Wheatfield, New York: plan for Islamic cultural center provokes hate calls

WHEATFIELD — Town Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe released a letter to his constituents Wednesday, saying the town has no role in approving or blocking an Islamic cultural center at a former restaurant. The letter was issued in reaction to a few strongly negative comments from residents. “I’ve received two of what I would consider hate calls, and one email,” Cliffe said.

Town Attorney Robert J. O’Toole said he got some calls, too. “What we got are calls that were opposed to the center because of who the people are and because of their religion,” O’Toole said. “There was one call from a person who said he didn’t consider Islam a religion.”

Cliffe told The Buffalo News, “One crazy or two crazies in this world, that’s not too surprising.” He wrote in his letter that one of the comments he received was, “Don’t you know we are at war with these people?” O’Toole, who said he is a lay preacher at local Presbyterian churches, commented, “We’re not at war with all Islam. We’re at war with some people who happen to be Muslim who may not have the proper understanding of their own faith.”

Suzanne Guenther, who was co-owner of the former Suzanne’s Fine Dining, said she has gotten quite a few calls, too. “I just think people are getting out of control,” she said. “How can you hate someone you don’t even know? Every nationality deserves a chance.”

The head of the Islamic Center of Western New York, Mohammad Salem Agwa, said he intends to hold a public meeting at a time and place to be determined. “This would be a center for interfaith gatherings, for Muslims and non-Muslims,” Agwa said.

Cliffe wrote in his letter, “Simply put, neither I nor the Town Board have any function in the sale of this property. We did not invite Mr. Agwa to make this purchase, nor do we envision a problem with this purchase.” Cliffe said the sale to the Islamic Center of Western New York was a private transaction and required no town approval.

Agwa made an application to the town Planning Board, which determined Oct. 1 that there was no need for a vote under the terms of the town’s planning and zoning code. “It’s a conforming use,” Cliffe said. The Islamic Center’s plan calls for banquets and gatherings, similar to Suzanne’s.

Agwa, who teaches Arabic two days a week at Niagara University, also is listed as the imam of a mosque on Pierce Avenue in Niagara Falls. Cliffe said the plan for Suzanne’s does not call for it to become a mosque, although prayer may occur there. The center is to be open seven days a week.

Cliffe said he got that information from talking to Agwa’s son, Ahmed Agwa, who runs a chain of electronics stores, for about two hours before the plan became public. “We had a really good chat,” Cliffe said. “He’s really proud of his Egyptian heritage.” The younger Agwa, who did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday, told Cliffe he was raised in New York City.

The supervisor’s letter said of the younger Agwa, “As am I, he is also very concerned with world events, and wants to work with youth here to teach understanding and respect for elders, for religions other than Islam and respect for government. He wants to teach about Islam, teach about the Koran and teach Arabic to anyone who may be interested, including Christians and others who simply want to know more about Islamic life.”

Guenther said last week that she and her husband, Kevin, were not looking for a buyer when they received an unsolicited purchase offer from Agwa. They decided to accept it and retire after 30 years in the restaurant business.

Cliffe wrote in his letter, “Dr. Martin Luther King often spoke about seeing a man for the content of his character. From what I can discern from a two-hour discussion, I believe that Mr. Agwa is a man of good character, that he has a vision that is good for all of us. The best hope for getting along in the future is for followers of Islam to have a frank and open dialogue with Christians and others in a setting of respect for each other. As we move forward I will certainly keep my eyes and ears open, but (I will) do so with understanding and hope for peace for all.”

Buffalo News, 29 October 2014