Gillette's First Mosque Draws Anti-Refugee Anger

Dec 21, 2015

  

Gillette's first mosque is a converted house near a golf course.
Credit Miles Bryan

  


Bret Colvin says founded the “Stop Islam in Gillette” Facebook group for one reason.

 

“I don’t want Jihadis in my neighborhood.”

 

Colvin is a Catholic, and an ex-Marine. His wife passed away last year, and last month he lost his job as an oil field mechanic. Now he runs a home electronics repair business out of the small Gillette house he shares with a roommate, and a few pet turtles.

 

Bret Colvin with one of his pet turtles.
Credit Miles Bryan

Colvin’s afraid that refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries could be resettled in his community. His fear is shared by many—recent polls show Americans fear of another terrorist attack is as high as it was in the weeks after 9/11. But refugees, from Syria or elsewhere, will not be resettled in Wyoming any time soon. Wyoming is currently the only state without a refugee resettlement program; although Wyoming Governor Matt Mead has recently indicated he would support developing such a program in the future. Bret Colvin says he would oppose that.

 

“We don’t want to take the chance of having a problem,” he says. “Why let them all in and see what happens when you can just nip it in the bud?”

 

But without any refugees in Wyoming to focus on,  Colvin’s group’s biggest effect has been on Gillette’s first mosque, which opened in September. Last month Colvin confronted local mosque-goers during Friday prayer. Since then his Facebook group has grown to about 350 members. In online posts, group members have belittled local Muslims and threatened to throw bacon at the mosque.

 

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King released a statement condemning Anti-Muslim sentiment in the community after Colvin’s group protested outside the Campbell County Courthouse.

 

“I have been asked what are you going to do about the mosque and the Muslims?” Carter-King says.  “Well, I feel that we are here to protect them just as we do anyone else.”

Other Gillette residents have more mixed feelings.

“Everyone is entitled to their freedoms and should practice what they believe,” says contractor Scott Wade.

James Hance says he is suspicious of all Muslims. “It’s basically a terrorist group,” he says. “Their religion don’t like us.”

“We definitely shouldn’t refuse any religious beliefs to anyone,” says store clerk Caitlin Black. “On the other hand, with everything that has been happening, I don’t blame people that are nervous about the mosque.”

Aftab Khan is one of Gillette’s few Muslims.

“The rhetoric has gotten so bad, so negative, so harsh. It’s never been that way for us. Even after 9/11.”

Khan says when people talk about Muslims around here, they’re usually talking about his family. There are about 30 Khans living in Gillette. A couple of them bought an old house and turned it into the town’s mosque, so they would have somewhere to meet and pray together. The family is originally from Pakistan, but they’ve mostly been in Wyoming since the 1960s—a few came over in the early 1900s.

Worshippers at the Gillette mosque.
Credit Miles Bryan

“I was born in Sheridan,” says Aftab Khan. “I lived in Worland for a while. I attended the University of Wyoming. And now I’ve been in Gillette for sixteen years. You can’t ask for more of a Wyomingite than me—I’ve lived my whole life here. And the same is true for much of family.”

The Khans own a number of hotels in the area—Aftab runs the Best Western here. He says Gillette’s been a great place to raise a family, but now he says people who don’t understand his religion are threatening his family’s safety.

“People have attacked my family and threatened us physically. I’m not going to sit here and deny the fact that I am a little bit nervous,” he says. “A little bit worried.”

Despite that worry, Aftab and other local Muslims gather at the mosque for Friday prayer. During the sermon, a heavyset white man knocks on the front door. Erich Schlup isn’t a member, but he’s been reading about this place a lot on Facebook. He says he’s here because he doesn’t know anything about Islam—and he wants to learn.

“Honestly, from what little I’ve seen, it's not entirely unlike what I’ve experienced when I’ve gone to church,” Schlup says after the sermon.

Erich Schlup came to check out the mosque after reading about it on Facebook.
Credit Miles Bryan

Schlup has lived in Gillette for years and grew up Baptist. His cousin is part of Bret Colvin’s group, which Colvin recently renamed  “Stop Forced Syrian Immigration to Gillette” in order to, as Colvin puts it, “better reflect the group’s ideals.” Erich Schlup says after coming to the mosque he has no reason to be nervous. The Gillette residents that are afraid, he says, might benefit from doing the same.

“Everyone wants to be peaceful and coincide with each other. And how can we do that without understanding each other? So why not come check it out. Learn a few things.”

Aftab Khan says other locals looking to learn are welcome at Gillette’s new mosque anytime.