Ignorance isn’t always bliss

It isn’t often a small Upstate New York community garners attention from the national news media, and the likes of Keith Olbermann and Stephen Colbert. It seems to only happen in extenuating circumstances, when town officials have done something really, really stupid.

Like, say, proposing to desecrate a cemetery and disinter the deceased of a particular religious community.

Which is, unfortunately, precisely what Sidney Town Supervisor Bob McCarthy has done, with the full support of the Sidney Town Board.

I think all upstate residents groaned collectively when we heard of this disastrous decision, and the notoriety the community has gained as a result.

Overnight, McCarthy became the most hated man since that guy who wanted to burn the Qur’an.

Oh, we laughed of course, when we heard Olbermann’s “Sidney Freaking New York” comment, and that McCarthy had earned the illustrious moniker of “The Worst Person in the World.” We snickered at the Muslim Zombie comments. And we rolled on the floor when Colbert got in on the action with the whole Muslim Vampire gig, suggesting people rub their necks with pork sausage or, even better, wear bacon turtlenecks. Bacon turtlenecks! Love it.

And, I’ll admit, I was severely tempted to order one of those “Sidney Freaking New York” T-shirts being hawked online.

The embattled town supervisor, of course, claims the town’s actions are not being driven by any anti-Islamic sentiment or bigotry. I can’t say with any certainty one way or the other, but at best, those actions scream of ignorance. Not of the religious tolerance kind.

The controversy revolves around the Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani Dergahi religious community which, in 2002, purchased approximately 60 acres in Sidney Center.

According to a statement issued by the community, the group is “devoted to contemplation and prayer” and moved to the rural location “to lead the spiritual life of Islam, to lead a simple, quiet life close to the earth.”

Under the religious leadership of Sheik Abdul Kerim al-Kibbrisi, roughly 30 followers call the community, which is an established non-profit organization, home.

In 2005, they sought the town’s approval to establish a cemetery on the property, because, as they explain it in the statement, visiting the graves of their loved ones and praying for the dead are important tenants of their Sufi beliefs.

The Town of Sidney’s code enforcement officer, Dale Downin, visited the site to inspect the property and, in a letter dated Dec. 6, 2005, stated having a cemetery in that location met the town’s zoning ordinance.

Since the cemetery’s approval, two members of the community have been buried on the property under the direction of licensed funeral directors, as prescribed by law.

Whether or not McCarthy and the current town council were aware that the town had granted approval for the cemetery remains unclear. But in July, they began discussion about the cemetery. And in August, they directed Town Attorney Joseph Ermeti to pursue legal action against the community. Part of which would require them to disinter their dead.

The timing of the town’s discussions and subsequent actions couldn’t have been worse, coming as they did around the same time debate was raging about the proposed construction of a mosque in proximity to Ground Zero. I’m not sure how it first came to the attention of The Huffington Post’s Andrew Reinbach. But when it did, the story started making headlines all over the country.

McCarthy only succeeded in making the matter worse by his defensive stance, and his off-the-cuff comments about burying Grandma under the picnic table. I particularly loved his admission that he wasn’t sure what the law actually was. PR people have nightmares about such things, but we newspaper people drool.

It’s easy to climb on the McCarthy-bashing bandwagon. I think you’ll agree, it’s not the kind of publicity little old Sidney, NY needs. And the problem is that all of Central New York is in danger of being painted with the same Islamophobic brush. All of America, really.

What is the solution to all this? As one T-shirt I saw suggests, impeaching McCarthy might be a start. But I think this should be a lesson to all public officials. No matter how small your municipality is, people are watching. They are paying attention to the discussions you have and actions you take, whether or not there’s a reporter in the room making note of your every word. And even the tiniest decision made in a tiny upstate town, can have global implications.

Let this be a lesson, too, for voters. With November’s elections just around the corner, make sure you know who you’re casting your vote for, and what they stand for.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunmelissa.

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