This was published in the Sunday Herald on September 12, 2010.
The mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee is a nondescript building, one street back from the main road in an industrial estate. There used to be a sign, but it was vandalised twice this summer, once with spray paint, the second time with an axe. There is now no indication at all that it is a place of worship.
On Friday, an armed guard stood outside the front door, while a few hundred Muslims prayed inside. Attendance has been lower than usual, because people are scared. State police and the FBI are on alert, as they investigate a campaign of harassment, but since the death threats and warning shots, the community feels safer with security of its own.
This weekend, as the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks coincided with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, most attention was focused on downtown Manhattan, where demonstrators clashed outside the so-called Ground Zero mosque. In Florida, Pastor Terry Jones proved to have an irresistible, car crash appeal for the media, despite universal condemnation of his threat to burn the Quran.
The muted celebrations of Eid-Al-Fitr in Murfreesboro passed with little comment, but it is here that the battle for religious freedom in America is being fought. In small towns and suburbs across the USA, wherever Muslims gather, their right to worship in peace is being challenged, in local disputes that are increasingly taking an ugly, violent turn.
Murfreesboro is a commuter town, half an hour South of Nashville, deep in the Bible Belt. Its mosque was founded in 1981, to cater for a handful of overseas students, and has grown steadily ever since. It now serves around a thousand people, from the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Africa and South-East Asia, as well as a substantial number of American converts.
Essam Fathy, an Egyptian physical therapist, was one of the original members. “The relationship all along has been excellent,” he said. “There was no hostility, no tension, no negativity that I can remember.” In the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks, when there was a rash of hate crimes against Muslims, Murfreesboro experienced no trouble at all.
“I remember when September 11 happened we received a lot of support,” Fathy told me. “I got calls, from friends and people that I don’t know, asking ‘are you OK?’ We were worried that something might happen but it was the opposite. Our neighbours showed their support and understanding.”
Professor Saleh Sbenaty, another longstanding member of the mosque, had a similar experience. “I was walking with my wife and kids, two days after 9/11, when another family stopped us,” he recalled. “We were nervous, but they said ‘we know you are Muslim, we know you had nothing to do with this, let us know if we can help you.’ So it reassured us that this was a good place to live.”
All that changed in May, when an extension to the mosque was granted planning permission by the local council. Opponents flooded the courthouse, making objections “not against the proposal, but against Islam itself.” People started leaving threatening messages on the mosque answerphone. Equipment at the building site was doused in petrol and set alight. When members made their concerns public, the campaign of fear intensified.
“I was at the site, in the middle of a CNN interview, when shots were fired,” Fathy said. “We were talking about the vandalism, the fire, when we heard pop-pop-pop-pop-pop – it sounded like a big gun, not a pistol or a hunting rifle. They fired two bursts. We took shelter behind the construction equipment.”
Sbenaty was there too. “It’s a charged atmosphere,” he said. “Children are asking their mothers ‘please don’t go to the mall, because you are known to be Muslim as you wear a headscarf.’ The son of a close friend was called a terrorist by his classmate last week. People are really scared, worried about the safety of their families.”
Opposition to the mosque has been led by Republican politicians, notably Tennessee’s Lieutenant-Governor Ron Ramsey, who has described Islam as “a cult” rather than a religion. Pastor Allen Jackson, whose World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro boasts 6,000 members, preaches that Islam is an evil that must be confronted.
Although Fathy insisted that the loudest voices at protests against the mosque are not from within the town, demonstrations have revealed how much local antipathy there is to the Muslim faith. “I strongly believe that they are agitators coming from outside,” he said. “They have planted seeds in the minds and hearts of people who are not informed, or misinformed, and now they are opposed to us.
“People running for government are supposed to be responsible, but they spread hostility and hate. They say we are planning a terrorist training camp in the heart of Rutherford County. When people say things like this, it worries me, because who knows what the effect will be?”
At a national level, the most incendiary rhetoric is coming from people who profit directly from Islamophobia. Pam Geller, the organiser of Saturday’s protests against the Cordoba Initiative in New York, has made a lucrative career out of demonising Muslims. When Pastor Bill Keller launched a Christian alternative to the “victory mosque” in downtown Manhattan, he paused from denouncing Islam as “a 1,400 lie from the pits of hell” to solicit donations, claiming it would cost $7,000 a week to run his new church.
Last year, a thousand Protestant pastors were asked which of two statements best represented their beliefs about Islam: evangelist Franklin Graham’s claim that it is “a very evil and a very wicked religion,” or former President George Bush’s assertion that it is “based upon peace and love and compassion.” 47% chose Graham, while only 24% chose Bush. Many of the most influential Christian leaders in America have made confronting Islam a key tenet of their ministries.
Politicians have also been stoking the fire. Former House Speaker (and presumed Presidential candidate) Newt Gingrich has made the most reckless comments, equating Islam with Nazism and hinting that Muslims are bent on overturning the Constitution, but in opposing the “Ground Zero mosque” several of his colleagues in the Republican party have implicitly drawn a line against the entire faith, rather than the specific proposal being made by the Cordoba Initiative.
