For more than two years, Rutherford County has been in the middle of a perfect storm over Islam.
While furor over the “ground zero” mosque in New York has faded, the dispute over the new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro — which began around the same time — has only grown more intense.
Fueled by fears that Muslims are gaining influence while Christians are losing clout, activists have battled to block construction of the Murfreesboro mosque. They’ve argued over the minutia of county zoning laws and whether Islam is a religion.
And the fight is unlikely to end anytime soon.
Mosque opponents say they are fighting for the soul of America. Now that the mosque is set to open this month, they are changing their tactics and broadening the scope of their complaints against Islam.
Their latest tactic is to protest requests for accommodations for Muslim students to pray in local schools. Dozens of critics of Islam showed up at a recent Rutherford County school board meeting to voice their disapproval.
And they plan to oppose any attempts by local Muslims to influence life in Rutherford County.
“We are going to closely scrutinize everything they do,” said the Rev. Darrel Whaley, mosque opponent and pastor of Kingdom Ministries Worship Center in Murfreesboro.
Long under the radar
From the outside, Rutherford County seems an odd spot for a fight over Islam.
There’s one local mosque with about 500 adherents, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
Local Muslims have held Friday prayer services for decades but were mostly under the radar.
Until the new Islamic Center was approved in 2010, “I didn’t know that there were any Muslims in this community,” said Pete Doughtie, owner of the Rutherford Reader, a local free newspaper.
His thoughts on Muslims are summed up in the headline of a recent column: “They have nothing positive to add to America.”
In person, Doughtie, 71, is genial rather than blunt. He moved to Rutherford County 13 years ago to be closer to his grandkids and started the Reader to keep busy in retirement.
His opposition to the mosque is a mix of God-and-country patriotism and tea party distrust of government.
His latest column slammed local school board officials for attending training about Islam in 2011.
“All it takes for those Islamic warriors is to get enough foothold in one area such as our government in order for them to feel they are on a roll,” he wrote. “Our schools are vulnerable and are sitting ducks right now.”
Aisha Lbhalla, chairwoman of the women’s committee at the Islamic Center of Tennessee, said she is often frustrated when people stereotype the believers as being radicals.
“I like to say there isn’t a war against Islam in Christianity. The war is good people versus evil people,” she said. “When you see a person that happens to be Muslim doing something atrocious, think of that as an evil person, not a representation of Islam.
“As citizens here, we should be working together to ward off any type of evil and amoral behavior in our society, not brand a whole people.”
‘Stealth jihad’ seen
Doughtie also worries about a so-called “stealth jihad.”
He learned that term from a book by the same name by author Robert Spencer, who runs a blog called Jihad Watch. The book says that Muslims want to undermine America from within.
Since at least 2009, that claim has been repeated by local activists meeting in churches and community groups in Middle Tennessee.
Those meetings have regularly featured anti-Islam speakers and authors like Spencer, Brigitte Gabriel of Act for America, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, and Bill French, a former Tennessee State University professor who goes by the pseudonym Bill Warner.
They’ve persuaded activists like Doughtie to see almost every action by Muslims with suspicion.
So when a Muslim student asks for permission to pray at school — which is allowed under the First Amendment — critics see it as an attempt to infiltrate schools with Islam.
Imam Ossama Bahloul of the Islamic Center says critics are wrong. He and his congregation members want to live out their faith just like any other Americans. They’ve followed the laws to get approval of their site plan and want to be good citizens.
But he says some activists refuse to believe them.
“It’s very tough to make sense of nonsense,” he said. “It’s very hard to answer a question so many times and you intend not to listen.”
Bahloul moved to Murfreesboro in 2008 from Texas, where he was the imam of a mosque in Corpus Christi. He never expected the uproar that the mosque construction has caused.
“I came to Tennessee and chose a small place and thought it would be a quiet place,” he said. “And it got very busy.”
A focus on schools
The latest target for mosque foes is the school system.
Currently one Muslim student at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro is allowed to pray in an empty room during lunch, said James Evans, spokesman for Rutherford County Schools.
Evans pointed out that Christian students hold a lunch Bible study at the same school and that a Christian club there called First Priority has several hundred members.
Doughtie said Muslim students should assimilate to Christian culture. Rather than allowing Muslim students to pray, he’d rather see all students take part in a Christian prayer each day at school.
“We have been a strong Christian country, and if we don’t get back to it, the whole face of this nation is going to change,” Doughtie said.
Amy Binder, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, said mosque critics seem similar to other conservative groups, like supporters of teaching creationism at school.
Both groups are worried about something called “status threat,” the idea that they are losing influence in American culture.
