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Far from Ground Zero, other plans for mosques run into vehement opposition

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While the debate continues to brew around the mosque being built near Ground Zero in New York City, Muslims have been worshiping at another Sept. 11, 2001, crash site in Washington, D.C..

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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

MURFREESBORO, TENN. -- For more than 30 years, the Muslim community in this Nashville suburb has worshipped quietly in a variety of makeshift spaces -- a one-bedroom apartment, an office behind a Lube Express -- attracting little notice even after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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But when the community's leaders proposed a 52,900-square-foot Islamic center with a school and a swimming pool this year, the vehement backlash from their neighbors caught them by surprise. Opponents crowded county meetings and held a noisy protest in the town square that drew hundreds, some carrying signs such as "Keep Tennessee Terror Free."

"We haven't experienced this level of hostility before ever, so it's new to us," said Saleh M. Sbenaty, an engineering professor who is overseeing the mosque's planned expansion.

The Murfreesboro mosque is hundreds of miles from New York City and the national furor about whether an Islamic community center should be built near Ground Zero. But the intense feelings driving that debate have surfaced in communities from California to Florida in recent months, raising questions about whether public attitudes toward Muslims have shifted.

In Tennessee, three plans for new Islamic centers in the Nashville area -- one of which was ultimately withdrawn -- have provoked controversy and outbursts of ugliness. Members of one mosque discovered a delicately rendered Jerusalem cross spray-painted on the side of their building with the words "Muslims go home."

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro became a hot-button political issue during this month's primary election, prompting failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey to ask whether Islam was a "cult."

Another candidate paid for a billboard high above Interstate 24 near Nashville that read: "Defeat Universal Jihad Now."

Evangelist Pat Robertson weighed in Thursday, wondering on his television program whether a Muslim takeover of America was imminent and whether local officials could be bribed. (The mayor of the county where the Islamic Center is proposed called that idea "ridiculous.")

The members of the Murfreesboro mosque, who say they have always rejected extremism, have been bewildered by the vitriol.

Sbenaty, 52, who came to the United States from Syria for his doctoral studies three decades ago, gets misty-eyed describing the kindness his neighbors showed his family after Sept. 11. At one point, he recalled, he was in a shopping mall parking lot with his wife, who wears a hijab, and a group of locals made a point to stop and assure them they had nothing to fear.

The other day, however, as he was standing on the mosque's 15-acre parcel of land just outside town, drivers honked and flipped their middle fingers in the air as they rode past.

"It's tough to see that change," Sbenaty said.


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