Muslim mosque: Far from Ground Zero

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Saleh Sbenaty
Member, Planning Committee, Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Professor, Computer Engineering
Monday, August 23, 2010; 1:00 PM

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.

Saleh Sbenaty, a member of the planning committee for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and professor of computer engineering at Middle Tennessee State University, was online Monday, Aug. 23, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss anti-Muslim sentiment experienced far from New York City, and in other parts of the country.

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Saleh Sbenaty: Hello and Salam (peace):

This Dr. Saleh Sbenaty, a member of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro planning committee. I would like to welcome you to this chat and I hope I will be able to answer your questions.

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Washington, D.C.: In the Post article today you are quoted as saying that you have never experienced this level of hostility before (in regards to building the Islamic Center for Murfreesboro). Where is this anti-Muslim sentiment coming from? Do you feel it is spreading and if so, why?

Saleh Sbenaty: I believe it is fueled by fear and by two long wars with Islamic countries. To add to that, it is the election season and some of those who are running for office thought that they will get more votes by bashing Muslims and Islam more. I believe also some of the so called media outlets have programs dedicated to spreading fear and doubts about Muslims and Islam.

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Fairfax, Va.: Will construction of the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro proceed? I understand there are other centers there, that true?

Saleh Sbenaty: The construction will proceed, we have the legal approvals and site preparation has already started. Yes, there are other centers in the middle TN region, but all are crammed and looking for more space.

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Annapolis, Md.: What is the reaction in Tennessee to how this is being handled in New York?

Saleh Sbenaty: I believe in the freedom of speech, as well as freedom of religion. This is a great country to be in. I hope no one with a hidden agenda is fueling this hate wave against Muslims and Islam.

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Cumberland, Md.: I believe that if there is a lot of community opposition, it is wrong to go ahead even if you have the law on your side. It is a case of you may make things worse. What is wrong with just creating something smaller that may not be so objectionable to the community in which you live?

Saleh Sbenaty: We are building a 10,000 sq ft multi-purpose area as a first stage. The 52000 is just our vision for the future if the community can and want to support this project. It includes gym, pool, playgrounds, etc. Just like a YMCA! I believe you are wrong though in one point. The supporters to this project, however they might not be as vocal, far exceed the opposition. We have non-Muslims who even contributed funds to the project.

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Southwest Virginia: I'd like to tell you how sorry I am about the bigotry and misunderstanding that your congregation has experienced. I hope that it doesn't give your members who may be new to the U.S. a bad impression. As happens in any country, some of us have lost our way. Not that I speak for the country, but I'd like to apologize and express my sadness about what you're going through.

Saleh Sbenaty: you brought my eyes to tears. A big warm thank you! This is what this beautiful country stands for and makes it the best to be!

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Bethesda, Md.: I didn't know there was that large a Muslim population in Tennessee. Can you explain?

Saleh Sbenaty: TN is a growing state and Murfreesboro is one of the fastest growing city in the US. Many industries have moved here such as Nissan Headquarter and the Health industry that growing fast. Also Middle TN State University. has steadily grown. Many Muslim students and their families along with many faculties are moving into the city.

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Cumberland, Md.: Isn't forcing a mosque on a community that opposes it, even though you have the law on your side, apt to end up making Muslims and their faith more hated and looked upon with suspicion?

Saleh Sbenaty: As I said, there is a very small vocal group that want to oppose the project. The majority is in favor. Why would you cave in to the few? would you give up your constitutional rights if someone said I don't want you to exercise them?

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Arlington, Va.: Do you worry at all that this anti-Islam sentiment from so many people in this country will end up causing more radical Muslims in this country? Personally I am disgusted by the bigots in this country. They always seem to need some one to attack. If it's not racial minorities, it's gay...and now Muslims. I am also a bit curious with respect to how many folks in your particular group are from the Middle East and how many are Muslim converts. I wonder if that makes any difference.

