A Fight To The Finish For Tennessee Mosque

The first minarets in Murfreesboro, Tenn., are about to be placed atop a new mosque. But when construction is complete on the new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, located about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, no one will get to move in.

An ongoing court battle has stalled the project, one of several Islamic centers around the country that, like the so-called ground zero mosque, have encountered resistance from local communities.

On Thursday, federal authorities charged a Texas man with threatening to bomb the mosque and violating the civil rights of mosque members.

Legal Disputes

Among the decisions involved with constructing the building, choosing the paint color for the interior walls has been the least of the worries for Essam Fathy, a physical therapist who heads the planning committee for Murfreesboro’s new mosque. He has faced graffiti, arson and accusations of ties to terrorists.

“They can say what they want to divide people or scare people. And it will not work,” says Fathy, who moved his family from Egypt to Tennessee decades ago.

There has been some upside to the intimidation. Mosque leaders say it has helped them raise money from sympathizers around the country and to fast-track construction.

Now, though, the leaders are in a state of limbo. A judge says the local planning commission failed to give enough public notice for a 2010 meeting in which the site plan was approved. But county attorney Josh McCreary says the mosque was treated just like any Christian church.

“There are federal and state laws that prohibit, in our view, the treatment of one religion differently than another religion,” McCreary explains.

Still, the judge says a case that has since created more interest than any in the county’s history needs more notice than a few lines buried in a free newspaper.

A Case Against Islam

What has become a dispute about open meetings started out as an attempt by mosque opponents to put the religion of Islam on trial. The main criticism from attorney Joe Brandon Jr. has been about Shariah law, the ancient set of rules laid out in the Quran and followed to varying degrees by Muslims.

“We don’t want Shariah law. We don’t want a Constitution-free zone in Rutherford County, Tenn.,” says Brandon, who considers the implementation of Shariah law in Murfreesboro “a probability.”

Mosque leaders laugh at that idea and call the Shariah issues “fabricated.” But for Brandon, it’s a serious matter tied up with his own beliefs.

“I believe there is only one God, and that is the living God of Israel,” Brandon says. “With that said, I still do not oppose individuals that don’t believe in that capacity. However, Shariah law is not religion, and I’m unaware of any situation where you can separate Shariah law out from under Islam. Quite frankly, I see that as a problem.”

Concerns In The Community

In 2010, protesters outside the Rutherford County courthouse held signs saying “remember the Twin Towers” and shouted “Islam is not a religion.” Today, the Murfreesboro town square is quieter, but the concerns still echo.

Plucking a six-string banjo, Robert Godsey waits for his wife on a bench under a century-old sycamore tree. It’s an idyllic scene he fears may slip away with the growing Muslim population.

“Islam may have a certain religious component to it,” Godsey says, “But it also has a political component to it that is bent on domination through violence and armed jihad. Can’t people see that?”

But Patti Smotherman, another Murfreesboro resident, says the Tennessee town’s reputation for Southern hospitality has been tarnished by a vocal minority. “It’s not anti-Muslim,” she says. “It’s anti-Murfreesboro to be so rude.”

Polls taken over the past few years show most residents are indifferent toward the new mosque, or they may not have known it even existed.

“That church has been here in our community for many years meeting somewhere else, and I didn’t even know it,” says Vicki Taylor.

And the congregation is still gathering for prayers in the back of a nondescript office building as it has for decades. But the congregants have resolved to finish the mosque, however long it takes, saying that Murfreesboro is a town they still love and consider home.

Copyright 2012 Nashville Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wpln.org/.