In Tennessee, a Hard-Fought Victory for the Muslim Community

The Murfreesboro Muslim community has been through hell. After the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque controversy in New York—a fight over a building that was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero—Tennessee experienced its own wave of anti-Islamic fervor. While Muslim families have worshiped at a mosque in Murfreesboro for over 30 years, news that the county had granted permission for a new, bigger Islamic Center incurred the unexpected wrath of the community. The construction site was vandalized, then set on fire. Residents sued to halt the project, claiming that Islam wasn't a real religion but rather a cult. In May, a local judge granted an injunction against the center on the grounds that the county failed to give sufficient public notice of the meeting in which the plans were approved. While the county had used the same practices and advertisements for all meetings, the judge decided this one need to have more notice because so many people had strong opinions. 

But at 1:10 p.m. on Friday, the Muslim community of Murfreesboro, Tennessee can celebrate. After two years of conflict, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro will finally open to town residents, offering an enormous space for prayer, education, and recreation. A U.S. District Court granted a temporary restraining order, allowing the center to open, after the center and the Department of Justice filed suit. Congregants will inaugurate the 52,000 square-foot center—which also contains a school, a library, and a gym—with a Friday afternoon service during the holy month of Ramadan. The town's Muslim leaders believe Friday's services will just be the beginning; they're hoping the center's opening will mark a new chapter for town relations.

"It's a time for forgiving," says Sheikh Ossama Bahloul, the imam of the mosque. "We have nothing in our hearts against even the people with the other position."

Bahloul, who came to Tennessee from Texas and grew up in Egypt, acknowledges that "Islam is under attack," and notes that Muslim religious leaders have had to get politically involved to fight some of the Islamaphobia.

But with the center now open, Bahloul hopes the town's residents will see that his congregation of 250 families poses no threat. As in the past, he plans to do as much as possible to educate others about Islam. "The new facility will advance us in our way, worshiping God as well as our way reaching out to our community," he says. "There is no 100 percent guarantee of any result, but I think the center itself will … fix some people’s feelings.

"After a while people who are in the opposition, they will realize that there is nothing to fear," he added.

But the imam also acknowledges the toll the fight has taken. Many were afraid to go to religious services; children were bullied at school. When the mosque opens, it will have a number of security measures in place, and according to the Wall Street Journal, have coordinated with local police. The Wall Street Journal also notes that those who tried to stop the mosque have plans to continue litigation.

Bahloul's convinced, however, that outreach is key to healing, and points to the community's many supporters, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who have supported the mosque's efforts, and the many more who had no qualms with the Muslim community until the mosque controversy began.

"It’s very hard for a Muslim child [or] a Muslim girl not to feel that discrimination but we will continue being very optimistic," he says, "I think we have to reach out and we have to sit together. We have to listen and we have to talk and we have to answer questions."

It's a hopeful approach, based on the idea that prejudice and hate aren't fixed; people can learn to be accepting. Bahloul has managed to keep his faith, not just in his congregation but in the Murfreesboro community. Let's hope the community returns the favor.

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