By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; A2
Muslim leaders are debating the wisdom of inviting FBI agents to mosques to provide protection at a time of rising anti-Muslim rhetoric and debate about the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero.
The issue surfaced Tuesday as word spread of a Nashville mosque's decision to host two FBI agents at a prayer service last Saturday night. The agents discussed the investigation of a fire, suspected to be arson, at a planned mosque in nearby Murfreesboro, a project that has also triggered vehement opposition. The agents then silently observed prayers from the back row.
"I don't think it's really appropriate to station agents in mosques," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. "It has a chilling effect on a house of worship, and we would have concerns that agents would also be gathering information on ordinary worshipers."
The dispute reflects the tensions between the FBI and some Muslims since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The FBI has reached out to Muslims but also tried to keep tabs on their community, staying alert for signs of terrorist plots. A coalition of leading Muslim groups last year threatened to suspend contacts with the bureau over what it called inappropriate infiltration of mosques.
But others are welcoming the FBI's presence at a time of intense debate over U.S. Muslims and their houses of worship. A recent Time magazine poll found that 43 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of Muslims amid controversy over the proposed Islamic centers near Ground Zero and in the Nashville suburbs.
"I think people felt reassured that the FBI is helping us and supporting us and will make sure that nothing happens to our mosque," said Amir Arain, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Nashville, which invited the two agents in response to Saturday morning's fire at the construction site of the Murfreesboro mosque.
"That was a hate crime, so the FBI needs to be involved," said Arain, who said the fire was the third incident of vandalism at a Nashville-area mosque this year.
Supervisory Special Agent Scott Augenbaum, a spokesman for the FBI's Nashville office, said agents attended the prayer service "because we were invited guests" and to reinforce that "hate crimes and violations of civil rights are very important priorities for the FBI."
"We have a long-standing relationship with the Muslim community," said Augenbaum, adding that the FBI's outreach "is important for us to build bridges, to build relationships out there." FBI and other federal officials met with local Muslim leaders Monday at the U.S. attorney's office in Nashville, seeking to ease their concerns about violence.
The FBI, along with local officials and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, is investigating Saturday's fire. Glenn Anderson, special agent in charge of the ATF's Nashville field division, said the early morning blaze destroyed a dump truck at the mosque site and damaged three other construction vehicles.
He said that gasoline was apparently poured over the vehicles and that officials "are leaning toward arson," pending laboratory results.
Saleh Sbenaty, a spokesman for the planned 52,900-square-foot Islamic center, which will include a school and swimming pool, said congregants are "really scared" but determined to proceed with construction. "This is our constitutional right," he said.
Sbenaty said that there should be a law enforcement presence at prayer services but that it should be police, not the FBI. "There is some sensitivity about the FBI," he said. "People think the FBI is quicker to investigate terrorism than when someone is terrorizing the Islamic community."
But Agha Saeed, national chairman of the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections - a coalition of leading Muslim groups - said he "applauded and welcomed" the FBI's presence at the Saturday prayers.
"That's the FBI's job: to protect citizens," said Saeed, whose organization threatened to suspend contacts with the FBI last year and who still says the FBI's relationship with the Muslim community is "troubled."