SIDNEY CENTER, N.Y. – On a crisp November day in 2009, the cemetery on the hill received its first guest — a 28-year-old stonemason killed in a car accident two days earlier.
Solemnly his Sufi Muslim brethren buried him beneath a vibrant green headstone — the color of the Osmanli Naksibendi Hakkani order, which runs a 50-acre farm and mosque here. They prayed for him to rest in peace.
But that was not to be.
Instead of peace, the burial ignited a war — one that would erupt nine months later, hurling Sidney into the national spotlight, bitterly dividing some residents while transforming others who say things will never be the same.
It began quietly enough last summer, after a second burial in the cemetery. At the height of a national debate about a mosque near ground zero, the town Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to investigate the Sufi graves on Wheat Hill Road.
The Sufis had followed proper procedures. But that didn't deter town Supervisor Robert McCarthy from calling the graves illegal and suggesting the bodies might have to be disinterred.
"You can't just bury Grandma in the backyard under the picnic table," he said.
With that, McCarthy, a 70-year-old retired businessman, became a poster child for Muslim-bashing everywhere. MSNBC host Keith Olbermann denounced him as "worst person in the world." Locals watched in horror as Sidney was branded as Islamophobic, backward and ignorant.
"I felt so ashamed of my town," said jeweler Richard Cooley.
And then those feelings changed.
For in the days and weeks that followed, a spirited sense of mission seemed to surge through Sidney, 150 miles north of New York City. People reached out, not only to Sufis, but to each other. They set up websites, bonded on Facebook, launched petitions to investigate town government.
Though the board hastily dropped the cemetery issue, people packed into the civic center for a chaotic meeting where — as more than a dozen Sufis looked on — they yelled at town leaders, demanding an apology.
And they trekked to the Sufi center eight miles outside town, to sip tea with the sheik, to vow that Sidney, population 6,000, will be in the spotlight again, this time as a shining example of tolerance and understanding.
It's 6 a.m on a Saturday and business is brisk at the Trackside diner, where political opinions are as strong as the coffee, and the roar of an approaching train occasionally drowns out conversation. These days, the main topic of conversation has been, as one man jokingly put it, "the turbans on top of the hill."
The door opens and two men in turbans walk in. Though he has only been to the diner once before, everyone recognizes the taller man — Hans Hass, the chief spokesman for the Sufis and chief thorn in McCarthy's side.
Lately Hass, 40, a roofing contractor and captain of the local ambulance squad, seems to be everywhere — talking with national media, writing letters to officials, filing freedom of information requests. His unruffled manner and calm, authoritative voice have captivated the crowd as he persistently confronts McCarthy with the facts and the law.
At the diner, Hass is greeted by Carrie Guarria, a 45-year-old college assistant administrator who had become increasingly disturbed about comments she overheard — that all Muslims are terrorists, that the Sufis have pictures of Osama Bin Laden at their center, that the town would be better off if they left.
Sitting at her table is Bill Howes, an 81-year-old retired excavator. Soon Howes and Hass are bantering about sports and digging into pancakes and eggs. But Howes' demeanor changes when the conversation turns to McCarthy. "Someone has to shake the town up," he says.
"But he told reporters all over the country that what we did was illegal, and it wasn't," Hass protests.
Howes excuses himself and moves to another table.
Other diners invite Hass to join them. Soon a dozen people are engaged in a lively debate about politics, religion and the fate of their once thriving factory town. They ask Hass about his background, and he tells them of growing up in South Portland, Maine, of embracing Sufism after years of searching other religions and ways of life.
Before leaving, he invites them to visit the center, called a dergah.
The Sufis settled in Sidney Center in 2002, following Sheik Abdul Kerim al-Kibrisi, 54, who moved here after years of hosting services in New York City. Quietly, they worked their sprawling sheep and cattle farm, relatively unnoticed by the larger community.
They converted the enormous red barn into a mosque — a stunningly beautiful place that glows with colors and warmth, the sweet smell of incense blending with that of a smoky wood stove. Green and gold tapestries drape the walls, which are covered with pictures of sheiks and saints. Oriental rugs cover the floor.
Friday's Jummah service — the most important of the week — lasts about 40 minutes, the men bowing and praying in front. The women pray in the back.
Afterward, everyone drinks sweet Turkish tea and listens as their sheik speaks of tolerance, the perils of ego — and the controversy consuming the town. A naturalized American who was born in Cyprus, the sheik is a genial man with a jeweled purple turban, long gray beard and deep, gravelly voice.
"What is happening right here in Sidney," he says, "can show the whole world, that we can live peacefully as Muslims and non-Muslims ... that a small town in America can show that the whole country is not mired in Islamophobia."
