Wyoming town abandons mosque opposition, pivots to anti-refugee rhetoric

With the Islamic house of worship already open, community prejudice now focuses on prevention of new Syrian arrivals

GILLETTE, Wyoming — Bret Colvin has a pencil mustache, wears a Marine Corps baseball cap and lives with two turtles: Snappy and Fast Eddie. He is also the founder of the Facebook group “Stop Islam in Gillette”.

When Colvin’s almost all-white, predominantly Christian hometown of Gillette, Wyoming had its first mosque open in late 2015, his newly-formed Facebook group attracted hundreds of members who shared his views that the mosque would foster religious radicalism and incite violence.

“The issue with the mosque is we didn’t know who was behind it, who was in it, where it came from,” said Colvin. “This is a peaceful town, we don’t have big problems here, we don’t have big crime here, we don’t have terrorist activity here.”

Gillette is small – 31,000 residents – and just 30 Muslims call the town home. Almost everyone in Gillette’s Muslim community is related. The Khan family owns a small hotel empire with 15 properties in Gillette and 30 more in the region. Their roots are in Pakistan, but the Khan name has been in Wyoming since 1906. None of that seemed to matter when protesters, led by Bret Colvin, demonstrated outside the mosque.

“They thought this mosque was going to lead to 2,000 Syrian refugees moving into Gillette, and that the culture was going to change in Gillette, and that people were going to be wearing burkas everywhere and we were going to force sharia law on Gillette,” said Aftab Khan. “Those kind of ridiculous things are part of the reason some people panicked.”

According to Khan, the building of the mosque gave the family, and a few other Muslims in town, a place to gather and pray with the eventual goal that Islamic scripture could be taught to the Khan children.

Since the controversy began, the Khans have been harassed and threatened, and Facebook comments on Colvin’s group suggest vandalism of the mosque and hint at outright violence directed toward the family.

Screen shot from comments in the Facebook group for “Stop Islam in Gillette”.

One user wrote, “My husband and I threw a bunch of raw bacon at it a couple of days ago … hope they don’t mind our new fav past time.” Another user wrote, “These Muslim maggots need to be gut shot.”

Khan says the FBI has interviewed him in person over the threats. Colvin says he doesn’t support the activity.

“That’s the nature of the Internet, isn’t it?” said Colvin. “A lot of people like to be keyboard warriors and talk crap on the Internet that they’ll never back up in real life in any fashion or form.”

The controversy divided Gillette and culminated in protests in front of city hall, as well as lobbying efforts by Colvin and others of the city’s mayor.

“People would call and say ‘is the city going to allow a mosque to locate here?’ and of course, we answered,” said Gillette mayor Louise Carter-King. “We would allow any church as long as it was zoned correctly.”

Carter-King issued a statement: Neither threats nor declarations of hate would be tolerated in Gillette.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Carter-King said. “If people dislike me for doing the right thing, they can do that.”

Bret Colvin could not stop Islam from coming to Gillette so he says he has a new goal: prevent Syrian refugees from ever settling in Wyoming, while keeping an eye on the new mosque.

“They have their rights to have their mosque and practice their religion,” said Colvin. “Should they start radicalizing their mosque, that may be a different story.”

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