Opponents and supporters of the controversial Murfreesboro mosque dominated the discourse during the Rutherford County Commission meeting Thursday.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has already purchased 15.02 acres of land on Veals Road, off Bradyville Pike, and plans to use it to accommodate the growing number of Muslim-Americans in the town, particularly by providing recreational areas, a larger worship area, educational facilities and a gym.
Those arguing on behalf of the mosque that night outweighed those arguing against it. From the speakers who participated, nine spoke in support and one spoke in opposition. From the boos and cheers that followed each speaker, however, support for both sides was at near parity.
Lema Sbenaty, an MTSU student and Tennessee native who was first to speak, stressed the similarity she has with other Murfreesboro citizens. She cited her having been raised in Murfreesboro since the age of 1, her status as valedictorian of Siegel’s 2009 graduating class and the nearly 200 community service hours she has logged at local volunteer programs.
“So you see, I am actually not very different from any of you, or your kids or your grandkids. Except for one thing,” Sbenaty said. “I was born and raised a patriotic Muslim.”
Sbenaty said that the attacks on Sept. 11 had an ancillary consequence beyond the countless deaths of that day: The misappropriation of her religion “by extremists who falsely claimed to be carrying out the word of God.”
“Anyone who carries out such acts of crime against mankind is not one who truly follows the teaching of Islam,” Sbenaty said.
A retinue of other speakers supporting the mosque followed Sbenaty. Jase Short, representing Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedoms, likened the current backlash against the planned mosque as the result of a “general wave of Islamophobia” that sought to “construct a Muslim Other who can be defined as inhuman and cancerous.”
“Though Muslim-Americans make up less than 1% of the population here, their presence is suddenly … coming under suspicion by certain political elements in this town.” Short said.
The opposition against the mosque took the form of Donald Westcott, a speaker whose source of contention against the mosque resided in Islam’s sacred Sharia law.
“The real issue is the nature of Islam,” Westcott said. “It is a political ideology with a militaristic agenda to subjugate the entire world under totalitarian Sharia law.”
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Sharia is defined as “God’s eternal and immutable will for humanity, as expressed in the Quran and Muhammad’s example (Sunnah), considered binding for all believers; ideal Islamic law.”
“This democratic council will have to be disbanded because it has to submit to local mosque imams, or regional mullahs,” Westcott continued.
Sharia law is itself complemented by a system of jurisprudence, called fiqh, that tries to understand divine law through methods of legal analysis. While Sharia law is generally viewed as inviolate in its mandates, fiqh is given more flexibility, being a byproduct of human understanding as opposed to divine inspiration.
Local attorney John Green spoke after Westcott, explaining the panoply of Islamic schools and their likeness to the many denominations of Christianity.
“There are a number of different kinds of Islam denominations,” Green said. “The practice of Islam is as diversified as is the practice of Christianity.”
Of the several separate schools in Islam, the two that Americans may most be familiar with are the Sunni and Shia. Per a 2009 Pew Foundation study, the Sunni denomination is by far the largest, comprising 90 percent of the Muslim population. From this denomination alone, there are four varying schools that interpret Sharia law: the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’I and Hanbali.
Green rebutted the claim some opponents have made that the Islamic center hasn’t followed proper city ordinances.
“As a matter of law, as a matter of county policy, as a matter of county procedure, there is nothing wrong that has occurred here,” Green said. “We’ve heard a lot about improper notice; we’ve heard a lot about the failure to conduct environmental studies, traffic pattern studies. I submit to you respectfully: All of that is immaterial.”
Green said that's because it is “business as usual.” Had it been a significant priority, he says, the county commission would have addressed the issue prior to granting a building permit.
What bothers Green most, he said, is the lack of respect afforded to Murfreesboro’s Muslim neighbors.
“The embarrassment, shame and humiliation that I feel, as a life-long resident of this community, cannot be expressed in words strong enough,” Green said.