Saleh Sbenaty: I believe this might drive especially young Muslims in this country to believe that they do not have equal rights and some might be driven to radical views. This would play more actually in the hands of those radicals outside the US. Our community is mixed, no majority from one area. A very growing convert population, white Anglo Americans who found peace and happiness within our community

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Downtown D.C.: I was surprised several years ago to read that my hometown of Columbia, Tenn,, had a small mosque. Then I read more recently that it had been the subject of, I think, arson. (Or it could have been less destructive vandalism; my memory fails me.) Murfreesboro was always considered to be a more sophisticated town than Columbia, but have you had any similar problems in the places you currently worship?

Saleh Sbenaty: The mosque in Colombia was torched after being vandalized. We had our sign vandalized then totally broken in pieces. I hope this will stop soon.

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Intolerance: It appears to me that so many Americans are intolerant of Muslim people because the Muslim people are intolerant of the Western lifestyle. We cannot go to a Muslim country and wear what we want but when Muslims come here, they expect to be able to do whatever they want. How can you justify that?

Saleh Sbenaty: what Muslim country did you go to, please do not give me just one example. I grew up in Damascus and visited many other Muslim countries. My friends are Christians and Jews. We did not have any problems. We had churches and almost every type of worship places and people lived happily together.

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Woodbridge, Va.: In my experience, most of those who are opposed don't actually know any Muslims personally. Is that your experience?

Saleh Sbenaty: Yes, you are absolutely true. I would go even more to say that they do not want to know. I believe some have closed their eyes and ears and just let fear go into their minds and hearts.

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College Park, Md.: Some of the opponents reportedly are fearful that a mosque in the area would impose Sharia law. Is this true? Is Sharia law practiced by most Muslims?

Saleh Sbenaty: If Sharia law is not imposed in either of the 50 or so majority-Muslim countries. How would about 1% of the US population and why would want to impose that? We also have the constitution to prevent any group from imposing its agenda on the majority.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Can you comment on whether the voices of opposition include both younger and older community members? I suspect that this issue is among many current controversies that exhibit a generational split?

Saleh Sbenaty: I believe that the younger generation is represented far less in the opposition than the other generation. Those younger ones are also misled by their elders. My kids from school to college did not experience any of this hate from their friends and are shocked to say the least. They are 20, 19, and 13 and born and raised here.

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Bethesda, Md.: I must admit I have anti-Muslim feelings, but, more even than terrorism, it's about the treatment of women. I hate the fact that so many women are forced to wear the burqa; I saw a little girl maybe 6-8 years old in a burqa at a fair in Alexandria, VA. That's just wrong. Others must wear the head scarf (I can't remember the name) and unfashionable clothes which cover their entire bodies. And of course there was the picture of the woman on the cover of Time Magazine whose nose had been cut off. And the pregnant woman who was stoned. Can you blame me?

Saleh Sbenaty: You may need to travel to see for yourself that the only countries that have dress codes are Iran and Saudi Arabia. They both have their reasons. Burqa is a custom not an Islamic dress. Many Muslims do not wear even a scarf on their head. The misconception about treating women wrong in Islam is absolutely not founded. Our prophet Muhammad till the minute he died was asking his companion to treat women right. Please distinguish between the religion and what people do culturally. I personally saw more women abuse in the US than any of the many places I have been to and lived in.

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Olney, Md.: Assalaam alaikum, As a Muslim myself, I do feel that a portion of the recent anti-Islam, anti-Muslim sentiments are due to the reasons you mentioned. I do also feel, I am sure you will agree, that as Muslims here in this country this is a further call for us to better engage our neighbors and those in our communities. I think many Muslims are afraid to do so, so I am wondering what actions we can take to help the common Muslim become a better ambassador of Islam in this country. I am NOT talking about proselytizing, but in just making human connections. People are smart enough to make their own decisions on what they wish to believe in. Any thoughts?

Saleh Sbenaty: Salam.. I totally agree.. we Muslims need to do more outreach activities. We have done that in the past and we are doing that this Ramadan. An iftar (dinner) for non-Muslims. We also did series of lectures in churches, schools, etc. about Islam and interfaith collaboration. Our supporters come from almost every religious group. We really need to do more but we are stretched to our limits.

