By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; A01
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.
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In Tennessee, three plans for new Islamic centers in the Nashville area -- one of which was ultimately withdrawn -- have provoked controversy and outbursts of ugliness.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.Change in tone
A Time magazine poll released Thursday found that 43 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of Muslims, far outpacing the numbers for Mormons (29 percent), Catholics (17 percent), Jews (13 percent) and Protestants (13 percent). Twenty-five percent of those polled said most Muslims in the United States are not patriotic Americans.
Although the overall level of anti-Muslim sentiment hasn't shifted much since the uproar over the mosque near Ground Zero, the change in tone has been striking, religious scholars and other experts say.
The reasons are myriad: rising fears of homegrown terrorism after the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted Times Square bombing, the rhetoric of the burgeoning "tea party" political movement and increasing unhappiness with President Obama. A growing number of Americans -- one in five -- believe the president is a Muslim, according to a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"It shouldn't be surprising that there's a negative reaction to this mosque," said Richard Lloyd, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University. "Because you can connect it to this global media event in New York, it just reinforces this siege mentality local residents have."
Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University, said a Florida church's plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of Sept. 11 is emblematic of the country's new mood.
"Something more is happening," Ahmed said. "We are becoming aware that the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims is wider than it was after 9/11, and that's a frightening prospect."
In the Nashville area, the Muslim population has grown to 20,000 to 25,000, fueled by the arrival of Somalis fleeing strife and the federal government's decision to resettle Iraqi refugees there after the Persian Gulf War. Central Tennessee is now home to the country's largest population of Iraqi Kurds.
The community has outgrown its four mosques, where men often have to pray in the parking lots because of the crowds, leaders say.'A certain amount of fear'
Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, is a quiet town of 100,000 people, largely white conservative Christians. Residents take pride in the historic town square skirting an antebellum courthouse, the site of a famous Confederate raid during the Civil War. Patriotic banners line the lampposts. On the highway, there's a Sonic drive-in every few miles. Gospel music radio stations are as numerous as those playing country music.
The 250 or so families -- about 1,000 people -- who worship at the existing Islamic Center come from around the globe and include doctors, car salesmen and students from nearby Middle Tennessee State University. Members of the mosque have raised about $600,000 to buy land and prepare the site for a 10,000-square-foot gathering place. Plans for a school, pool and cemetery are expected to take years to complete.
But the vision of a large-scale complex has caused consternation among locals.
"What I sense is a certain amount of fear fueling the animosity," said Jim Daniel, a former county commissioner and former county Republican Party chairman, sitting down for lunch one day last week at City Cafe. Residents worry that "the Muslims coming in here will keep growing in numbers and override our system of law and impose sharia law."
Daniel and his dining partner -- the local Democratic Party chairman, Jonathon Fagan, 32 -- say they're uneasy about the proposal but agree that Rutherford County followed the law when it approved the plans for the Islamic Center in May.
"We have to allow them freedom of religion," Fagan said with a tight smile. "It takes courage to live in a free country. We have to have the courage to do that, even if we don't agree with it."
The man leading the fight against the mosque is a stocky 44-year-old correctional officer named Kevin Fisher. After he heard about the proposal, he voiced his opposition with an op-ed in the town's alternative weekly.
Fisher spent his formative years in Buffalo, where a homegrown terrorist cell of Yemeni Americans was uncovered in 2002. Its presence in a place so familiar haunts Fisher to this day, he said. He is well aware that clerics at U.S. mosques have been accused of espousing radical views in the years before and after Sept. 11.
And he pointed out that one of the Murfreesboro mosque's board members was suspended after the discovery of a MySpace page where he had posted Arabic poetry and a photo of the founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas. Leaders of the mosque said their internal investigation showed no wrongdoing, and they are cooperating with federal authorities looking into the matter.
"So many things about Islam are disconcerting," Fisher said. "As they get bigger, there will be concerns about the ideology, what they preach and what they believe."
Fisher, who is African American, chafes when the mosque's supporters "dial up the rhetoric from the '60s" to attack opponents by accusing them of bigotry against Muslims.
"It's offensive to me," he said. His stepmother "was dragged off restaurant stools in the 1960s and has cigarette burns in her arm. That's discrimination."Town square showdown
One recent hot day, the two sides met at a protest rally in the Murfreesboro town square. Opponents of the mosque marched, prayed and sang "God Bless America." They were greeted by a line of counter-protesters with peace signs. Fingers pointed. Words flew.
About 1,000 people were there, and afterward, one of them, Sherry McLain, told a local radio station that she was worried about plans that had surfaced this spring for new Islamic centers in her town and two nearby communities.
"That frightens me," she said. "Something's going on, and I don't like it. We're at war with these people."
Fisher said the protest was a "a beautiful example of our democracy at work." But Lema Sbenaty, Saleh's 19-year-old daughter and an MTSU student, didn't see it that way.
"I don't think I've ever experienced anything like that," she said later. "You could see the hatred in their eyes."
On Friday night, Lema and her mother, Fetoun, 47, a preschool teacher, gathered with about 200 others at the existing Islamic Center for iftar, the feasts held during the holy month of Ramadan to break the daily sunrise-to-sunset fasting.
The mosque, housed in a low-slung office building, is divided into two suites, one for men and one for women. In the women's room, about 35 women listened to prayers via closed-circuit TV streaming from the men's side and then sat cross-legged on the floor for a dinner of rice and lamb with yogurt sauce. One of the men had pulled his Dodge Ram truck up to the door of the mosque and cooked the lamb -- butchered according to halal guidelines -- in a huge pot just outside.
As dozens of children played, Lema, Fetoun and the others said they were dismayed that their hopes for a larger worship space had garnered such negative attention nationally. They said they hoped it would be resolved peacefully and soon.
"God will decide," Fetoun Sbenaty said. "It's his house."