bin Laden at their center, that the town would be better off if they dug up their graves and left.
If ever there was a time to shatter caricatures and prejudices, Guarria thought, it was right now, right here in Sidney.
Sitting at her table is Bill Howes, an 81-year-old retired excavator, in work boots and baseball cap. He grunts good morning at Hass, who sits down across from him. Soon the two men are bantering about sports and exchanging mildly racy jokes as they dig into pancakes and eggs.
But Howes' demeanor changes when the conversation turns to McCarthy. "Someone has to shake the town up," he says, defending McCarthy's efforts to rein in spending in areas like the hospital and a local campsite. "It's not just your cemetery deal."
"But he told reporters all over the country that what we did was illegal, and it wasn't," Hass protests.
Howes excuses himself and moves to another table. Later, he will boast about having breakfast with "those Muslim guys" and will tell people how nice they seemed. But he has no plans to take up Hass' invitation to visit with the sheik.
Other diners invite Hass to join them. Soon a dozen people are engaged in a lively debate about politics, religion and the fate of their once thriving riverside factory town. Old-timers lament that the cemetery controversy is just the latest in a string of misfortunes, including the recession and a 2006 flood.
They ask Hass about his background, and he tells them of growing up in South Portland, Maine, of going to college in Connecticut, of embracing Sufism after years of searching other religions and ways of life.
Before leaving, he hands out his business cards and invites them to visit the center, called a dergah.
Later, Hass drives the back roads, checking on a roofing job, stopping by the homes of elderly dairy farmers to inquire about their health and their cows, picking up his mail at the post office. Everywhere, he is greeted warmly.
But there is one place he does not feel welcome — the Jess F. Howes building supply store in Sidney Center. Earlier in the year, Hass says, he asked the owners to remove offensive Muslim jokes scattered on the counter. They did, but he felt it was done reluctantly. Now Hass refuses to shop there.
Inside the store, a man behind the counter glares at a visitor, gives a phony name and snaps "no comment" when asked about his Sufi neighbors just a short drive up the hill.
The Sufis settled in the hamlet of Sidney Center in 2002, following Sheik Abdul Kerim al-Kibrisi, 54, who moved here after years of hosting services in New York City. Quietly, they worked their sprawling sheep and cattle farm, isolated for the most part, relatively unnoticed by the larger community.
They converted the enormous red barn into a mosque. Five times a day, a lone man in a turban stands outside chanting, his deep, mellifluous voice ringing across the fields as he calls the faithful to prayer.
Inside, the mosque is a stunningly beautiful place, glowing with colors and warmth, the sweet smell of incense blending with that of a smoky wood stove. Green and gold tapestries drape the walls, which are covered with pictures of sheiks and saints and elaborate calligraphy depicting passages from the Quran. Oriental rugs and cushions cover the floor.
A naturalized American who was born in Cyprus, the sheik is a genial man with a jeweled purple turban, flowing dark tunic and long gray beard. His dark eyes sparkle as he tells his story, of how he first saw the dergah in a dream.
Friday's Jummah service — the most important of the week — lasts about 40 minutes, the men bowing and praying in front. The women, some in colorful headscarves, others in burqas, pray behind a thin curtain in the back.
Afterward, the curtain is pulled aside and everyone drinks sweet Turkish tea and listens as their sheik speaks of tolerance, the perils of ego — and the controversy consuming the town. His deep, gravelly voice fills the room.
"What is happening right here in Sidney," he says, "can show the whole world, that we can live peacefully as Muslims and non-Muslims, that we can share the same land, that a small town in America can show that the whole country is not mired in Islamophobia."
The group of about 30 men and 10 women listen attentively. They come from all backgrounds and cultures — American-born converts as well as Muslim immigrants. Most live and work locally, visiting the dergah for services. Others drive from New York and New Jersey, where the order has another dergah.
All say the furor over the graves has imbued them with a renewed sense of hope for their country and their town.
"It fills my heart," says Erdem Kahyaoglu, a strapping 31-year-old, who grew up on Long Island and became a Sufi as a college student. He chokes up as he describes his joy and astonishment that, as he wrote to one of his new Facebook friends, neighbor Jenneen Bush, "you stood up for us and you don't even know us."