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Washington, D.C.: How about a town meeting on TV with representatives on the different sides of the mosque/Muslim issue debating? Would that help get the proper message out about what is true and what is false about the Muslim faith?

Saleh Sbenaty: I wish that would help. Those who oppose do not want to reason nor give the other a chance to explain. They are very vocal and threatening. If they did not respond to the Mayor for his call to orderly conduct during their address to the commissioners and they verbally attacked a silent rally, how would you reason with such a group who just attacks Islam in general?

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washingtonpost.com: Far from Ground Zero, other plans for mosques run into vehement opposition (Post, Aug. 23)

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Arlington, Va.: Thank you for having this online discussion, and I am so sorry for the pain and bigotry your community is experiencing.

I just want to say to you and especially to all those who say "yes, the law is on your side, but please be sensitive and don't build": why in the world should anyone be "sensitive" to bigotry?

The law, beginning with the First Amendment, does not exist as a technicality or as a grudging concession to the distasteful rights of the few. It exists as a great and fundamental principle, a clarion standard for our nation. The First Amendment defines the "American way," and if community opinion diverges from it, it is the community that should re-train (and restrain) itself in accordance with the great standards that the First Amendment proclaims.

Saleh Sbenaty: THANK YOU, deep from the bottom of my heart!

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washingtonpost.com: Photo Gallery: Mosque near Ground Zero: Tribute to tolerance or symbol of pain?

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Detroit, Mich.: Please explain to me why I should have respect and tolerance for a religion that systematically treats women as second-class citizens. All across the Middle East, women are abused and oppressed.

Saleh Sbenaty: I grew up in the middle east, what you are saying is 100% wrong. Please do not stereotype. I have seen far more women abuse in this country. When did we have the right for women to vote? in 1920's along with England? Switzerland in the 1970's! Women had their rights since the dawn of Islam! Please distinguish between cultural practice and the religion itself!

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Rockville, Md.: "I hate the fact that so many women are forced to wear the burqa; I saw a little girl maybe 6-8 years old in a burqa at a fair in Alexandria, Va. That's just wrong. Others must wear the head scarf (I can't remember the name) and unfashionable clothes which cover their entire bodies. "

Hey Bethesda, what about fundamental Christians who must wear long skirts? Orthodox Jews and their various clothing requirements? Do these also offend you or is it just Muslims?

Saleh Sbenaty: Good point! Women in Damascus and all over the world cover their heads in Churches, out of respect! Muslim women have the choice, not forced to. The parent might ask their kids to do that when young. They have the freedom to do whatever when they grow up, however. Many Muslim women do not cover their heads. Walk in Cairo, Damascus, and most Muslim countries and you will see that for yourself.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm appalled by my fellow Americans. The bigotry and xenophobia is out of control. How non-Muslims are treated in Saudi Arabia or Iran or Libya or anywhere else should have absolutely no bearing on how Muslims are treated in the United States. Some days I fear for my country, and it has nothing to do with the growing and multicultural Muslim community.

Saleh Sbenaty: True.. That is what makes the US is the best place to be in. We stand for democracy and freedom. If we say "they do not allow us to build churches in so and so" are we saying that we want to be just like these countries?

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Washington, D.C.: How many converts are there? I was unaware of this. Are they converting from Christianity to the Muslim faith?

Saleh Sbenaty: Maybe around 50 in our 250-family community. They are coming from every background almost. The number grew rapidly after the tragic events of 9/11 since people started to read and learn about Islam on their own. We do not have an "Evangelical" program, they mostly learn on their own and come to practice their faith with the community.

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New York, N.Y.: I'm of two minds on all of this and would love to hear your take. I support your right to build your mosque. If there is a need for a house of worship in Murfreesboro for Muslims it should be built. No questions.

