Far from New York City's Ground Zero, the all-American city of Murfreesboro became Exhibit A this week for the un-American movement to ban new mosques and Islamic community centers in this country.
In what Murfreesboro's Muslims are denouncing as an act of terrorism, arsonists torched construction equipment at the future site of their community center. The next day, as members of the mosque examined the damage, gunshots boomed at the 15-acre property's boundaries. It was almost as brazen as a burning cross, as if the arsonists were thumbing their noses at authorities investigating their crime.
"It really put fear into the community," mosque spokeswoman Camie Ayash says. "Our children are heartbroken. When we broke ground a few weeks ago, they could see the new Islamic center as something that was tangible, something that was going to happen. Now someone had so much hatred to rip the joy out of their hearts."
Bloggers quickly pointed out that the arson fire puts the lie to the "it's-too-close-to-sacred-ground" argument of opponents of New York City's planned Islamic community center.
"Some people have tried to cut the baby in half regarding the proposed Islamic Center/mosque in New York City, arguing that sure, technically, Muslims have the 'right' to build where they want to build, but they'd be more 'sensitive' if they moved the project elsewhere," wrote Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
"But as the Murfreesboro case demonstrates, it's not really about proximity to Ground Zero and sensitivity is not the cure. It's about vile and un-American discrimination. Such bigotry must be confronted and denounced, not placated."
Islamophobia is on the rise all over the country. Anti-Islamic vandals have struck in California, and protesters are staging demonstrations against proposed mosques and community centers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Kentucky. A Florida church is elevating the discourse by sponsoring a "Burn the Koran" day.
While elsewhere at least a few politicians are standing up for religious freedom for all, our state's Profiles in Courage have condoned threatening the rights of American Muslims.
In her losing campaign for the GOP nomination for the 6th Congressional District, which includes Murfreesboro, Lou Ann Zelenik did her best to stoke religious bigotry this summer. "We are not obligated to open our society to any of them," she said.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, while running for governor, drew national ridicule by questioning whether freedom of religion even applies to Muslims. The GOP gubernatorial nominee, Bill Haslam, punts the issue as a local zoning matter. Mike McWherter, the Democratic nominee, has sympathized with anti-Muslim mania.
"I truly understand the concerns of some of these neighborhoods about bringing these kinds of institutions in," McWherter said at a debate in July. "You just can't drop these into the middle of a very quiet neighborhood and expect the same type of quality of life."
Making these remarks all the more reckless is Tennessee's history of attacks against Muslims. Fire gutted a mosque in Columbia two years ago. Nazi swastikas and the phrases "White Power" and "We Run the World" were painted on the outside walls. In February, the Al-Farooq Islamic Center on Nolensville Road was vandalized with the words "Muslims Go Home" spray-scrawled on the walls.
Before last weekend's arson, not one of the state's elected leaders had spoken out against intolerance during any of these shameful episodes. Even after the televangelist Pat Robertson claimed "it's entirely possible" local officials were taking bribes from Muslims, Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess was left to fend for himself.
(Robertson also warned they'd soon pass ordinances to require foot-washing stations in Murfreesboro and to force citizens to pray five times a day.)
"That's slanderous, libelous and it's so ridiculous it doesn't deserve comment," Burgess said. "We've treated this particular application exactly the same as every other application that's ever been presented with respect to a religious organization requesting to build a structure on their property."
This week, with the mosque site arson making national news, reporters had to ask Gov. Phil Bredesen for his views. At first, Bredesen seemed about to demur, claiming not to know much about the matter. But then he finally said the right things, asking citizens to "please have great respect for anyone's religious preferences and their rights to practice those in the United States." At least one politician in this state still is capable of rational thought.
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