It really is a small world, after all. Twelve time zones away, a city in India you’ve never heard of is wrestling over property, the law, political power, and religious liberty as only a city in an underdeveloped nation can. But here in the United States, we have unheard-of towns of our own. The ongoing wrangling over a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., seems altogether too similar to the disastrous wrangling over a mosque in Ayodhya.
In 1992, a mass of people overran a rather dilapidated mosque in Ayodhya, dismantled it, and effectively erased it from the landscape. More than 2,000 people died in the violence that followed. Politicians inflamed long-standing claims that the mosque had been built atop an ancient Hindu temple, and that the plot of ground, therefore, ought to serve Hindu interests. Today, the plot is still barren. Legal and political maneuvering have continued for twenty years.
In 2010, the Allahabad High Court decided to split the property three ways. All three groups to which portions of the site were awarded filed appeals. Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that no one can do anything with the place. The emblem of the dispute and its many dead is now a barren, dreary, useless piece of dirt.
Meanwhile, back on the farm, a federal judge has just ruled that Muslims will be able to use the mosque they have built in Murfreesboro.
Because a state judge’s ruling in May invalidated a building permit, the building hasn’t had an inspection, so the building will not be open for the beginning of Ramadan. But it appears that the building will be able to serve the Muslim community in the region before Ramadan concludes.
Opposition has been arrayed against this American mosque since its inception two years ago. Some Murfreesboroans have asserted at public meetings that Islam is not a religion and that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is only a front for the sinister forces of Islam that are determined to make American children wear the living room curtains to school. Legal motions have been filed, rejected, appealed, upheld, overturned again, and appealed again, on a legal merry-go-round. And, of course, there’s the simmering threat of violence. Acts of vandalism and threats of all sorts have showered the mosque and its community with their fellow Americans’ love and commitment to liberty.
The Ayodhya debacle arose from the assertion that a mosque did not belong on 2.77 acres regarded by some as Hindu ground. India has been dealing with religious pluralism for a long time, so these disputes have become focused on relative pinpoints of earth. Besides, historical and archaeological evidence on these 2.77 acres points to structures beneath the Babri Mosque that may (or may not) have Hindu origins. That is, the site itself is under a kind of copyright dispute.
There’s no such singularity about the city block on which the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been built. Nobody expects a fourteenth century Christian basilica is buried under there. Which may mean that the conflict in Murfreesboro is worse than in Ayodhya, and that it shows how young the United States still is. The conflict in Murfreesboro is propped up by the claim that ours is a Christian nation—not that the archaeological record suggests that this spot or that one gave a place to Christian worship, nor even that religio-mythic lore makes one spot or another especially sacred for Christians, but that the whole thing, from sea to sea, has a distinct and pervasive Christian identity. So, goes the argument, Christians have a claim to it, and there’s no 2.77 acres, no pinpoint of land, anywhere in Land of the Free on which any mosque belongs. The attempts at putting up a mosque can be dismantled, legally or otherwise.
The factions of our fellow citizens who would torch construction equipment at the site of an unfinished mosque show that the underdeveloped world is not twelve time zones away. As earnestly as the doomsayers of the moment would say that people, and cultures, and lifestyles, and buildings that are not Christian put the American way of life under threat, I would suggest that the inclination to smash things that strike us as weird threatens to bury America’s unique freedom.
Here’s hoping that Muslims in Murfreesboro will get to enjoy some of Ramadan in their new mosque, with the happiness and security that this developed country ought to ensure for all its citizens.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of “Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage” and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons, alike .”