A plan to build a Muslim youth camp on federal land in northern Iowa is generating heat from local citizens, including some who fear it could become a conduit for terrorism.
The newly formed Muslim Youth Camps Association wants to proceed with a $2 million project at a site formerly leased to the Girl Scouts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Muslim group plans to build a prayer tower, a 17,500-square-foot lodge and cabins to host as many as 120 young campers in the summer and conferences in the off-season.
The Corps is weighing public comment as it prepares to make a decision this summer. About 90 percent of the more than 100 responses opposed the camp, with about a dozen alluding to terrorism, the Des Moines Register reported.
In a letter to the Corps an Iowa congressmen, Jerry Kuhn of Iowa City said the camp could provide a camouflage site that terrorists could use as an attack base to hit a nearby dam, nuclear plant or stadium.
“This is in no way to suggest that the application group is connected with terrorists,” Kuhn wrote, according to the Register. “Rather, they could easily, unwillingly and unknowingly provide cover in an area where law enforcement is already inadequate.”
Corps officials in Rock Island, Ill., say religion won’t be a factor in their decision, and they appear inclined to approve the project, the Washington Post reported in March.
“We realize there are those out there who may not want this because of the religion of the people involved, but we are looking at it strictly in terms of environmental impacts,” Corps spokesman Ron Fournier told the Post. “That doesn’t mean we’re not concerned about terrorist activity, but we have reviewed the Muslim youth camp, and we’ve found no terrorist ties or associations that would prevent us from continuing with this process.”
Most neighbors also are trying to avoid sparking terrorism fears, the Des Moines Register said.
“We have tried to stick with just the facts,” said Lynne Kinney, who lives next to the camp and once took Girl Scout troops there. “We have tried to stick with the environmental issues and the road issues and the safety issues and the noise issues and the light issues – and we’re going to continue to stick with those issues.”
But Iowa City residents Matthew Power and Greg Evans have organized a group called Concerned Citizens of Johnson County, which is raising constitutional concerns.
“Although we fully support the constitutional right of all Americans to express and propagate their religious beliefs, we believe that it is inappropriate and unconstitutional to engage in such activities on federal property,” Power and Evans wrote in a letter to the Iowa City Press-Citizen. “To us it appears that allowing an overtly religious organization to promulgate the doctrines of Islam on federal grounds violates the establishment clause in our U.S. Constitution.”
Manzoor Ali, president of MYCA, rejected Power’s and Evans’s argument, the Iowa City paper said.
“It’s not a religious organization and that is not in our proposal,” Ali told the Press-Citizen.
However, Ali was quoted by the Register as agreeing with his critics that it would be more than a rustic camp.
“Our idea is that it will be an educational plus recreational camp on a solid foundation, not on just a tent foundation,” he told the Des Moines daily. “It should be like an institute where students from different cultures and inter-faith groups could come and exchange their ideas, open their minds.”
Nevertheless, the Corps insisted leasing federal land to a religious group does not conflict with the Constitution.
“We’ve leased to religious organizations before,” Fournier told the Register. “We’ll lease to them again. There is no constitutional prohibition against leasing federal lands to religious organizations.”