A Halal meat market in London, UK.  Image by Christopher Paquette licensed under Creative Commons.

Alexandria just approved a proposal for a Halal butcher shop in an industrial part of the city. Normally, an industrial business opening in an industrial zone isn't news, but this particular shop sparked an outcry. Nearby business owners and other residents fretted over parking, smells, and more.

Abdulsalem Mused applied to open DC Live Poultry Market, which he owns with his family, on Colvin Road in Alexandria. The lot is situated between the train tracks and Duke Street in one of the rare industrial areas inside the Beltway, dominated by warehouses and vehicle lots.

Mused needed a special use permit from the city for his business because his plan to ship in live chickens to be killed according to Islamic law is not defined in Alexandria's zoning code, a Washington Post story explained. That meant a hearing—and pushback.

Why the outcry?

Some nearby business owners and others decided they had a problem with a Halal butcher shop in the area. There are no homes nearby, but there are a number of dog-focused businesses, including a training school and a doggy day care. The area also hosts Alexandria's hazardous waste recycling center, a construction company, a city street and sewer facility, an auto shop, and more.

Business owners and patrons opposed the butcher shop for myriad reasons. Some claimed the smells would make it harder for dogs to behave (there are already multiple restaurants that feature meat dishes in the area) or worried that parking would become too scarce. Others simply objected to the idea of having to walk or drive by a slaughterhouse with their pet, even though Mused promised the facility would be clean and its interior closed off from view.

Washingtonian's Andrew Beaujon quoted some witnesses: “My dog can smell when there’s a cookie down the block,” one resident said. Another fretted that, “knowing that my dogs may be walked by a business that holds chickens in a windowless room before their throats are slit while fully conscious does not make me feel that my dogs are in a safe environment.”

That wasn't the only objection on animal rights grounds. One person even wrote a letter to the Alexandria Times likening the shop to the auctions of enslaved people once held in Alexandria.

In an unusual move, the Alexandria City Council deferred the vote on the issue until Tuesday night, when the divided group ultimately voted to pass it. Councilmembers decided that despite residents' objections, Mused's proposal was in line with the law and the area's zoning.

How does zoning fit into this?

The original impetus for zoning was in part to improve the living environment in cities by ensuring that factories and other potentially dirty industries were separate from areas where people work and play. Keeping heavy industry out of residential areas has indeed helped improve public health and safety, as have other regulations that have come out over the past few decades.

Colvin Road in Alexandria is a perfect example of this. It's no accident the area is located outside of Old Town Alexandria and closer to the railroad and highway than the residential neighborhoords north of Duke Street.

General area of where the proposed Halal Butcher will go in Alexandria.  Image by Google Maps.

But over time, industries have changed, and the zoning code has had trouble keeping up. Sometimes people complain about noise and nuisance from industrial uses even when the business is located and restricted to an area where these nuisances are allowed.

That issue has become acute across many American cities as the decline of manufacturing combined with population growth has made former industry and warehouse zones ripe for redevelopment. Many of them now allow retail and housing, even while some industrial businesses remain.

People use zoning laws to discriminate against Muslims

However, a piece of this story that must not be overlooked is how people also use zoning regulations to discriminate against vulnerable communities, including Muslims. As Tanvi Misra writes for CityLab, “Muslims make up roughly 1% of the US population, but land-use discrimination against them is incredibly overrepresented in government investigations.”

Procedural zoning and permitting steps have been weaponized to obstruct mosques, Halal food-related businesses, and other islamic-related land uses nationwide, including here in the Washington region.

Last August in Warrenton, Virginia, local officials denied another small Halal butcher a permit to sell sheep, cows, and goats a few days before Eid, a major Islamic holiday, ostensibly because it was in violation of local building and zoning ordinances. The town even placed a police barricade out front to block customers from entering the shop before finally allowing the owners to proceed.

In 2016, the Justice Department sued Culpeper County, Virginia for using procedural steps to slow down approval for construction of a mosque. A similar incident happened in Prince William County in 2017, when the issue of a proposed sewer connection for a new mosque was the sticking point between the congregation and the county. Some of the witnesses at a nine-hour public meeting based their objections on their negative feelings about Islam in general.

There are similar stories from New Jersey to Canada to Great Britain. Even in Fairfax, where the Muslim population is fairly large and Halal-serving restaurants can be found in many shopping centers, the county went back and forth over whether or not to allow a mosque in McLean to continue pre-dawn prayers.

Context matters

Some opponents of the halal butcher shop in Alexandria may well believe they're being neutral about the religion associated with the business, but this context matters. There are many, many examples of people discriminating against Muslims over anodyne issues, and it's both saddening and infuriating to see this dynamic manifest again here.

As the ACLU wrote in a blog post about anti-mosque activity, “While mosque opponents frequently claim their objections are based on practical considerations such as traffic, parking, and noise levels, those asserted concerns are often pretexts masking anti-Muslim sentiment.”

Some residents may object to a butcher shop because they believe animal rights are important. Others might want to ensure that businesses adhere to environmental standards, or that there's enough parking to visit the nearby doggy day care or barbecue restaurant or Islamic Community Center. That's well and good, but advocates must still be sensitive to the context of bigotry via land use directed at Muslim people.

As I've written before, zoning can't do everything. It's difficult to come up with sustainable solutions to these issues when they get muddled in administrative and procedural rules. Happily, the Alexandria City Council recognized that what was at issue in this case was land use law, not residents' preferred businesses, as Councilmember Del Pepper pointed out when she voted to approve Mused's application.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.