Monday, August 23, 2010

Proposed Muslim center shakes up Tenn. town

UPDATE, Aug. 31: Following likely arson of construction equipment, and gunshots heard during a CNN crew's visit to the Islamic center, "Nearby mosques have hired security guards, installed surveillance cameras and requested the presence of federal agents at prayer services," Robbie Brown of The New York Times reports.

Like New York City, the much smaller town of Murfreesboro, Tenn., is grappling with acceptance of a proposed Muslim community center. The center is not to be built in a neighborhood with an emotional resonance like the New York location, but the local Muslim planners have been surprised by the backlash. "We haven't experienced this level of hostility before ever, so it's new to us," Saleh M. Sbenaty, an engineering professor who is overseeing the mosque's planned expansion told Annie Gowen of The Washington Post. The Islamic center became a political topic during the recent Republican gubernatorial primary; Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey asked if Islam was a "cult." Sbenaty has lived in Murfreesboro for 30 years and is confounded by the reaction.

While some residents voice a begrudging acceptance -- "We have to allow them freedom of religion," -- the opposition is vocal. A 44-year-old correctional officer named Kevin Fisher is using the local alternative newspaper as his means of being heard, reports Gowen. The Tennessean reported in June that Fisher told the Rutherford County Planning Commission, "Why have a mosque nine times the size of Nashville's in the middle of a farming, residential community?" About 1,000 people representing both sides of the issue were at a recent rally in the Murfreesboro town square. Said Fisher, it was "a beautiful example of our democracy at work." Not everyone felt that way. Lema Sbenaty, Saleh Sbenaty's 19-year-old daughter and a Middle Tennessee State University student, told Gowen, "You could see the hatred in their eyes." (Read more)

A proposed mosque in Northern Kentucky has also prompted opposition, with one flyer asking citizens to call Florence city officials and "stop the takeover of our country." Joshua Wice, ocmmunity and business development director, said the property is properly zoned. "It's a permitted use and this is really a property rights issue," he said. Mark Hansel of the Cincinnati Enquirer notes that a 2000 federal law says, "No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution." (Read more)

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