[Marxism] Islamophobia threatens mosques everywhere

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 23 07:45:27 MDT 2010

Far from Ground Zero, other plans for mosques run into vehement 

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area -- one of which was ultimately withdrawn -- have provoked 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 

"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," the strict code of conduct based on the Koran.

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."

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