After Attacks and Threats, Tennessee Mosque Opens






After years of attacks, threats and court action, an Islamic center in Tennessee cleared one last hurdle that allowed it to open its doors on Friday to worshipers, allowing them to honor the occasion with prayers on what is Islam’s main congregational day of the week. But the opening of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was overshadowed by concerns after the shooting of worshipers at a Sikh temple on Sunday in Wisconsin and an arson attack on a mosque in Missouri this week.

“We are hoping for the best,” said Saleh Sbenaty, one of the center’s board members, in an interview on Friday.

The timing also means that they will be able to celebrate in their new center the feast called Eid al-Fitr. The feast, which is expected to fall on Aug. 19, is the end of the holiest Islamic month of the year, Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

Finally done #mosque #islam #finally

Amer sultan (@Amer_Sultan81) 10 Aug 12

The mosque prayer hall forms just one part of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, a 12,000-square-foot site which will eventually be expanded to more than 50,000 square feet to include a gym and a swimming pool, Mr. Sbenaty said.

The prayer hall itself, about 4,500 square feet, can hold up to 500 worshipers, but has a movable wall to divide the area to allow for other uses like interfaith events, he said. Such events in the past have been held in rented spaces.

The mosque faced arson, vandalism and a court battle before it cleared a final step when it passed inspection this week and was given a temporary certificate of occupancy for 30 days.

Members of the congregation brought in rugs, while construction crews put finishing touches on the parking lot. Workers raised an American flag on a pole in front of the center, which lies next to a Baptist church on the outskirts of Murfreesboro.

Standing in the parking lot, Dan J. Qualls, 50, a former car plant worker, said he came to the center to protest. Mr. Qualls, wearing an “I Love Jesus” hat, said he understood that the First Amendment protects the right to worship freely but said he believed Islam represented violence.

On Friday, when he heard about the mosque’s opening on the local television news, he decided to come out and “represent the Christians.” “My honest opinion is, I wish this wasn’t here,” he said.

On Twitter, some people welcomed the mosque.

Mr. Sbenaty said the center will hold an official, full-scale opening in several weeks after a permanent certificate of occupancy is issued, but they opened the prayer hall for the special weekly Friday worship, known as “jumaa.” He estimated that there were about 250 to 300 Muslim families in the area who would likely be regularly served by the center.

Mr. Sbenaty said they were “very concerned” about safety after the Sikh temple shooting and the fire at the Joplin, Mo., mosque.

“Even before those incidents we were the subject of vandalism, intimidation, arson and bomb threats,” he said. “We are not new to this. But we are not going to be deterred. We are not going to give up our rights just because somebody is going to threaten us.”

During its expansion, vandals painted ”not welcome” on construction signs at the mosque and set fire to construction equipment, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies are investigating as a possible hate crime.

As The Lede’s Rob Mackey wrote in 2010, Mr. Sbenaty, an engineering professor at Middle Tennessee State University and member of the Islamic center’s planning committee, also reported two volleys of gunshots fired near the property the day after the fire on the mosque’s construction equipment.

In June of this year, a Texas man was indicted on charges that he left messages threatening to detonate a bomb at the center on Sept. 11. And in May, a county judge ruled that the construction plans had not received sufficient comment from the public and that an occupancy permit could not be granted. Federal prosecutors filed a discrimination lawsuit, and a federal judge ruled in the mosque’s favor last month.

Murfreesboro, a city of about 110,000, is about 30 miles from Nashville. At a heated public hearing in 2010, Kim Severson, a reporter for The New York Times wrote, residents testified that Islam was not a religion and that the center was part of a plot to replace the Constitution with Shariah law, the legal code of Islam. A protest and counterprotest drew nearly 800 people, and a local Republican candidate for Congress tried to link the center to Hamas.

The last days of Ramadan are particularly significant for Muslims, many of whom spend more time in mosques during that period. The Council on American-Islamic Relations called this week for extra police protection on Muslim institutions after the Sikh temple killings of six worshipers, and after the Joplin mosque was burned to the ground on Monday.

It was the second such arson attack on that mosque. The first was on July 4, and the F.B.I. later released a video of the suspect wanted in that attack.


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