Keene’s first mosque is set to open a week from today, but it still has some permitting issues to work out with the city.
Will Coley moved to Keene from Tennessee earlier this fall to found a mosque and interfaith gathering place, officially called Masjid al-Latiff and Interfaith Community Center, or the Malic Center.
The building, at 659 Marlboro St./Route 101 in Keene, was previously a single-family home, according to city records.
Coley said he’s been working to prepare the interior for its conversion to a house of worship. He expects painting and carpet crews in the next several days.
But the change in how the building will be used led to a tiff with the city this week.
On Thursday, Coley submitted an application for a permit to place a sign at the property, according to city records.
Shortly after, Plans Examiner Gary L. Schneider told Coley by email that he could not process the application, because Coley had not registered the property’s change of use with the city as required.
Initially, Coley vowed to place the sign anyway, in defiance of city regulations, if necessary. In two separate interviews with The Sentinel Thursday afternoon, he cast Schneider’s decision as an affront to religious freedom, invoked the American Civil Liberties Union and warned of negative publicity if Keene tried to halt the mosque.
But he walked back much of that defiant talk Thursday night, saying he plans to meet with City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins next week and work with city staff on the sign-permit issue.
Coley said he shifted his stance after hearing from local Muslims, who pushed for a more cooperative approach and fretted about negative press coverage before the mosque has even opened.
Coley converted to Islam in his 20s. Before coming to Keene, he was a radio host and full-time political activist with Muslims4Liberty, a libertarian advocacy group he helped found.
A first-time imam, Coley said he’s giving up political work to focus on his new role.
He said Thursday night that his earlier comments reflected the pugnacious instincts of the activist he was, not the serious, accountable religious leader he aspires to be.
“I will literally wash the body of every Muslim who dies in this town,” he said. “ … I am a servant to 20 families.”
In August, several Muslims with ties to the Monadnock Region expressed excitement at the prospect of a mosque in Keene. A previous drive to raise funds for that purpose stalled a few years back.
“I am very excited. I can’t wait,” Mohammed Ali, owner of Curry Indian Restaurant in Keene, said in August.
Amer Latif, a professor of comparative religion at Marlboro College in Vermont, said in August that a permanent house of worship could be an “anchor” for the local Muslim community, hosting not just prayers and sermons but Quran classes for kids and other programs.
But some locals expressed skepticism at the news — not out of opposition to a mosque, but concern about Coley’s connection to libertarian activists whom locals have collectively dubbed “Free Keeners.”
The most prominent of those activists, Ian Freeman, had a hand in Coley’s move to Keene. Over the summer, Freeman offered to donate the building on Route 101 so Coley could turn it into a mosque.
“We have a natural concern about the actions of Free Keene, as well as their behavior over the past few years,” David Kochman, the former president of the Congregation Ahavas Achim, a synagogue in Keene, said in August. He added he would support a “serious effort to bring a mosque to Keene.”
The Route 101 building is owned by the Shire Free Church: Monadnock, a self-described interfaith organization whose ministers — Freeman, Darryl W. Perry and Mark Edge — are well-known local libertarians.
The Keene Board of Assessors has denied the Shire Free Church’s request for tax-exempt status on a separate property it owns in the city at least twice, once in 2014 and again in 2015.
Coley expects the Shire Free Church to transfer ownership of the building to the Malic Center early next year and said he plans to seek tax-exempt status for the property.
Beyond the building donation and his personal acquaintance with them, Coley said Freeman and other activists are not involved with the Malic Center.
He also said he has no interest in joining Freeman’s sometimes-controversial activism, which has famously included heckling parking-meter attendants.
Asked in August, Latif, the professor of religion, said connections to libertarian activists wouldn’t necessarily be a sticking point for congregants, provided the mosque stays free of overt politicking.
“I think in some ways a lot of Muslims are fairly adept at separating ritual worship from (politics),” he said.
The 9½-foot sign Coley hopes to put up includes the name MALIC CENTER in large type; the word “al-latif,” or “the Generous,” in Arabic script; an icon with three blueish hills; and four lines of changeable letters.
Coley said the city declining to move forward with his permit application took him by surprise. He said he called City Hall before moving to Keene. According to him, city staff told him the only paperwork he would need to fill out was the sign permit application. He said he doesn’t know the names of the city employees he spoke with.
Early Thursday afternoon, Coley called a Sentinel reporter unprompted to complain about the city’s permitting decision.
In a second interview later that afternoon, Coley said he came to Keene to provide shelter and services to the homeless — a part of the Malic Center’s proposed mission — and give nearby Muslims a permanent house of worship, not to fight with City Hall.
But he said he would push back if provoked.
“There is no more fight on earth than there is in an East Tennessee Appalachian redneck,” Coley said.
He said he tried to follow the process as he understood it and would have filled out the right forms if he’d known about them earlier.
But, he argued, starting that process now would set back the opening of his mosque and impose an unacceptable burden on area Muslims’ right to worship, calling it a “First Amendment violation.”
“I’m scheduled to open Nov 18,” he said. “I will open Nov. 18,” even if “they want to come and arrest me for opening a house of worship.”
Later that night, Coley toned down his rhetoric, promised to work with the city and said he will try to be less of a “gladiator.”
Not a pushover, though.
“I will fight for our community’s rights if I have to,” he said. “But I’m not here to fight.”