Then terrorism changed the world - and exposed raw religious differences between Muslims and their neighbors. Now the dispute is a bitter fight, and the county government is torn over which side to take. "It was already an issue of passion, an issue of opposition, and all that was present even before Sept. 11. It's going to be a tough decision," said Bert Nasuti, the chief county planner.
After a postponement because of the high emotions following the Sept. 11 attacks - and then the planning commission's move not to make a decision - the full county commission is to hear the debate Tuesday night.
Proposing the cemetery is the Georgia Islamic Institute of Religious and Social Sciences, which wants to put a 1,500-plot burial ground on a 5-acre (2-hectare) parcel of land in the Grayson Oaks subdivision of this Atlanta suburb. But property owners say they are disturbed by the observant Muslims' burial ritual, which calls for wrapping the body in a shroud, without a casket or vault, and interring it within 24 hours of death.
Some residents say they worry that pathogens from the decomposing bodies would seep into the soil and poison groundwater, despite preliminary state environmental testing that has shown the cemetery would probably be safe. The Muslims once even suggested burying the bodies in coffins, but the offer has not satisfied the homeowners' concern. "I don't want my child to grow up in three years and have some disease from the water," homeowner Heather Stonecypher told the planning commission Feb. 5. "We don't want to be somebody's guinea pigs."
Jane Smith, a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary and the author of "Islam in America," said she could not recall a similar environmental dispute over a Muslim cemetery in the United States. But she said opposition to Muslim cemeteries is common, both in America and in Europe, by people unfamiliar with the religion who see it as an intrusion. "The issues that are being raised here are not surprising at all," she said. "There are four or five issues of major concern to Muslims, and one of them clearly is space to be able to appropriately dispose of their dead."
Sayyid M. Syeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America, said the dispute over environmental concerns is unique. "The Muslim population has increased so much during the last 25 years. We have these Muslim graveyards in almost every city. But this has not come up," he said.
Islamic institute attorney Dennis Still said the Grayson Oaks neighbors were attacking the Muslims as they might some bizarre cult. "This is a major world religion," he said at the planning commission meeting. "They value their dead no less than you or I. They are a part of this county. They are not some outside force."
Proposed cemetery site neighbor Virginia McIntosh directly addressed Hafiz Ghaffar Khan, the president of the Islamic institute, at the meeting and told him the cemetery would violate "the values of America." Khan reminded her of the support Pakistan has provided the United States in its war on terror. In the Middle East, he said, "we have separate Christian cemeteries everywhere."
The Grayson Oaks residents plan to raise their health concerns again at the county commission. "I take a bath every day," said Stonecypher, who suggested the Muslims seal the corpses in airtight bodybags. "I wash my body. I'm sure I wash away a lot of organisms. This will cause a significant problem for us."
For Muslims, the question is clear. "One of the first guarantees we have under the Constitution is freedom of religion," said Still, the attorney. "That's all this group wishes to have - free exercise of their religion."