Murfreesboro Islamic Center Opens

Against the Current, No. 161, November/December 2012

Jase Short

ALTHOUGH THERE HAVE been no pop­ular mobilizations on the right or the left since the 2010 “mosque wars” (see “Murfreesboro vs. Islamophobia,”, the issue has certainly dominated public consciousness through multiple incidents of harassment by the Islamophobic right against the Muslim population, whether through legal action or through personal attacks on the careers and reputation of prominent individuals.

It is clear from the blogs and personal visits of notable Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Geert Wilders that Murfreesboro became a target of opportunity for these insidious hatemongers.

The Muslim community in Murfreesboro is rather large, rather well-to-do (mostly middle-class professionals). It has put down roots over decades. Their expanding numbers outgrew the Islamic Center’s original space, tucked away in an industrial zone next to an auto repair shop. Things got so crowded that worshipers for Friday prayers continually spilled over into the parking lot.

When the Islamic Center of Murfrees­boro (ICM) purchased property rights outside the city limits, next to a Baptist Church, they were treated as all religious institutions are by Tennessee government under the provisions of the Religious Land Use Act: they were speedily approved for a building permit.

This sparked protests by Islamophobes, led by the local mega-church pastor and a major real estate tycoon. However, there were also counter-protests by Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom.

With public opinion turning against the Islamophobes (primarily for all the horrible attention their behavior attracted from the mainstream media, as well as an act of arson at the construction site), they shifted gears and went for a legal plan of action.

Islamophobic leaders filed suit against the county commission, claiming that Islam did not constitute an actual religion, but was rather a political system with designs on political power in the United States.

Led by the local sleazy attorney Joe Brandon, the bigots carried out a sideshow of a case against the Islamic Center with leading lights of the national Islamophobic movement taking part.

The county commission ruled in the ICM’s favor but on Appeal Judge Robert Corlew ruled, on May 29th, that the county commission did not give adequate notice for the meeting where it decided on the ICM’s permit, thereby violating Tennessee’s sunshine laws. Yet the commission had used the same publication method for hundreds of other meetings.

Once again, the Muslim community was subject to a different set of rules than the rest of the population. Many even feared that the now-completed site would have to be abandoned.

At this point the Justice Department intervened and threatened to sue the county; it ordered the site opened. This occurred just in time for Ramadan, but then the codes inspector ruled that it would take another week or so before anyone could be allowed in the building (another circumstance of “soft” discrimination). Certainly no one can recall another instance where the inspector delayed an opening.

Harassment Continues

The Islamic Center is now open and has added a degree of beauty to the community. Christian zealots continue to harass the congregation, however, from the parking lot and even from within the building (ICM officials are reluctant to kick people out except in circumstances where law enforcement has become necessary).

The Baptist church next door had long been supportive of the ICM’s rights, but with the opening of the mosque has placed a number of massive white crosses on their property. Viewers from the road have to look through a sea of crosses and flags before getting a good view of the new structure.

A local hate paper has also taken the lead in smearing members of the community, including the Vice President of the Islamic Center, Abdou Kattih, who has been a strong voice for justice and an active ally of various progressive efforts in the area. A pharmacist at Walgreens, Kattih was accused by the paper of colluding with an employee to leak medical information about the prescriptions of a prominent mosque opponent. This has led to his investigation by Walgreens’ corporate offices.

The unfounded accusation is just another example of harassment visited upon the Muslim community, especially by elements of the Islamophobic network directly connected to Robert Spencer.

Islamophobes are clearly losing what they expected would be an easy battle in a highly conservative community. Instead they found hundreds of pro-mosque demonstrators, a shift in public opinion and Justice Department intervention. This demonstrates the effectiveness of popular mobilizations against bigotry, even in so-called “conservative” areas.

It is my fear, however, that as the legal remedies are exhausted by the right, they will turn to more direct forms of intimidation. Were that to be the case, however, there is a solid community of progressives ready to intervene through peaceful protest.

When the Islamophobes did turn to violence in 2010 by committing arson at the construction site of the Islamic Center, they provoked a large demonstration with leading religious community members (Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and more) standing together as well as a dramatic drop in public support for their anti-Muslim efforts. One can only expect a similar outcome if there is violence in the future. Our solidarity is our strength.

November/December 2012, ATC 161