A group of prominent Muslim conservatives, alarmed by the tone of the debate, recently wrote an open letter to Republican party leadership: “While we share the desire of all in our party to be successful in the November elections, we cannot support victory at the expense of the US Constitution or the Arab and Muslim community in America,” it read.
Political consultant Randa Fahmy Hudome, who served in the Bush administration’s Energy Department, was one of the signatories. “When Newt Gingrich started a war against something that doesn’t exist, I felt the need to stand up, because no-one else in my party was,” she said. “Where did this nonsensical repetition of ‘no Sharia law in the United States’ come from?”
Hudome noted that several prominent Democrats, including Senate Leader Harry Reid, have been careless with their language, making no distinction between Islam and radical Islamism. She also claimed that since the letter, senior Republicans have “backed off,” pointing out that Gingrich pulled out of Geller’s rally near Ground Zero in favour of a comparatively restrained remembrance service for victims of terrorism in Washington.
Even so, she seemed convinced, as a Republican and a Muslim, that if it swings enough marginal contests to win back the House or Senate in November, increased intolerance is a price worth paying. “The mosque is a good wedge issue, because the majority of Americans do not understand Islam,” she said. “Politicians will say anything and do anything to get elected and Islam inspires a lot of strong negative emotions.”
Research bears this out. Each year, Gallup conducts a major survey of religious attitudes in the USA. In the most recent poll, 23% of respondents said that their opinion of Islam was “not too favourable” and 31% said it was “not favourable at all”. In a Pew Charitable Trust study, four in ten people admitted to being prejudiced against Muslims.
“It has been simmering and just needed the spark, which was the Manhattan Islamic centre,” said Corey Saylor, Legislative Director of the Council on Islamic American Relations (CAIR). “Prejudice tends to be socially unacceptable, but when people like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh start to suggest that it’s legitimate, people feel free to express it.”
At a mosque in Madera, California, it was expressed in a smashed window and signs reading “no temple for the god of terrorism”. In Jacksonville, Florida, a man set off a pipe bomb during evening prayer. In Westport, teenagers looking for “the wrong kind of fun” deliberately drove their car into a group of Muslim worshippers. Passenger Anthony Ogden told police he had heard that the World Sufi Foundation mosque was a cult house where people drank blood.
In New York city, student Michael Enright allegedly asked taxi driver Ahmed Sharif whether he was a Muslim before slashing his face with a knife, shouting “consider this a checkpoint”. He had recently spent time with US troops in Afghanistan, as part of a university project, and his bag contained a diary of his experiences there, plus an empty bottle of whisky.
The Anti-Defamation League, a predominantly Jewish organisation which monitors hate crimes, has reported a spike in violent acts against Muslims. It is extremely difficult to pin these attacks to irresponsible political rhetoric, but it is surely no coincidence that tensions boiled over in Murfreesboro this summer, after three decades of peace between Muslims and their Christian neighbours.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf recently spoke of a “wonderful outpouring of support” in favour of his proposed cultural centre and mosque near Ground Zero, but as demonstrators clashed outside yesterday, it felt like one step forward, two steps back.
The article ran alongside a shorter piece, filed close to deadline from near Ground Zero, on September 11, as the protests against the mosque (and a competing demonstration in favour of freedom of religion) began. Here is the text:
Across the Unites States, political and religious leaders pleaded for the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks to be observed in a spirit of unity and tolerance. On the streets of New York, two blocks from where the twin towers fell, it seemed like a forlorn hope.
An unamed American protestor walked along Church Street, swarmed by press photographers, spitting on the Quran. He then managaed to burn one page of the book before being bundled away by police.
The names of those who perished in the World Trade Centre were still being read when the first physical confrontation occurred. Ed Dougherty, a Vietnam veteran with a tattoo reading “9/11, never forget, never forgive” on his left arm, and Gary Phaneuf, a supporter of the Park 51 mosque project, were pulled apart by NYPD officers, to prevent a fight.
Dougherty carried a copy of the US Constitution. Lawrence Ratzkin, a graphic designer, told him “this country has a document that guarantees freedom of religion. If you believe in this country, whatever your feelings, you have to live by that.”
The tension was defused. Doughtery conceded that “they have a right to build it here. I’d just rather they didn’t.”
Lance Corey carried a sign that read “Mohammed was the first radical Muslim.”
“This is psychological jihad,” he said. “My brother-in-law died here.”
Maria Smith wore a t-shirt reading “no victory trophies on our hallowed ground.” She said that out of sensitivity to the victims of 9/11, the cultural centre should be moved. “We want a compromise. If you really want to heal, move it,” she said. When pressed, she adopted a more hardline posture. “Radical Islam, whenever they hurt someone, they like to leave a trophy behind. I am here to defend the souls of those who died.”
Standing on the corner of Park Place, 100 metres from the proposed site of the cultural centre, student Shyla Johnson held a sign reading “no gods, no masters, no tragedies”.
“It’s an atheist’s plea for peace,” she said. But few people were listening.