I see several old Southern Baptist and Methodist churches, some with graveyards, as I drive along in a small Southern town right outside of the city of Atlanta in Georgia. This town is famous for its historic plantation mansions and as a filming location for several Hollywood movies and television shows. I finally arrive at one specific cemetery spanning more than 100 acres off a country road. A fading signboard at the main entrance welcomes visitors with a prophetic instruction: “Be merciful to those on the earth, and the one in the Heavens will be merciful to you.” Muslims are buried here. Each grave is enclosed, separated from the others by wooden borders. The concrete block markers are engraved only with names and dates of birth and death. Two vegetable gardens border the burial grounds; the rest of the huge plot is a green forest.
In 2016, a local newspaper reported that a Muslim congregation had acquired this plot. Almost immediately, hundreds of local citizens demanded that county officials halt the so-called “invasion.” Protestors claimed the purchase was a “jihad” that would endanger their families. The majority-white protesters—including armed nationalist militia groups—demonstrated at the courthouse that Muslims would impose Sharia law. Similarly, some elected officials asserted that Islamic burial, which does not include embalming or a casket, was an antiquated environmental threat. These discourses against the Islamic cemetery revealed beliefs in a hierarchy of land use and regio-cultural practice. Rather than stopping the cemetery project, Muslims and their allies turned the dispute over cemetery land to build relationships, facilitating place-making processes for immigrant Muslims in the southeastern American landscape. The land-use conflict aimed at excluding Muslims became an impetus for a democratic process of inclusion.
The geographical and political context
During my ethnographic fieldwork in the larger metropolitan Atlanta, protesters in the Weelaune Forest were challenging the construction of the largest military-style police camp in the United States, dubbed Cop City. The activists claimed the new police institution would displace local communities of color. It would perpetuate structural white supremacism, which dates back to the removal of the Muscogee and Cherokee Nations from the forest to create plantations and, later, sites for prison labor. The state is also trying to force descendants of Islamic scholar Bilali Muhammad off their land on the coastal island of Sapelo, which was home to some of the first Muslims from Africa enslaved in the United States. Amid these disenfranchised communities’ struggles for land and local ecosystems, Georgians also witnessed growth in environmentally friendly technological initiatives, including the twenty-eighth Living Building and conservation burial grounds.
Georgia is also deeply rooted in its Southern history and “bible belt” religious traditions. Some residents take pride in the Confederate flag, and non-state actors and groups target non-Christian and non-white racial minorities, including Muslim Georgians. At the same time, some Georgians have also elected Muslims to the state capital. These histories, contradictions, and mixing of “traditional” and “progressive” cultural features make the southeastern United States an interesting place to understand Muslim Americans’ relationships with the land and environment amidst growing religio-nationalist movements that advocate their removal (e.g., in land-use disputes over cemeteries, funerary practices, and mosques).
My research involved working with the diverse Muslim American communities in Georgia who, like my family living there, are immigrants and citizens, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (Asian, South Asian, Arab, African, African Americans, and Euro-Americans) and includes the experiences of recent immigrants as well as those whose roots in North America go back hundreds of years, with supplementary trips to neighboring Tennessee and Alabama. Muslims have established an Islamic funeral home in larger metropolitan Atlanta, where they maintain sectarian Islamic cemeteries. My fieldwork included direct participation, interviews, site visits, and observations of funeral homes and burial services, Islamic cemeteries, and mosques. I also followed municipality hearings and continue to document the design process of the first regenerative mosque. I attended community events focused on civic engagement, social services, religious educational programs, and sustainability-related “green” activism, including ongoing efforts of Georgian Muslims supporting Cop City protesters and descendants of Bilali Muhammad in Sapelo Island. All this allowed me to document the histories and ongoing experiences of land disputes and better understand the spaces, places, practices, and phenomena related to religious land uses like Islamic cemeteries.
Land exclusion as spatial Islamophobia
Debates over land use for the construction of Islamic religious institutions—common in the United States—peaked during the 2010 anti-Sharia movement and later with the Trump presidency. Opposition to Muslim religious spaces is an example of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism influenced by the political propaganda that permeates American society. Local zoning laws have long been used as spatial barriers to constrain certain people’s access to space and limit economic and political rights. They are deployed (sometimes unsuccessfully) to block Muslims from building religious spaces. These disputes are examples of spatial Islamophobia—efforts to exclude Muslims from spaces perceived to belong to particular populations and heritages. Such controversies reveal the importance of place-based attachments to land and space.
Euro-Americans (especially in the southeastern United States) often feel a territorially-based sense of identity around historically constructed land ownership. Some white Americans worry about being replaced by Muslims (and other non-white populations) whom they see as foreigners, outsiders to so-called European heritage. Pride in the Confederacy, religious conservatism, and nationalism all play a role in the development of such territorially-based identities and domination. These Americans defend their place-specific history against groups they consider outsiders, even though Muslims of African descent have lived, labored on, and been buried in and mixed with the Georgian soil since before the founding of the United States.
Some Euro-Americans in Greater Atlanta defend Muslims based on universal liberal and normative constitutional claims to legal rights to religious burial. Some white Southerners who supported the Islamic cemetery were encouraged by their local church leaders to welcome new neighbors in accordance with Christian traditions. Therefore, this incident turned burial space into a political space of conflict. People of diverse backgrounds engaged in distinct political positioning between populism and constitutional traditions. It also generated debates about who belonged to the political community and the role of religion in public life in this Southern town. Finally, the debates revealed beliefs in a cultural hierarchy and contributed to environmental discussions about cemeteries and funerary practices.
