SAN MARTIN -- One thousand years ago, the rich and populous city of Cordoba, Spain, could claim to be the medieval capital of intellectual freedom and religious tolerance. The children of Abraham, protected by an enlightened, Moorish caliph, lived peacefully and prospered together there as never before, and some today would add ever since.

"Jews, Muslims and Christians flourished there during the Dark Ages of Europe," said Hamdy Abbass, an Egyptian-American insurance agent. "The three religions got together and did a magnificent job in science and everything else."

So when Abbass' small community of American Muslims proposed building a new mosque, they chose to name it the Cordoba Center. They hoped to resurrect the old city's religious harmony for post-9/11 America in San Martin, a tiny, unincorporated town of about 7,000 people south of San Jose.

Instead, an angry debate erupted that lumped religious, environmental and development issues into a confounding ball of fury by high summer. Hundreds of people packed into three public meetings recently, clashing over incongruent concerns about what the mosque might create: terrorism and traffic, the contamination of ground water and the diminishing of American identity, misinterpretations of the Quran and changes to the region's master plan for development.

"A lot of the environmental issues are getting conflated with the fear of Islam," said Jan Bernstein Chargin, a Gilroy resident who approved of the mosque. "It's left me with a terrible taste in my mouth. This is a diverse community and we've got to learn to live with each other."


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Varietal concerns

Georgine Scott-Codiga, president of the Gilroy-Morgan Hill Patriots, a group of 100 or so local conservatives, had different concerns and another point of view. She opposed construction of the mosque, but on environmental and zoning grounds.

"We were called bigots for opposing that project," she said.

But soon, the debate zeroed in on a singular issue: The Cordoba Center would include a cemetery. That fact prompted worries that contaminants from decaying bodies would seep into the community's underground water supply. The discovery of toxins a few years ago had residents already on edge.

Eventually, the county's powerful planning commission approved the mosque Aug. 2, pending another groundwater study.

"We looked at this as a land-use issue in a fair, respectful way," chairwoman Mary Ann Ruiz said. The commission's vote was unanimous. If no one appealed by Aug. 17, the Muslim families would likely get the go-ahead in a few weeks.

Organized as the South Valley Islamic Center, they have held regular services for years in a converted barn. They first proposed the mosque in 2007, but the real estate bust and ensuing banking crisis derailed the plan. The group jump-started the project again two years ago.

With a 5,000-square-foot prayer hall, multipurpose room and a 2-acre cemetery, the Cordoba Center would sit on a grassy stretch of Monterey Road with a gentle slope. Abbass said prayers would be recited in Arabic but that everything else would be conducted in English because its members hail from 20 countries and ethnic backgrounds. English is their common language.

The future mosque, however, isn't likely to bring back Cordoba's golden age of harmony any time soon.

Melting pot?

Measured by its voting record, South County is the most politically and socially conservative part of Santa Clara County, which includes much of liberal Silicon Valley.

"This is a Christian country. This is an American valley," said Diane Dawson, 73, of Morgan Hill, who wrote two openly incendiary letters to the Morgan Hill Times in 2007. "I'm just suspicious that they're sneaking in to contaminate our country."

Although they've never met, James Fennell, of Gilroy, agrees. He and Dawson pointed out Quranic verses that make it clear to them that Islam's goal is to convert every American to the religion -- by force if necessary. As Christian conservatives, they believe the United States should be governed by Judeo-Christian values and the Bible.

"Every other religion in a country with an Islamic majority in power is repressed," Fennell said. "You have to draw the line somewhere. ... There's already a mosque in San Jose. They should go there."

To further "conflate" things, the Patriots group invited a controversial critic of Islam, Peter Friedman, to speak at the Gilroy public library Saturday. Scott-Codiga said the speaker can help them understand their Muslim neighbors.

"I don't know these people," she said. "I don't have anything against them."

Meanwhile, Abbass said the Muslim community can do better by inviting their critics for interfaith discussions, to share meals and raise money together for the poor. He's optimistic.

"Most people understand this is a melting pot," he said. "The last time I checked, San Martin was not Nazi Germany or even Afghanistan."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.