However, as a New Yorker I can't help but be disturbed by the plans for the Cordoba Institute(I'll refrain from calling it the "Ground Zero Mosque"). The pain of the wound of 9/11 is so raw still that building an Islamic cultural center before we've even finished rebuilding the WTC site, building the memorial to the dead seems insensitive. I acknowledge straight out that my view on this subject comes from a place of pain and emotion, essentially an illogical place, so I am keen to hear other takes on it.

Saleh Sbenaty: I feel with you. I cannot speak on behalf of the community there. However, not allowing the center in NYC (the name has been changed from Cordoba out of sympathy to those who have issues with the name) to be built is just saying that Islam is responsible for 9/11. I totally reject that! If we say not there, then where? Would one mile away be ok? Then others will say, look they are building within a mile from ground zero. Say five mile would be ok then? Others would say, not the US, go home and build your mosque there. But this is our home, where should we go?

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Seattle, Wash.: I am reminded of many people I know who have bumper stickers/Facebook tags/etc., that say, "Freedom Isn't Free." Usually, they're trying to remind us to remember service people living and gone.

I also think it applies here: Freedom means freedom for people in the minority, whether the majority likes it or not, and regardless of whether their feelings are hurt. Your hurt feelings are a cost of freedom.

Saleh Sbenaty: True and we have lost over 5000 servicemen in two long ward to free MUSLIMS from tyranny and oppression. So if we do not practice this freedom at home, we are going to look like a bunch of hypocrites.

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Alexandria, Va.: Years ago I attended college in France for a year. In the end I had a wonderful experience but for months I struggled to connect socially with French students, as I was shy and struggling with the language.

Well, a lively, bubbly, warm, loud, music-loving, frequently hilarious group of Moroccan girls (and a few Moroccan guys lucky to be their pals) befriended me and that was the beginning of my mastery of the French language (their language skills were superb) and respect for Moroccan, Arab, and Muslim cultures.

I think the problem many Americans have is that they have not had the experience of bonding personally with any Muslims, and so for them they are "other," and as such, weird and scary. (And, convenient scapegoats when things are not going well.)

Meanwhile, I would not be surprised if many American Muslims are feeling less inclined to reach out beyond their immediate social circles. At the moment, they may feel spurned and threatened.

I think this is the big problem. We do not know each other, and so only stereotypes (and opportunists who jump at the chance to exploit them) prevail.

Saleh Sbenaty: That really explains a lot! Thanks

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Alexandria, Va.: How are Muslims in the Middle East viewing the current controversy about the Islamic Center in New York and the upcoming one in Murfreesboro?

Saleh Sbenaty: They see us as we are country that says one thing and might practice another. Unfortunately, this might not play well to our side. Radicals might use this to recruit the young and un-educated.

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Washington, D.C.: "Cordoba Institute"

If what you are saying is true ... why on earth does the Muslim community want to call it the Cordoba Institute? Cordoba, in case you are unaware, represents one of the most bloody Muslim conquests of Europe in history in which Christians were murdered and towns burnt down.

Not exactly a peaceful reference to history?

Saleh Sbenaty: You need to get a quick refresh in history.. An easier way, Please see YouTube of Keith Olberman (not sure of his last name spelling) about the "No Ground Zero Mosque"

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Video: Keith Olbermann Special Comment: There Is No 'Ground Zero Mosque' - 08/16/10 (YouTube, Aug. 16)

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Washington, D.C.: My concern isn't the mosque...it's who is funding it and what is being tough there.

Look at all the Muslim charities that, after 9-11, were found to be funneling money to terrorist groups. Let's also not forget that the Iman fundraising for this group hasn't said he wouldn't take money from Saudi Arabia, etc.

Couple that with the hate that has been exposed as being taught at numerous mosques in the U.S., cant. you understand why this make some uneasy?

The race card doesn't explain it all ... It's more than just race.

Saleh Sbenaty: 90% of our funds have been raised from our community. The rest is from within the US. If any would donate, no attachments will be accepted!

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Saleh Sbenaty: Thank you all for chatting with me. I really appreciate your questions. Sorry for those who I could not reply to due to time limit.

May God bless you, bless the USA and watch over our country.

Saleh

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