The cemetery as a space for place-making and identity formation
The imam sat in his long white tunic with a red and white keffiyeh over his head. We were under a tree on the green lawn of his mosque, talking about how his community acquired the land. The plot was originally designated for residential and agricultural use. However, he later changed the design to include a cemetery, funeral home, mosque, school, organic farm, and some residences. The need for a separate community cemetery became clear after a traumatic incident in 2014. A young woman died of natural causes, but the authorities decided to perform an autopsy. The imam told me that they took her to a funeral home where “her body lay exposed, half-naked on a steel table in a cold room where male morticians prepared her body. When the sisters of our community saw her like this, they were sad.” His community then began searching for land for a cemetery and funeral home to provide end-of-life care by the community for the community.
My Muslim interlocutors rarely sent their loved ones to be buried in their countries of origin. They asked, “Why would we send them far away when we are settled and live here, have friends and families?” Furthermore, it was important for them to follow Islamic funerary custom, which calls for burying the deceased as quickly as possible. Burial in the United States became even more preferable among members of this community once Muslims started managing their own cemeteries.
As the final resting place for deceased community members, cemeteries are considered sacred spaces and help Muslim immigrants create a sense of place in the American landscape. They demonstrate the concrete significance and existence of Muslims, even after they die. Community members often see cemeteries as mediators of space that connect and maintain people’s relationships with deceased loved ones over generations. They create and recreate memories, advance traditions, and help develop emotional and social attachments. Even as Muslims experience placed-based exclusion, Islamic cemeteries—large green spaces sometimes on the outskirts of busy metropolitan centers—offer places to live with peoples of diverse faiths and racial backgrounds and integrate the dead into the material landscape of the country of settlement. The physicality of Islamic cemetery space disrupts the homogeneity of neighborhoods, and as symbols of Islam gives visibility to Muslim presence where there are no living Muslim residences. Islamic cemeteries shape people’s connections to a particular place and help build relationships.
Building relationships over the Islamic cemetery
At the time of the controversy in 2016, a lawyer encouraged the imam to take strong legal action against the city to send a message to city officials and protesters. However, the imam, like the church leaders, insisted on the prophetic traditions of resolving social conflict through outreach, patience, prayer, and neighborliness. He sent the town’s citizens an open invitation for a lunch conversation. Several community leaders visited his congregation, which was forty miles away from the disputed land. The imam insisted I meet with church leaders and local activists of Euro-American backgrounds, like Elaine (a pseudonym), who supported his community. Elaine wanted to meet the imam and his community to learn more about Muslims. She found the entire episode surrounding the cemetery land in her hometown “ridiculous” and spoke with her neighbors about religious freedom and the Christian values of welcoming new neighbors by writing to them to deepen mutual understanding:
The Imam’s daughter is the teacher at the female school. We spoke briefly about religion, and our faiths…Most of the conversation with the young ladies was about their education. One girl was studying American history…They wanted to know what we did together as a community. We told them about our movies on the Square with characters like the Grinch that Stole Christmas…They told us how much they look forward to being our neighbors.
Elaine, the imam, and allied residents attempted to diffuse tensions. While the spatial dispute aimed to remove Muslims, the conflict generated by the dead gave all parties opportunities to bridge differences. Groups involved in the dispute revealed how they wanted to be viewed, what mattered to them, and how they situated themselves in the world. The conflict over cemetery land is founded upon the historical racial, political, and economic structure of domination of the South that has excluded certain populations. While conflicts are not always what one wants to see, however, Rochelle Duford has argued that conflicts are a necessary part of social and political process of democratic life. This conflict allowed some people to come together to achieve mutual goals, shaping their views of one another.
The Islamic cemetery and American futures
The conventional American funerary customs are often thought to be scientifically modern. Emerging just over 150 years ago during the American Civil War, the funerary industry started embalming to preserve the body. Caring for the dead shifted from a private, family ritual into a distant and institutionalized ritual performed by funeral professionals. Conventional burials also take up vast amounts of land and cause environmental damage. Caskets made of durable materials are placed in a massive vault of concrete, steel, or bronze. The construction and transportation of these vaults and caskets create a permanent carbon footprint. Millions of gallons of highly toxic embalming fluid are inserted into the ground each year, increasing arsenic and formaldehyde levels in the soil, which harms both human health and the natural environment. The progressive, nature-focused “eco-death” or “green death” movement, of which Islamic burial tradition is a part, advocates against durable materials and embalming fluids and for a natural burial that helps grow plant life with minimal environmental impact.
Far from being archaic and unscientific, Muslim interment customs disrupt Americans’ hierarchical perceptions. Once considered environmentally safe, the conventional mortuary tradition of distancing humans from nature by sealing them off in durable material has become relegated to the dangerous category by environmentalists. Islamic funerary traditions were viewed as unsanitary relics from the past, but through these disputes, Islamic norms and values around death, dying, nature, and the environment become science-savvy for a sustainable future.
Public disputes over Islamic cemeteries facilitate place-making processes and encourage a sense of belonging that roots immigrant Muslims in the southeastern landscape. They affirm Islam as a lived experience for (Southern) Americans who do not share a faith or cultural heritage but live in close proximity to and encounter Muslims. Cemetery conflicts that question Muslims’ place in America and attempt to designate them as archaic outsiders with unhygienic practices are a necessary part of a democratic process that enables solidifying the presence and role of Islam in the American future.