"Honey," Bush wrote back. "I just stood up for what is right. And I want to get to know all of you."
Sufism is a mystical tradition in Islam; the order says its mission is to live a quiet, simple life of prayer and contemplation. But the Sufis know they are being watched.
They've heard their share of taunts: "Terrorists, go back to your own country." They've had their share of police calls: a suspicious man in a turban spotted sitting by the dam; a suspicious man in a turban making a cell phone call next to a power plant. An FBI agent has visited, impressing them with his knowledge of Islam.
Still, they hear the rumors — that they are storing weapons, that they are a cult, that they are planning something evil.
If only more people would visit, get to know them as individuals. They would meet Bilal, once a shy, skinny kid from New York City who was scared of sheep, now he is in charge of the animals; Abdullah, the beekeeper; Talatfathima, whose luminous eyes peer from her black burqa as she giggles at the antics of her 14-month-old son; Bilques Mohamed, the oldest member at 85, who shuffles into the mosque every day pushing her walker, and her son Bayram, a former New York City cab driver and the mosque's resident comedian, who entertains everyone with priceless impersonations of McCarthy.
As Maryem Brawley, the sheik's wife, told town officials, "No one called. No one wrote a letter. No one knocked on our door. You just assumed that we were doing something illegal. You made assumptions about us that were not true."
Brawley, 60, who was raised Roman Catholic in New Jersey and turned to Sufism in the mid-1990s, works for IBM and rarely had much interaction with locals. But lately that has changed.
People have written letters of support, have reached out in e-mails, have moved her to tears with their compassion and goodwill.
"We were all sort of strangers before," she says. "And now we are becoming friends."
It is not a friendship that appeals to everyone.
In cowboy hat and wind-breaker, Bob McCarthy strides into the Sidney Golf and Country Club, a creaky clapboard building that looks as though it has seen better days. The guys at the bar offer friendly nods. Diners pat him on the back and tell him what a good job he is doing. The waitress knows his order — cup of soup and hamburger, half of which he will save for his chocolate Labrador mix, Kelly, who waits patiently in his gray pickup truck outside.
Here McCarthy, a stocky, red-faced man with snow white hair, can be comfortable. No one is yelling at him to account for gaps in budget figures, or to resign. There are no guys in turbans denouncing him as a bigot.
"It had nothing to do with the fact they are Muslim, I was just trying to keep tax dollars down," says McCarthy, who once ran a business making custom golf-putters.
McCarthy has no political experience — he first ran for office last year — and, he says, he has no political agenda other than to cut taxes and spending as much as possible. The cemetery affair, he says, was blown out of proportion by the media.
McCarthy makes no apologies for his pugnacious manner. He says he doesn't care that fellow board members issued a statement saying he needed to work on his "people skills," or that he is lampooned daily on a Facebook site called Impeach Bob McCarthy.
"It's not a popularity contest," he says, though he admits that "all this stupidity" has upset his wife.
McCarthy ran for office on a platform of "transparency in government" and he insists that is what he is trying to do, though a recent budget workshop session, hastily posted the night before, was held at 7:30 a.m. Hass showed up, mocked his lack of transparency and accused the board of holding an illegal secret meeting.
Hass further needled McCarthy by walking into a recent Sunday service at the First Baptist Church, wearing his turban, and infuriating McCarthy's wife, who worships there. Hass says it was a chance to reach out to people he ordinarily wouldn't meet. He describes a fruitful exchange with the pastor, who told him the controversy had prompted him to start reading the Quran, and with elders who explained the history of the church.
McCarthy snorts in disbelief. He questions whether Hass is truly a Muslim, or simply "a jerk fueling things for his own personal agenda."
Yet McCarthy's agenda has caused consternation even among fellow Republicans. Earlier in the year he made headlines when he publicly opposed funding for the local Stop-DWI program.
"Cell phones are a worse menace," McCarthy says defensively, as he finishes lunch and heads back to his truck. Kelly barks excitedly in the front seat. McCarthy's eyes soften.
"I could kill Mother Teresa and this dog would still love me," he says, before driving away.
That night McCarthy will be in the hot seat again, at yet another tumultuous town meeting at the civic center.
