Town of Sidney wants to remove Muslim graveyard

Members of a Sufi community, Osmanlı Nakş-ı'bendi Hakkani Dergah, in Sidney Center, in Delaware County. Photo by Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani, via Flickr.

In a blockbuster of a story in the Huffingston Post today, reporter Andrew Reinbach exposes what looks a lot like an anti-Muslim witch hunt in the town of Sidney, in Delaware County. Reinbach reports that the town board of Sidney has been quietly attempting to eject a local Muslim cemetery attached to a Sufi religious community, even if it means digging up the bodies:

A town in upstate New York is trying to force a local Muslim religious community to dig up a small cemetery on its property and never bury anyone there again because it says it's illegal.

Reinbach finds that the town board itself approved the cemetery back in 2005 -- there is a document to prove it, he says. Still, the town supervisor Bob McCarthy is now telling Reinbach that the cemetery is "unauthorized':

"What we would not want is an unauthorized cemetery," says Bob McCarthy, town supervisor of the Delaware County town of Sidney, population 5,993. "We're taking care of a bunch of cemeteries, and they just came in and buried the bodies, and didn't go through...there's no funding there, it's not a standard kind of deal, and it's going to become a liability to the town."

Reinbach says the legal issue is a state that prohibits having cemeteries on land with a mortgage on it. Reinbach calls that a "technicality" and writes that it seems like overkill to make the Sufis dig up their graves to comply with it.

With enough attention, this story could become the upstate version of the Ground Zero Mosque debacle. Reinbach talks to the New York State Division of Human Rights and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, both organizations that could easily bring a lawsuit making this a state, or even national, controversy.

Reinbach explores the Center's relationship with the town of Sidney at some length, and even visits the town to ask people he meets about it. He reports that there is palpable ill-feeling:

Feelings in Sidney about the cemetery are certainly strong. Asking a sampling of people in Sidney drew responses ranging from a deer-in-the-headlights stare followed by categorically denying knowing anything about it, to a strong stare and a curt, "mind your own business".

And, he reports, there's a history of rock-throwing, threatening phone calls, and visits from various law enforcement agencies at the center's Sidney property, which is making the members of the Sufi community nervous.

Whether Sufism is even a part of Islam is somewhat open for debate, but many Sufis are mystics who are known for asceticism and contemplation. The Sidney community, which is called Osmanlı Nakş-ı'bendi Hakkani Dergahı, has been in Sidney since 2002.

According to its website, the center, which is referred to as a Dergah, is home to a group of semi-monastic followers of Sheikh Abdul Kerim al Kibrisi, a native of Cyprus who traces his ancestry back to the prophet Muhammad himself. The 30 or so followers of the center lead a bucolic, quiet existence, which they describe on their website as involving cooking, bee-keeping, milking cows, and listening to "classical Ottoman music:"

The sufi center is a place where the followers (murids) try to live as sincere believers serving each other and the one who represents the Holy Prophet, the sheykh and ultimately to serve the Creator. It is a place where they worship, work, and rest together, imitating the lifestyle of the first sufis, the People of the Porch, (Ahli Suffa). They lived an extremely simple lifestyle and their sole aim was to be in association with and in proximity to the Holy Prophet. That tradition has continued for over 1,400 years.

Members of the Sidney Dergah saw the name of Allah in a pond on their property in 2003 -- you can see a photo of it here, on the group's Flickr page. Below is a video on Vimeo of the Dergah's leader, al Kibrisi, talking in English about, ironically, tolerance:

Shaykh Abdul Kerim al-Kibrisi Sohbet - General Zikr - Rabi'Awwal 1430 - March 2009 from Yursil on Vimeo.

And here's a video tour of the Durgah's mosque, by YouTube user uel786: