Around the Nation
4:19 pm
Thu June 21, 2012

A Fight To The Finish For Tennessee Mosque

Originally published on Thu June 21, 2012 9:34 pm

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 2013 Nashville Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wpln.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The first minarets are about to be placed atop a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. But when construction is done, no one will get to move in.

From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer explains why.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Inside the new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, workers are patching seams in the drywall as leaders of the congregation make a tough decision on the paint color.

ESSAM FATHY: That's China white.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know what it is.

FARMER: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do what you want.

FATHY: For inside, yes; for the big room inside.

FARMER: Essam Fathy is a physical therapist who moved his family from Egypt to Tennessee decades ago. He's in charge of the building. Paint color has been the least of his worries. He's faced graffiti, arson, and accusation of ties to terrorists.

FATHY: They can say what they want to divide people or scare people, and it will not work.

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

But now, they're 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.

JOSH MCCREARY: There are federal and state laws that prohibit, in our view, the treatment of one religion differently than another religion.

FARMER: Still, the judge says a case that's since created more interest than any in the county's history, needs more notice than a few lines buried in a free newspaper. What has become an open meetings dispute 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 the ancient set of rules laid out in the Quran and followed, to varying degrees, by Muslims.

JOE BRANDON JR.: We don't want Shariah law. We don't want a Constitution-free zone in Rutherford County, Tennessee.

FARMER: Do you really think that's what could happen, is happening?

BRANDON: Oh, I don't think it's what could happen. I think it's a probability.

FARMER: Mosque leaders laugh at the idea, and call the Shariah issues fabricated. But for Brandon, it's a serious matter. And he has own beliefs tied up in the case.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

FARMER: In 2010, protesters held signs outside the Rutherford County courthouse, saying: Remember the Twin Towers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Islam is not a religion!

FARMER: The Murfreesboro town square is quieter now, but the concerns still echo.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO MUSIC)

FARMER: On a bench under a century-old sycamore tree, Robert Godsey waits for his wife to get off work, plucking a six-string banjo. It's an idyllic scene he fears may slip away with the growing Muslim population.

ROBERT GODSEY: Islam may have a certain religious component to it. But it also has a political component to it that is bent on domination through violence and armed jihad. Can't people see that?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

PATTI SMOTHERMAN: It's not anti-Muslim. It's anti-Murfreesboro to be so rude.

FARMER: Patti Smotherman says the Tennessee town's reputation for Southern hospitality has been tarnished by a vocal minority. Polls taken over the last few years show most residents are like Vicki Taylor, and at least indifferent toward the new mosque.

VICKI TAYLOR: That church has been here in our community for many years, meeting somewhere else. And I didn't even know it.

FARMER: They're still gathering for prayers in the back of a nondescript office building, like they have for decades. But they've resolved to finish the mosque, however long it takes, saying that Murfreesboro is a town they still love and consider home.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: