Islamic center controversy slowing down one year after groundbreaking
Imam Ossama Mohamed Bahloul spoke on reaching the community of Murfreesboro during the first Friday prayer last week in the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro on the anniversary of the building’s groundbreaking.
In order to have this first worship service, Imam Bahloul along with the rest of the Islamic community, underwent three years of controversy and strife for building a new facility.
“It feels like everything is in its place,” Bahloul said. “It feels right. People are supposed to be excited and happy. It feels so special because we can celebrate the freedom of religion, and that the concept of liberty is alive and not dead. The facility has become a symbol because so many people didn’t want us to be here, and so many have supported us worldwide.”
The Islamic community has maintained a presence in Murfreesboro for at least three decades, and the previous facility opened in 1982.
In 2009, seeking larger accommodations, the center decided to find a new location, ultimately laying plans to build a completely new structure on Veals Road off Bradyville Pike. Within these years of controversy in Middle Tennessee, other mosques in Memphis and Chattanooga have opened without protest, leaving only the Murfreesboro area with an upset community.
The construction area was vandalized on multiple occasions, including graffiti being spray-painted on the sign announcing the construction of the Islamic center and eventually leading to the arrest of a Texas man on federal charges after he threatened to bomb the center in a telephone message. The Federal Bureau of Investigation held a press conference June 2012 addressing the matter of the Texas man, and varied opinions from the community were spouted after it was over.
“We feel Murfreesboro is a target because it is the center of the United States,” said Elizabeth Coker, Murfreesboro resident of 18 years, at the press conference. “We do feel Murfreesboro was pinpointed for the spread of Islam. This is not a peaceful mosque, and we do not support it.”
Last September, after construction began, residents of Rutherford County brought a suit in Chancery Court seeking to end construction on Veals Road.
Chancellor Robert Corlew twice ruled against challenges to construction of the mosque, citing freedom of religion in the First Amendment.
Much of the controversy in the beginning was due to ignorance of a religion most Americans do not know much about, said Ed Kimbrell, freedom of expression professor.
“The ignorance is there of all the religions unless it is white Anglo-Saxon protestant, which is the South,” Kimbrell said. “An uneducated nation in the area of religion bodes ill of Thomas Jefferson’s passionate belief of religious liberty. This idea of religious liberty is a sacred human right, and if it is that, set it free. It is something we have to protect endlessly.”
In the MT Poll surveyed the fall of 2010, 80 percent of Tennesseans polled agreed that Muslims should have the same religious liberties as other Americans. However, the poll also revealed that Tennesseans were on even footing as far as local communities being able to prohibit the building of mosques if the community does not want them. Of the surveyed, 43 percent agreed communities should have the right to prohibit, while 48 percent disagreed that communities reserve that right. The remaining eight percent was neutral.
According to Kimbrell, controversy was also stirred by a fear of Sharia law taking over Tennessee and the Constitution.
“They are running around saying, ‘they are going to take over and put in Sharia law,’” Kimbrell said. “In this country, to replace the Constitution would be one of the greatest ‘Hail, Mary’ passes in history, and it would fail. No one is going to do that, but that is the element of fear. We have people saying ‘Oh, the Muslims are coming,’ and yes they are coming. They are a people of peace.”
But opponents of the mosque turned to a different challenge— asserting that Rutherford County failed to provide public notice at the May 2010 meeting of the county planning commission, when the commission voted unanimously to allow the construction plan to move forward.
At the heart of the argument was Murfreesboro’s small, twice-weekly newspaper, the Murfreesboro Post, in which the county routinely placed public notices and was the forum in which that particular meeting was announced.
Corlew ruled that the county erred when it did not announce the meeting to a wider potential audience and that it should have due to the high-profile nature of the mosque.
“What you have is a double standard,” said Luke Goodrich, an attorney representing the Islamic center for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Christian churches get approved under one standard of notice, and the mosque is subjected to a different standard merely because some local residents oppose it.”
Goodrich said that, between 2000 and 2007, 20 Christian churches received approval at planning-commission meetings that were announced in the same manner as the mosque– only the mosque received a different set of rules after Corlew’s ruling.
Corlew issued an injunction to stop the center from opening, but a federal judge overruled Corlew when the Islamic Center and the U.S. Department of Justice sued Rutherford County to push the center’s opening forward.
Judge Kevin Sharp, of the Middle District of Tennessee, ruled that preventing the mosque to open, even under Corlew’s ruling, would violate the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” a federal law that allows some religious organizations to deal with local land laws differently.
Due to on-going legal action, Sharp declined to comment to Sidelines.
Mosque opponents, led by attorney Joe Brandon, Jr., filed a motion with Sharp to allow the group to enter into the federal case. Sharp granted the motion under the condition that the opponents only address the legal question at hand—that Rutherford County failed to provide public notice.
Brandon did not return an email and phone call seeking comment.
Even as Sharp ruled that the mosque could open in August, legal action in Federal Court continues, and Rutherford County is appealing Corlew’s original ruling in state appellate court.
“We are looking to pass on what has happened these past few years,” said Saleh Sbenaty, an engineering professor. “It’s the exception of the controversy will only be for an exception period of time. I don’t see the case really going much further. In all the years of working at MTSU, I’ve only received positive feedback from my students and other faculty.”
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has ties with campus.
Prior to the move to Veals Road, the center hosted as many as 500 MTSU students for services, according to a fact sheet released by the Becket Fund.
Despite the controversy, the campus community has seemed unperturbed, said Drost Kokoye, vice president of the MTSU Muslim Students Association.
“On campus, everyone is very supportive for the most part,” Kokoye said. “People come up to me all the time and express words of encouragement. Off campus, it’s a different story.”
Kokoye, 21 and a senior political science major, attributed the difference in attitude to a more diverse community on campus than what exists in Murfreesboro at large, as well as media coverage.
“People are very rude,” Kokoye said of leaving campus. “They stare. Some will say not-so-nice things. But it’s because the only Muslims they’ve been exposed to are the crazies shown on sensational news channels.”
Kokoye did not know the number of Muslims at MTSU, but said the association’s regular meeting typically brought about 20 people.
The Muslim community is also receiving support from the Sojourners, a national Christian advocate group for faith in action for social justice. The Sojourners are placing a billboard with the message “Love Your Muslim Neighbors.” The sign is slated to go up Sept. 24 at 1015 S. Church St.