“People understand the world to be a zero sum game — so if someone else is winning, they are losing,” Binder said.
She said that when creationists have lost court battles, they regrouped and tried a new strategy.
That appears to be the case with mosque critics. Lawyers for anti-mosque plaintiffs recently filed a motion to intervene in the federal lawsuit filed by the mosque and did not dispute that Islam is a religion.
Binder said that losing in court might re-energize mosque opponents by making them feel like a persecuted minority standing up for what they think is right.
“Once you have that persecution complex, you want to hang together and you can’t hear what anyone else is saying,” she said.
A hell-bound matter
An evangelical Christian pastor, Whaley believes Muslims will go to hell if they don’t leave their faith and become Christians.
He says that he’s not a bigot and doesn’t hate Muslims.
But he can’t stand their religion and will do whatever he can to limit the spread of Islam in Rutherford County and in the United States.
“We are not against Muslims praying in a mosque,” Whaley said. “We are against Islam.”
Lbhalla said Islam has many commonalities with Christianity.
“Although there are some differences, there are much more things that bind us than separate us,” Lbhalla said.
The religious practice of fasting, which Muslims are now doing during Ramadan, is an example of that commonality, she said, noting that Jews and Christians also fast to attain righteousness.
“Many don’t know that we have reverence for Jesus — peace be upon him,” Lbhalla said. “We can’t even be believers unless we accept him. We accept him of the virgin birth, and his mother, Mary, is a leading woman for Muslim women to aspire to be like. These are things we have in our holy book, the Quran.”
A double standard?
Rutherford County’s handling of the mosque project has fueled the controversy by giving critics the impression that the mosque got special treatment.
Two years earlier, the planning commission treated another controversial religious-themed project differently. A developer wanted to build a Bible theme park in Rutherford County. Because the project needed a zoning change, there were public meetings with plenty of notice before the park was eventually voted down.
Because the site for the Islamic Center was already zoned for a religious building, there was no need for a public hearing. And county officials did not post the meeting agenda for the May 24, 2010, meeting during which the mosque was approved on their website. They said they forgot.
“Something that big and something that important should have been on the agenda,” Doughtie said.
Even when Judge Robert Corlew ruled that mosque opponents were right and that proper notice had not been given for the planning commission meeting during which the mosque was approved, Rutherford County did not stop construction of the mosque. Corlew’s ruling didn’t order the construction to stop, and county officials believed if they halted it, they would have violated federal laws.
But the continued construction angered opponents like the Rev. Whaley.
He believes that the county should have stopped the project and that mosque leaders should have halted construction until the site plan was reapproved.
“If they were as good of citizens as they say they are, they would have stopped the mosque,” he said.
Bloggers step up
In recent months, two bloggers with local ties have stirred up continued controversy. One is Eric Allen Bell, a former mosque supporter, and the other is Cathy Hinners, a retired police officer and Albany, N.Y., transplant.
Bell runs Globalinfidel.tv and Mosqueconfidential.com, two sites that criticize Islam. Hinners runs a site called the dailyrollcall.com, which has been active in the recent school board controversy in Murfreesboro.
She has become a regular on conservative Michael DelGiorno’s talk radio show, warning of the threat of Islam.
Recently she appeared on DelGiorno’s show to complain that local Muslims were demanding special privileges at local schools.
At issue was a handout called “A Teacher’s Guide to Muslim Students,” which was emailed to the Rutherford County School Board in 2008 by a board member of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, as well as a cultural awareness training for teachers and administrators run by the Department of Justice in 2011.
School officials say they get information from different faith groups all the time. Their policy allows students to ask for religious accommodations.
But Hinners, who did not respond to requests for comment, and DelGiorno see the handout as a demand for special treatment.
“They are not asking anymore,” Hinners said on the air. “They are telling you.”
Lobna “Luby” Ismail disagrees.
Ismail is the founder of Connecting Cultures, a company based in Silver Springs, Md., that led the training for Murfreesboro school officials. She said her company was asked to do the training because there were concerns that Muslim students had been bullied over the mosque controversy.
The training was designed to help create a safe environment for kids, she said.
“There were no demands for any accommodations,” she said.
A boost from court
Local Muslim leaders say they want the same religious rights as anyone else, and they are undeterred by critics.
Iman Ossama Bahloul said the mosque’s wins in court show that the Constitution applies to all Americans.
The opening of the new center — which could happen as early as this week, if required inspections are completed — will be a great day for Murfreesboro, he said.
“I think it will be a day of celebration for all of us that religious freedom is a fact existing in this nation,” he said.
“People can fight as much as they want, but what is right will prevail in the end. American values will prevail in the end.”