MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation’s heartland, far from the heated fight in New York over plans for a mosque near ground zero, are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive.
Foes of proposed mosques have deployed dogs to intimidate Muslims holding prayer services and spray-painted “Not Welcome” on a construction sign, then later ripped it apart.
The 13-story, $100 million Islamic center that could soon rise two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks would dwarf the proposals elsewhere, yet the smaller projects in local communities are stoking a sharper kind of fear and anger than has showed up in New York.
In the Nashville suburb of Murfreesboro, opponents of a new Islamic center say they believe the mosque will be more than a place of prayer. They are afraid the 15-acre site that was once farmland will be turned into a terrorist training ground for Muslim militants bent on overthrowing the U.S. government.
“They are not a religion. They are a political, militaristic group,” said Bob Shelton, a 76-year-old retiree who lives in the area.
Shelton was among several hundred demonstrators recently who wore “Vote for Jesus” T-shirts and carried signs that said: “No Sharia law for USA!,” referring to the Islamic code of law. Others took their opposition further, spray-painting the sign announcing the “Future site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro” and tearing it up.
In Temecula, Calif., opponents brought dogs to protest a proposed 25,000-square-foot mosque that would sit on four acres next to a Baptist church. Opponents worry it will turn the town into a haven for Islamic extremists, but mosque leaders say they are peaceful and just need more room to serve members.
Islam is a growing faith in the U.S., though Muslims represent less than 1 percent of the country’s population. Ten years ago, there were about 1,200 mosques nationwide. Now there are roughly 1,900, according to Ihsan Bagby, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky and a researcher on surveys of American mosques.
The growth involves Islamic centers expanding to accommodate more Muslims – as is the case in New York, California and Tennessee – as well as mosques cropping up in smaller, more isolated communities, Bagby said.
A 2007 survey of Muslim Americans by the Pew Research Center found that 39 percent of adult Muslims living in the United States were immigrants who had come here since 1990.
Mosque leader Essam Fathy, who helped plan the new building in Murfreesboro, has lived there for 30 years.
“I didn’t think people would try that hard to oppose something that’s in the Constitution,” he said. “The Islamic center has been here since the early ’80s, 12 years in this location. There’s nothing different now except it’s going to be a little bigger.”
Bagby said that hasn’t stopped foes from becoming more virulent.
“It was there before, but it didn’t have as much traction. The larger public never embraced it,” he said. “The level of anger, the level of hostility is much higher in the last few years.”
The Murfreesboro mosque is one of three planned in the Nashville area that have drawn recent scrutiny.
Zuhdi Jasser, president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, a nonprofit that advocates for reform and modernization of Islam, said opposing mosques is no way to prevent terrorism.
Neighbors didn’t want his family to build a mosque in 1979 in Neenah, Wis., because they didn’t understand who Muslims were.
“If the Wisconsin mosque had not been allowed to be built, I, at 17, might have put up walls and become a different person,” he said. “If we start preventing these from being built, the backlash will be increased radicalization.”
A study by professors at the Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina backs up Jasser’s statement. The study found that mosques, religious bookstores and other communal associations that bring Muslim-Americans together help prevent radicalization.
In Murfreesboro, Imam Ossama Bahloul said the center has hired a security guard for Friday prayer services and a security camera constantly pans the parking lot and doors. Their fears are not without cause.
Two years ago, several men broke into the Islamic Center of Columbia, about 30 miles southwest of Murfreesboro, and torched it with Molotov cocktails, stealing a stereo system and painting swastikas and “White Power” on the front of the building.
Bahloul said he hopes the controversy will die down with time. He said the situation has been hardest on the children.
“The second generation is facing a huge challenge because they did not think even for a second before that someone would say, ‘You are not welcome.’ ”