Right now the lot on Veals Road off the Bradyville Pike outside Murfreesboro is just an open field, partly plowed and orange-brown with fresh earth. There are houses around, subdivisions on all sides; it feels like any rural American neighborhood where farmland coexists uneasily with suburban sprawl. The buildings aren't clingy-close, but you'd be hard-pressed to, say, fire a hunting rifle in a random direction without hitting something.
Grace Baptist Church, with its modest tilt and towering cross, sits as lone tenant of the field amid the nearby farms and newly built homes. The church is soon-to-be neighbor of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, once the first phase of the mosque's new expansion is completed.
An excavating crew broke ground on the site Aug. 20, 12 days after the Rutherford County Planning Commission provided final clearance. Pre-construction here has already begun — or at least it had, before an arsonist (or -ists) doused four excavators in accelerant and lit one on fire on Aug. 28.
The fire was expected to cause a delay of little more than a week. But as the cap to a hot, stifling summer of increasingly fiery debate, it was enough to tar Murfreesboro with a national reputation as a place where hatred and bigotry are thriving.
With last Friday's announcement of a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives moved the high-profile case to an even loftier plane. There is no longer any question that urgency is the priority here.
But the arson has left a lingering fear among local Muslims that something terrible is still smoldering — that the inflammatory rhetoric of a burgeoning national movement has escalated to actual fire.
The Murfreesboro mosque will be built, despite the uproar, for two simple reasons. First, entities like local zoning boards exist so that, at least theoretically, some teeth-grinder with a theocratic streak can't deny a landowner the right to build a place of worship without due process. That's just American civics.
Second, since buying the land on Nov. 19, 2009, for $320,000 cash, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has followed every guideline and taken every corrective action to bring the project to the end of the permitting process. That happened on May 24, when the Rutherford County Planning Commission gave its approval at a public meeting.
According to county records — which include correspondence sent by citizens to the planning commission — the majority of the anti-mosque outcry didn't come during the application process. On the contrary, the opposition's main thrust started after the approval. It was a full two months after the center's plans were greenlit — and eight months after the congregation bought the land — that Laurie Cardoza-Moore, the Nashville-based lobbyist and self-professed leader of the Murfreesboro anti-Islam movement, filed a grievance with the Rutherford County sheriff.
In it, Cardoza-Moore asked for an "investigation" based on a series of Internet rumors she'd cobbled together into a vast conspiracy that stretched from Murfreesboro and Nashville to Somalia and, finally, Gaza. But creating mass panic takes more than just patchwork skill. It requires an artfulness and subtlety that most people miss amid the bluster.
Enter Kevin Fisher, the Murfreesboro activist and two-time candidate for local office who led the July 14 anti-mosque march on the courthouse. Fisher doesn't mention Islam when he lists the reasons he opposes the mosque. Like Cardoza-Moore, he insists the opposition is not a matter of religious intolerance. Rather, Fisher suggests that the county planning commission railroaded the mosque through the permitting process so as to avoid the inevitable local panic — a panic started and sustained, in part, by Fisher himself.
"We just wanted the law to be followed, and when it became apparent that they weren't going to follow the laws, it rubbed people the wrong way," he says.
Doug Demosi, director of the Rutherford County Planning Commission, dismisses the accusations of Fisher and others — which, by the way, have come in spades over the past few months. Demosi himself has been the subject of much ill will, both professional and personal, some of which is collected in the planning commission's "mosque file."
Demosi explains that county law provides a specific zoning regulation for religious use that absolves the institution of certain conditional-use permits that other businesses might have to obtain. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was not subject to public hearings when it proposed its expansion — but by the same token, neither was the World Outreach Church, an 80,000-square-foot Christian church six miles across town. In Rutherford County, religious-use sites are considered "use-by-right" — that is, so long as your paperwork is in order, you need only the approval of the commission at a single public meeting, to be advertised in advance in a local paper of record. (As proof this happened, the receipt is also in the mosque file.)
But procedural issues are beside the point. That was clear at the protest march Fisher organized, which drew a turnout — approximately 1,000 people — close to evenly divided between pro and con. Mosque opponents weren't holding signs accusing the planning commission of back-room dealing. Instead, their placards bore messages like "God Bless America" and "Mosque leaders support killing converts. Tell it!" They sang "Amazing Grace," chanted "USA! USA!" and conducted Christian group prayers.
"Lord, we're trying to stop a political movement," Dusty Ray, pastor of Heartland Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, bayed to the crowd, according to the Daily News Journal. "In Jesus' name, amen."
"There is no doubt in my mind it's about religion," says Essam Fathy, project coordinator for the new mosque. He said that despite opponents' denials that their ire is directed at Islam itself, "They go on and say everything that contradicts [that]."
Fisher claims to have gathered some 20,000 signatures (one-fifth of the city's population) on a petition asking the county commission to rescind its May 24 order approving the mosque permits. But that won't happen, not unless the newly elected county commission — whose first meeting is Sept. 16 — decides to upend a process that the state comptroller has already determined is valid.
Still undeterred, Fisher announced last week his plans to hold another anti-mosque march on the courthouse — on Sept. 16.
That the mosque has gotten this far is in part a testament to a land whose laws are designed to apply equally to all. But the arson also lays bare a discomforting possibility: Even if the losers fail to stop the new Islamic Center from being built, they can still burn it down. If peaceful assembly and petition don't achieve the desired outcome, an accelerant could work with surprising efficiency and haste — even if it razes America's core principles in the process.
Camie Ayash, spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, says some of the younger children in the congregation have begun asking her whether strangers they see are "for us or against us." Indeed, fear of violent reprisals from anti-Muslim activists has spread into Tennessee's capital city. Metro Nashville police have stepped up patrols at the Islamic Center of Nashville's mosque and community center, nestled into the 12South neighborhood, according to Imam Mohammad Ahmed Al-Sherif.
"It's devastating. Imagine you are going to church, and you know that people are shooting at the church," the imam says, addressing reports of gunfire at the Murfreesboro mosque site. "Gunfire. Bullets in the church. How are you going to feel? I don't think you're going to feel safe, or you're going to feel happy. I'm very, very terrified, honestly."
Fathy, who has lived and practiced his faith in Murfreesboro for 29 years, says despite all the noise, intimidation and fear, he believes more people in this throwback Middle Tennessee town support his congregation than are against it.
"This is going," he says of the mosque. "The project is going. Just hopefully we don't have to be paying a hefty price."
Let the last word, for now, belong to the proposed mosque's neighbor, Grace Baptist Church. On its website, pastor Russell M. Richardson has posted an unequivocal message telling how the matter stands between his Christian congregation and the Muslims next door.
"As a Conservative Christian I must make the following affirmation: Violence and Intimidation are not Christian Actions," Richardson writes. "If God should need to be defended He will certainly provide the defense Himself. He is ABLE!"
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