The group of about 30 men and 10 women listen attentively. They come from all backgrounds — American-born converts as well as Muslim immigrants. Most live and work locally, visiting the dergah for services. All say the furor over the graves has imbued them with a renewed sense of hope for their country and their town.
"It fills my heart," says Erdem Kahyaoglu, 31, who grew up on Long Island and became a Sufi as a college student. He chokes up as he describes his joy and astonishment that, as he wrote to one of his new Facebook friends, "you stood up for us and you don't even know us."
Sufism is a mystical tradition in Islam; the order says its mission is to live a simple life of contemplation and prayer. But the Sufis know they are being watched.
They've heard their share of taunts: "Terrorists, go back to your own country." They've had their share of police calls: a suspicious man in a turban spotted sitting by the dam. They hear the rumors — that they are storing weapons, that they are a cult, that they are planning something evil.
If only more people would visit, get to know them as individuals. They would meet Bilal, the farmer; Abdullah, the beekeeper; Bayram, the mosque's resident comedian.
As Maryem Brawley, the sheik's wife, told town officials, "No one called. No one wrote a letter. No one knocked on our door. You just assumed that we were doing something illegal. You made assumptions about us that were not true."
"It had nothing to do with the fact they are Muslim, I was just trying to keep tax dollars down," says McCarthy, a stocky, red-faced man, who once ran a business making custom golf-putters.
He is having lunch at the Sidney Golf and Country Club, where the guys at the bar offer friendly nods, diners pat him on the back, and there are no guys in turbans denouncing him as a bigot.
McCarthy has no political experience — he first ran for office last year — and he says he has no political agenda other than to cut taxes and spending. The cemetery affair, he says, was blown out of proportion by the media.
McCarthy says he doesn't care that fellow board members issued a statement saying he needed to work on his "people skills," or that he is lampooned daily on a Facebook site called Impeach Bob McCarthy.
McCarthy ran for office on a platform of "transparency in government" and he insists that is what he is trying to do, though a recent budget workshop session, hastily posted the night before, was held at 7:30 a.m. Hass showed up, mocked him about lack of transparency and accused the board of holding an illegal secret meeting.
McCarthy doesn't hide his disdain for Hass, whom he calls "a jerk fueling things for his own personal agenda."
Yet McCarthy's agenda has caused consternation even among fellow Republicans. Earlier in the year he made headlines when he publicly opposed funding for the local Stop-DWI program.
That night McCarthy will be in the hot seat again, at yet another tumultuous town meeting at the civic center.
In a move that appears tone deaf to some, incendiary to others, the board is introducing a new law — the first of 2010 — concerning private burials on private land. Board members assure the Sufis that their cemetery will not be affected, but in two weeks, they have simply traded one angry crowd for another.
Tempers flare as people furiously demand answers. Accusations fly. With a few exceptions, the only people remaining calm are those wearing turbans.
Hass addresses the board. Sarcastically, he suggests giving the new law a catchy name.
"How about ... you can't bury Grandma in the backyard under the picnic table law?"
Even some of Hass' supporters wonder privately if he is pushing things too far. He admits that he is enjoying the political theater, but insists there is a serious purpose to his actions. A shift is happening in Sidney, Hass says, and he is trying to harness it, to educate people, to use this controversy as a springboard for lasting change.
Skeptics say all this goodwill and tolerance — not to mention efforts to oust McCarthy_ will fade, disappearing into memory as winter sets in. Others disagree, saying events have changed them profoundly.
Jenneen Bush, who had never been to a town meeting or met a Muslim before, is planning to bring her grandchildren to the dergah.
Real estate agent, Jackie Rose shocked her 21-year-old son by driving alone to the dergah. "Weren't you scared?" her son asked. "No," she told him. "There has been too much ignorance and fear. We have to take a stand, make friendships and get along."
"Change is happening," says retired plant manager Joe Cardinal. "But it's going to take time for the town to heal."
He says this on a rainy Thursday night in November, as he lingers with a small group of people at the civic center. They are pondering the aftermath of the latest meeting, which broke down in pandemonium a short time earlier.
Up at the dergah, a very different gathering is taking place. It is the one-year anniversary of the first Sufi burial. Tearfully, family and friends remember an exuberant young man who hoped to move to Sidney with his fiancee and raise a family in the community he loved.
The men form a semicircle around the sheik's deputy. Lights are dimmed, heads bowed and everyone falls silent as he reads a sermon from their grand sheik.
Live quietly, the holy man exhorts. Live a life of gentleness, of tolerance, free from anger and ego.
Eyes closed, the group begins chanting, a rich, undulating melody that prompts some worshippers to sway in the dark.
Their voices rise. The smell of incense wafts through the room.
Here, in a converted barn on the top of Wheat Hill road, anger, ego, and the heated passions of the past weeks and months seem a world away.