Architecture and Religious Bias: A California Case Study

In the green hills east of San Francisco, a group of peaceful Sufis proposed a gigantic sanctuary in the town of Saranap. Many Saranap homeowners resisted, claiming their semi-rural, unincorporated village of native oaks was being taken from them, blemished, they said, by a bubble-looking building straight from the Buckminster Fuller playbook, if Fuller was from Azerbaijan. The Sufis felt discriminated against, and when they dug in their heals, the kind, quiet religious order showed a newly aggressive side of its personality. At the heart of the battle were issues of domain and inclusion that lie at the heart of America itself: who gets to decide who becomes part of a community or not? Why do communities tolerate one religion over another? No surprise that race, class, and wealth are involved. Oh, and the Cheesecake Factory’s wealthy CEO. At The FADER, Amos Barshad tells this story of clashing cultures and religious bias.

But ugly, explicit religious hatred would surface. “The Sufis’ project is a mosque with teachings from the Koran,” railed a fortysomething man named Steven, incoherently, in one meeting. “What other buildings in the area are made of glow-in-the-dark circles, to no end, like the sign of infinity, the time our neighborhood will be dealing with this monstrosity? We don’t care that you eat a lot of cheesecake.” Then he laid down what sounded like a threat.

Others had argued that construction would trigger aggression and cause permanent hearing loss in children, or force homes teetering off the sides of cliffs. Steven, dressed mildly in a white polo shirt and sweater vest, went further: he promised that if construction somehow harmed his own family, “I will make sure there is hell to pay.”

Later in the same session, Pascal Kaplan of Sufism Reoriented took to the lectern. Dapper in a light summer suit, speaking calmly and quietly, he recalled his doctoral studies in theology at Harvard, where he’d read extensively about “unintended religious bias.” He explained that it comes “not out of malice” but simply because people are “unfamiliar with the tenets, symbols, and theology” of the faiths they are biased against. Respectfully, he pushed back.

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