A fight about a mosque in the middle of Tennessee

On my way north during my recent little journey in the South, I eventually came to Tennessee, not really the deep South, but more of a border state, on the map low but wide.

I crossed into Tennessee at Chattanooga – which inspired Glenn Miller’s old hit from 1941 “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and is now the site of a historic hotel by that name – at the southernmost end of the Appalachian Mountains. Here, mountains are high and valleys are narrow. There were no cotton plantations here and much of eastern Tennessee sympathized with the Union, while the rest of Tennessee chose the Confederacy. The result was hundreds of bloody battles in the State during the Civil War. In the 1960s, many hard-fought battles took place during the civil rights movement.

In Murfreesboro today, a university city of just over 100 000 inhabitants in the geographical center of Tennessee, there is a different civil rights struggle taking place. It is not African-Americans fighting for their rights, but Arab-Americans, who want to build a mosque in their hometown.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro can be found on Middle Tennessee Boulevard, almost hidden behind some shops and parking lot. The city’s 250 Muslim families have gathered here every Friday for years to pray, often using the parking lot for the overflow crowd.

Last year, the congregation purchased land in the outskirts of the city to build a proper mosque and eventually a community center. The only neighbor was a Baptist church. No problem. Local authorities said yes. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, and it was nothing more to it, it seemed, especially since the Muslims had legally bought the land and there were no zoning problems.

But, conservative activists began to protest, eventually supported by conservative forces from outside of Murfreesboro. The city’s politicians were sued. In spite of support of the Muslim community from various religious groups in the city, opposition to the mosque grew, resulting in vocal protests, even destruction of construction equipment.

“It has been polarizing, creating anxiety and fear in the community,” said Abdou Kattih, who is a pharmacist and originally from Syria, when we talked at the Islamic Center. His car outside carried a sticker, “Freedom of religion, for all”. He described the Muslim community, totaling around one thousand people or one percent of the city’s its population, as deeply rooted in Murfreesboro. He, himself, has four children, all born here, and it is here we want to live, he said.

On the Center’s website, it is written:

“Let us stand together and build bridges rather than barriers, openness rather than walls. Rather than borders, let us look at distant horizons together, in the common spirit of the value and dignity of a shared personhood as citizens in this great nation.”

The Muslim community was encouraged the other day when a local court ruled in its favor, allowing for the construction to begin. But final victory is not guaranteed, at least not yet – the opponents have vowed not to give up and have threatened to appeal.