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This is the tale of one city, one Islamic Center and two news stories. An iconic photo, taken a year and a half ago, represents the first story: a plywood sign announcing "Future Site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro," spray painted over with the words, "Not Welcome." That story put the town on the map. CNN produced a 43-minute documentary that aired this past April. The Daily Show featured it in a segment "Tennessee No Evil." Faiz Zhakir, vice president of the Center for American Progress and one of the researchers behind Fear, Inc., called it "ground zero of Muslim bashing in America."
The second story, garnering almost no national attention, is represented by a picture taken last week of 10 individuals with shovels, a classic American groundbreaking scene. Even CNN gave only a brief notice to The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's breaking of ground on Sept. 29. The stories belong together and they deserve to be widely told.
In the spring of 2008, Imam Ossama Bahloul, Ph.D., a graduate of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, chose to turn down a bigger job offer and opt for a quiet life in the city of Murfreesboro, Tenn., 35 miles south of Nashville. With a population of 100,000, Murfreesboro, according to its website, is the fastest growing city in the state, as well as the most livable. The 250 Muslim families, some having lived there for almost 30 years, were outgrowing their small meeting space; Friday prayers were spilling into the parking lot. In 2009 the group purchased a 15-acre plot and in May, 2010 Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission approved plans for an Islamic Center whose eventual size might reach 52,960 square feet.
As soon as the sign announcing the future site of the Islamic Center went up, spray paint defaced it. Vandals tore down a second sign. In July, several hundred residents marched in protest against the mosque. In August, things got worse. Police deemed a fire on the site as arson, and gunshots were heard nearby. The same month, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, then running for governor, spoke against the mosque. "You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it."
In September, 17 land owners sued Rutherford County, claiming that the county should have investigated the substantive beliefs of the Islamic Center before approving its plans. During the trial, plaintiffs called to the stand Frank Gaffney, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, as an expert on sharia. "I don't hold myself out as an expert on sharia law," Gaffney told the court. "But I have talked a lot about that as a threat." Gaffney testified that "Sharia is the enemy-threat doctrine we face today." They asked the court to consider Islam as a political system or ideology, not just a religion.
The U.S. Justice Department disagreed. It filed a friend of the court brief in which it explained that "every U.S. court addressing the question has treated Islam as a religion for purposes of the First Amendment and other federal laws. ... Islam falls plainly within the understanding of a religion for constitutional and other federal legal purposes, and qualifies as a religion under the various tests courts have developed." The brief even quoted a dissenting opinion by Justice Scalia (joined by Justices Relmquist, Thomas and Kennedy) in favor of a public display of the Ten Commandments that noted that Islam, along with Christianity and Judaism, is one of "the three most popular religions in the United States," and that "these three monotheistic faiths account for 97.7% of all believers."
The Justice Department also argued that the county would be in danger of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that Congress passed in 2000 in response to findings that "religious institutions in general, and minority faiths in particular, frequently face overt and subtle discrimination in the application of land use and zoning regulations."
In May of this year, after the CNN documentary was aired, the judge ruled against the plaintiffs and on Aug. 30, the judge upheld his decision: "Those who are adherents to Islam are entitled to pursue their worship in the United States just as are those who are adherents to more universally established faiths (in our community)" the judge wrote. He continued, "The plaintiffs have established that there may be extremist members within the group of worshipers even here in Rutherford County, but that does not change the fact that Islam exists as a religion apart from the extremist philosophies."
Last month, I visited Murfreesboro as part of Clergy Beyond Borders' caravan that included two imams, an evangelical minister and another rabbi. We were invited to speak at Middle Tennessee State University, the largest undergraduate institution in the state, by the Muslim Students Association, the Jewish Student Union and the Wesley Student Association. The local NBC news carried a two-minute segment about the event. We were heartened that the friendly audience we met considered themselves the mainstream of their community. The protestors who had made the news, they told us, were a small, if vocal, minority.
Despite initial difficulty finding a contractor and a recent bomb threat, the Muslims we met in Murfreesboro seemed confident and optimistic. Lema Sbenaty, a 20-year-old pre-med student at MTSU who grew up in the town, was featured in the CNN documentary. Articulate, self possessed and beautiful, Lema organized our visit with her fellow students. She told us that she attended every day of the six week trial, eventually laughing at the absurdity of some of the attacks. Lema was happy with the court's decision, but not surprised, having received hundreds of emails from non-Muslims she never met, telling her they were her allies. She was looking forward to celebrating the ground breaking.
Like Lema, Imam Bahloul also looked to the future with hope. He too received messages of solidarity from around the country. Many included contributions for the proposed Islamic Center, sometimes in the form of a $10 bill. One well-meaning Christian in Texas offered the imam land on his ranch to build the mosque. "I had to explain to him that we could not accept his generous offer. The families in our congregation live here in Murfreesboro. And we are not planning to move."