In a move that appears tone deaf to some, incendiary to others, the board has decided to introduce a new law — the first of 2010 — concerning private burials on private land. Board members assure the Sufis that their cemetery will not be affected, but in two weeks, they have simply traded one angry crowd for another.
Tempers flare as people furiously demand answers. Accusations fly back and forth, and there is little sense of dignity, democracy or order. With a few exceptions, the only people remaining calm are those wearing turbans.
Hass addresses the board. Sarcastically, he suggests giving the new law a catchy name, something folks will remember.
"How about ... you can't bury Grandma in the backyard under the picnic table law?"
McCarthy winces. The crowd erupts. It's going to be another long night.
Even some of Hass' supporters wonder privately if he is pushing things too far. He admits that he is enjoying the political theater, but insists there is a serious purpose to his actions. A shift is happening in Sidney, Hass says, and he is trying to harness it, to educate people, to use this controversy as a springboard for lasting change.
And, Hass says, the experience has changed him personally — made him feel even more proud of being both American and Muslim, and more determined to play a bigger role in his community.
Skeptics say all this goodwill and tolerance — not to mention efforts to oust McCarthy — will fade, disappearing into memory as winter sets in and people burrow back into their lives.
Others disagree. Many say events have changed them profoundly.
Jenneen Bush, 41, who had never been to a town meeting or met a Muslim before, is reading about Sufism and planning to bring her grandchildren to dinner at the dergah. Floyd Howard, 63, felt such a surge of passion for his hometown that he momentarily forgot about his cancer. He joined the Historical Society — a gesture of sorts — simply to be more engaged in town affairs. It promptly named him president.
Real estate agent, Jackie Rose, 52, who resigned from the Republican Town committee in disgust over McCarthy's leadership, shocked her 21-year-old son by driving alone to the dergah. It was the first time she had ever been in a mosque or met a sheik.
"Weren't you scared?" her son asked. "No," she told him. "There has been too much ignorance and fear. We have to take a stand, make friendships and get along."
Tom Schimmerling, the Jewish lawyer, feels the same way. Sidney's saga prompted him to dig up an old movie — the 1947 classic "Gentleman's Agreement" — about a journalist (played by Gregory Peck) who goes undercover as a Jew to research anti-Semitism in New York.
Watching the movie, Schimmerling had an epiphany. He plans to take a few weeks off to roam the country in his new turban — a gift from the Sufis — and explore what it's like to be Muslim in America in 2010.
He feels an overwhelming pride, he says, "that a small town in Delaware County could rise up in support of what is right."
Schimmerling says this on a rainy Thursday night in November, as he lingers with a small group of people at the civic center. They are pondering the aftermath of the latest meeting, which broke down in pandemonium a short time earlier. They are debating the future of their town.
"Change is happening," says a retired plant manager, Joe Cardinal. "But there has been too much yelling and shouting and finger-pointing. It's going to take time for the town to heal."
Up at the dergah, a very different gathering is taking place. It is the one-year anniversary of the death of Amir Celoski, the first man to be buried in the Sufi cemetery. Family members have traveled from New Jersey to pay tribute.
Tearfully, they remember an exuberant young man who hoped to move to Sidney with his fiancee and raise a family in the community he loved.
Aviska Celoski says she wept for days at the thought of her son's body being disinterred. Now, she says, the family feels so heartened by the outpouring of support, they plan to move to Sidney permanently. In a strangely comforting way, the controversy — and the good that has come of it — has given her son's death meaning.
The men form a semicircle around the sheik's deputy, Lokman Hoja, a gracious, soft-spoken Malaysian man of 39. Women sit in the back. Lights are dimmed, heads bowed and everyone falls silent as Hoja reads a sermon from their grand sheik.
Live quietly, the holy man exhorts. Live a life of gentleness, of tolerance, free from anger and ego.
Eyes closed, the men and women begin chanting "La ilaha ilallah" ("There is no God but God") a rich, undulating melody that prompts some worshippers to sway softly in the dark.
Their voices rise. The smell of incense wafts through the room. The rain beats outside.
Here, in a converted barn on the top of Wheat Hill road, anger, ego, and the heated passions of the past weeks and months seem a world away.
Helen O'Neill, a national writer for The Associated Press based in New York, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.