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'We're going to stand up for ourselves': Why this lawyer sued two towns that denied mosques

Adeel Mangi and fellow litigation partner Muhammad Faridi have worked on cases involving the denial of mosques.

by Chris Fuchs /  / Updated 
Adeel A. Mangi at his desk at the law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, where he is a litigation partner.
Adeel A. Mangi at his desk at the law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, where he is a litigation partner.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

Having come home late from work, his wife and two sons already asleep, Adeel A. Mangi was changing for bed one night in December 2015 when an email came across his phone.

The message, from a friend at the Muslim Bar Association of New York, said there’d been a problem with a group in New Jersey that was denied permission to build a mosque, according to Mangi, a litigation partner at Manhattan law firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP.

It also asked if he’d be interested in talking to them and possibly taking on the case.

I viewed it as critically important, as a Muslim, to be standing up for every community that is under attack and whose rights are being taken away from them.

I viewed it as critically important, as a Muslim, to be standing up for every community that is under attack and whose rights are being taken away from them.

“I thought to myself, 'boy it’s going to be really hard for me to take on something new and big right now,'” Mangi said. “So I tapped out an email response to him saying, ‘I wish I could, but I’m just so busy right now.’”

But then Mangi paused and deleted his reply.

“I wrote it again, and I deleted it again,” he said. “And then I thought about it for five minutes — still standing there half dressed getting ready for bed — and then I said, ‘Look, I’m really busy right now, but if they want to meet, tell them I’d like to meet.’”

Mangi and a litigation team at his firm wound up representing the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge pro bono in a federal religious discrimination lawsuit they filed in March 2016 against Bernards Township.

The suit — along with a second one brought by the Department of Justice — accused the New Jersey township of caving to anti-Muslim animus in the community and discriminating against the society in denying its years-long bid to build a mosque.

Adeel Mangi with his parents at the South Asian Bar Association of New Jersey Gala.
Adeel Mangi with his parents at the South Asian Bar Association of New Jersey Gala.

Last year, a settlement was reached for $3.25 million. A township spokesman at the time denied claims that rejection of the proposed mosque was discriminatory.

Mangi, a practicing Muslim, said he thought it was important that he and fellow litigation partner Muhammad Faridi, who is also Muslim, lead these battles.

“We’re not just standing up for our own community, but these are cases that are so fundamental,” Mangi said. “They go to our national identity, they go to our national character, and they go to the protection of our most cherished and fundamental constitutional values.”

Things may have turned out differently had the 40-year-old lawyer returned home to his native Pakistan after graduating in 1998 with a first class degree in law from the University of Oxford in the U.K. and qualifying as a British barrister.

Instead, Mangi went to the United States a year later, having received a Kennedy Scholarship for a one-year master’s of law program at Harvard, he said.

Adeel Mangi delivering a speech at the 2017 Muslim Bar Association Gala.
Adeel Mangi delivering a speech at the 2017 Muslim Bar Association Gala.Andres Gianni / MuBANY

It was there that a flagpole outside his dormitory left an impression.

“Without even thinking about it, I had started to feel something when I walked by that flag, a connection, an attachment, maybe even a sense of belonging,” Mangi said.

Mangi, who later became an American citizen, decided to put down roots in the U.S., and Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler hired him in 2000. The learning curve was steep, he said, owing to differences in law school educations in the U.S. and England.

But Mangi battled through with the help of mentors, he added, representing clients like pharmaceutical manufacturers as well as cable television and internet service providers.

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Pro bono work, in which lawyers offer their services for free, was also a big part of his firm’s ethos, Mangi noted. That’s how the Basking Ridge case found him more than a decade after he had joined the firm.

He said he knew a lot was riding on the outcome.

“If that case had gone wrong, I think it would have emboldened mosque denying townships around the country,” Mangi said.

Bernards Township agreed in May to pay $1.5 million in damages to the Islamic society and $1.75 million in attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses. A township spokesman at the time said they settled to “mitigate the financial risk of protracted litigation,” while denying claims that rejection of the proposed mosque was discriminatory.

Mangi and his team recently inked another settlement, for $400,000, in a similar case involving an Islamic group seeking to build a mosque in the City of Bayonne, also in New Jersey. The agreement, reached in January, allows the mosque application to move forward.

Adeel Mangi in his office.
Adeel Mangi in his office.Chris Fuchs / NBC News

“This community is not going to lie down and let you bully them and take away their rights, and then look around helplessly for someone else to save them,” Mangi said, referring to Muslims. “We’re going to stand up for ourselves.”

Pro bono cases consume much of Mangi’s time these days. Manila file folders and papers with handwritten notes in red ink sat stacked on his desk in his 26th floor office, which overlooks Times Square. On his wall hung six framed black-and-white photos, among them the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Muhammad Ali Jinnah — a founding figure of Pakistan, and Pakistani politician Imran Khan.

“All of them are people who had flaws...but all people who ultimately served others in meaningful ways and demonstrated courage at crunch moments in ways that I find inspiring,” Mangi said.

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Mangi still finds time to champion causes important to him, including the rights of the LGBTQ community. He serves on the board of directors for the National LGBT Bar Association and the Muslim Bar Association of New York, which he said endorsed marriage equality legislation in New York.

“I viewed it as critically important, as a Muslim, to be standing up for every community that is under attack and whose rights are being taken away from them,” Mangi said.

From the Basking Ridge case, Mangi said a half-million dollars in attorneys’ fees was used to create the David F. Dobbins Memorial Scholarship Fund for Muslim-American law students, named after a former partner who died in 2017. Two competitive scholarships each worth $10,000 will be awarded yearly.

The fund will be administered by the Islamic Scholarship Fund, an organization that works to increase American Muslim presence in public policy, social justice and media related professions, according to a press release in January from the law firm.

Adeel Mangi receives a "Champions of Justice" award at the 2017 Muslim Bar Association Gala.
Adeel Mangi receives a "Champions of Justice" award at the 2017 Muslim Bar Association Gala.Andres Gianni / MuBANY

While it’s unclear just how many Muslim-American lawyers practice in the U.S. today, Saira Hussain, president of the Muslim Bar Association of New York, said in recent years they’ve definitely seen more young Muslim Americans entering law school. She attributed that in part to what she said was the current U.S. political climate.

Hussain added that they’re all proud of Mangi.

“He’s a prime example of someone who’s mentored so many, not only just law students but attorneys, both within the public interest sector and in the private sector,” she said.

The attorneys’ fees from the Basking Ridge case also went to a variety of charities, including those working with Muslim LGBTQ people, Mangi said. One recipient was Muslims for Progressive Values, a nonprofit advocacy group, according to Ani Zonneveld, the president and founder.

This community is not going to lie down and let you bully them and take away their rights, and then look around helplessly for someone else to save them.

This community is not going to lie down and let you bully them and take away their rights, and then look around helplessly for someone else to save them.

Zonneveld said that while she’s known Mangi for just five months, she described him as a man who lives by his convictions. Mangi joined the group’s board of directors in December, she said.

“As a straight Muslim man who is a practicing Muslim, to be advocating for LGBT rights within the context of Islam is very challenging,” Zonneveld said.

As for whether Mangi’s own two sons, ages 8 and 6, may follow in their father’s footsteps, he said he’ll adopt the approach his own parents took by allowing them to do what makes them happy.

“I want them to grow up to be people who stand up for other people,” Mangi said.

“It doesn’t really matter to me that much how they choose to do it or in what profession they choose to do it,” he added. “What’s important to me is that they do it.”

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