The Brentwood Mosque that was in the works for quite some time has been defeated, and though there were issues with zoning, the atmosphere surrounding the campaign against it was at the very least vitriolic, and at the most extremely Islamophobic.
Mosques have been, and are, increasingly becoming battlegrounds for those who wish to pitch their xenophobic and Islamophobic messages. A place of worship going up in a particular area is a complex issue and when fearmongering is added to the mix it can be a volatile cocktail.
The same thing is happening in New York with regards to the proposed mosque that will be a few blocks from ground zero. The crusade against that mosque is being led by Pamela Geller and her hate group SIOA (Stop the Islamization of America) which is patterned after a European fascist organization named SIOE (Stop the Islamization of Europe). The main strategy of SIOE is to stop the construction of mosques and we are already seeing the same from SIOA.
Brentwood Mosque not Alone in Defeat by Bob Smietana
The plan to derail a proposed mosque in Brentwood was simple but effective.
Through e-mails, blogs and word of mouth, opponents told friends and neighbors they were suspicious of the mosque and feared its leaders had ties to terrorist organizations. They encouraged citizens to write letters to the city commission expressing their concerns, including worries about traffic and flooding.
On Wednesday night, the mosque’s organizers admitted defeat. They withdrew their application to rezone 14 acres on Wilson Pike for a house of worship. Community opposition and the $450,000 cost of building a turn lane made the project untenable.
“There comes a time when you have to say, ‘We can’t do this anymore,’ ” said Jaweed Ansari, a Brentwood physician and spokesman for the Islamic Center of Williamson County.
Every year, hundreds of new houses of worship are proposed around the United States. A growing number face resistance from neighbors and government officials who see places of worship as a nuisance because they don’t pay taxes, often ask for special exceptions to zoning rules and cause traffic congestion. But religious liberty advocates say these objections can trample the First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
Ansari admits the mosque plan wasn’t perfect. Most of the 14 acres is on a flood plain, a problem exacerbated by Middle Tennessee’s recent storms. Only about 4 acres was needed for the mosque, so organizers didn’t see that as a problem. They also felt the site, which borders a park and has neighbors only on one side, would be fairly unobtrusive.
“We realized going into this that nobody wants anything in their backyard, regardless of whether it is a church or a Walmart or whatever,” he said.
To allay neighbors’ fears, the Islamic Center agreed to a series of restrictions on the site. The mosque would have been relatively small, with a prayer hall for about 325 people and a fellowship hall and kitchen for meals and gatherings. The mosque would not have had outside loudspeakers to broadcast a call to prayer and few outside lights.
“We started this in very good faith,” he said. “We had a neighborhood meeting, and we thought this would be a friendly thing. Instead of that, it turned out to be a very angry thing.”
‘No one can predict’
Matt Bonner, who lives in Nashville but is a member of Brentwood United Methodist Church, helped organize resistance to the mosque.
“Not enough people understand the political doctrine of Islam,” he said in an interview before the mosque project was withdrawn. “The fact is that the mosques are more than just a church. No one can predict what this one will be used for.”
Bonner said his suspicions about Islam were shaped in part by the writings of Bill French, a former physics professor who now runs the Nashville-based Center for the Study of Political Islam. The center is a for-profit book publisher run by French, who writes under the pen name Bill Warner. He argues that Islam is not really a religion. Instead, Warner says that Islam is a dangerous political ideology.
Bonner also accused the Islamic Center of trying to bully the city of Brentwood into accepting its proposal. During a May 5 meeting, the center’s attorney pointed out that federal and state law gives religious institutions special protections when it comes to zoning.
Ansari says the center’s lawyer was at the meeting to protect the rights of the families who were trying to organize the mosque. Bonner didn’t see it that way.
“The impression is that they are seeking special treatment,” he said. “What kind of neighbor is that who comes in threatening lawsuits?”
The accusations of bullying and ties to terrorism mystify Ansari. The organizers of the mosque are a small group of Muslims, who live in Williamson County, pay taxes and love their community, he said.
“We are trying to build a place where God’s name will be glorified,” Ansari said. “The same God that the Christians and Jews worship.”
None of the organizers has any ties to extremists and they are no threat to anyone, he said.
“We are a small group of 40 people, and no matter where we want to build, thousands of people can come in opposition,” he said. “What does that mean? Does that mean that minorities have no right? If they don’t want us to have the mosque, does that mean we can’t have a mosque?”
Despite the opposition, mosque organizers have no plans to sue. That would defeat the purpose of the mosque, Ansari said.
“For us, to be good citizens and to have good will is more important,” he said.
Other religious groups have found that a lawsuit is the only way to get their buildings approved, said Eric Rassbach, director of litigation for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Rassbach has represented Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and other religious groups in zoning fights. More than 100 houses of worship nationwide are involved in lawsuits over land use, he said.
“That’s because many communities are hostile to houses of worship,” Rassbach said. Zoning, he said, is often used as an excuse for religious discrimination.
“The problem is that zoning codes allow governments a lot of leeway to inject discriminatory purposes in ways that are hard to detect,” he said.
The most common objections are what Rassbach calls the holy trinity of religious land use lawsuits — complaints about noises, traffic and congestion.
In 2006, he represented a Zen Buddhist group in New York whose zoning application was denied.
“Neighbors complained that this silent meditation center would make too much noise,” he said.
A federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — or RLUIPA — protects churches from such complaints, Rassbach said. Under that law, governments can’t impose substantial burdens on houses of worship when it comes to zoning. That means they can’t deny zoning unless they have a compelling reason to do so. And governments must use the least restrictive means possible when they limit zoning, Rassbach said.
Rassbach said that requiring the $450,000 turn lane may have violated federal law but he could understand why the mosque was reluctant to sue.
Hedy Weinberg, director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said that laws like RLUIPA protect everyone’s rights to worship.
“You can’t keep someone out just because you don’t like their religion,” she said.
Some of the proposed mosque’s neighbors were saddened to hear the project was canceled.
“We’re very disappointed,” said the Rev. Randall Dunnavant, rector at Church of the Good Shepherd, whose property is across the street from the proposed mosque site.
Dunnavant said that Brentwood has strict zoning codes, something he supports.
The Episcopal priest believes the zoning issues at the mosque site could have been resolved. The hostility of some mosque opponents is another matter.
Rabbi Laurie Rice at Congregation Micah said the failure of the mosque project showed that Brentwood still has a long way to go when it comes to interfaith relations.
“We have great work to do in our Brentwood community,” she said in an e-mail to colleagues. “It is only through knowing one another, seeing our own face in the face of the other, that we can cut through the misconception and fear that often leads to bigotry.”
Since 2000, Brentwood has received 15 rezoning requests from religious institutions. Ten passed, three failed, and two were withdrawn.
Ansari said that he and other organizers are worn out from working on the failed Wilson Pike proposal, which took months of planning and cost thousands of dollars.
“We’ll look for another place,” he said. “What else can we do? All of us cannot pack up and leave. We are here to stay. We have the same rights and freedoms as anyone else. So we’ll look for someplace else — hopefully something that will not evoke such a furor.”