CAIRO – Amid claims fuelled by Islamophobes that Muslims are trying to undermine American society from within, a legal fight over the building of a mosque in the state of Tennessee is turning into a full-fledged war on Islam.
“We are going to closely scrutinize everything they do,” Rev. Darrel Whaley, a mosque opponent and pastor of Kingdom Ministries Worship Center in Murfreesboro, told The Tennessean on Sunday, August 5.
“We are not against Muslims praying in a mosque,” he said.
“We are against Islam.”
Fueled by fears that Muslims are gaining influence while Christians are losing clout, anti-Islam activists have been running a long fight against the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles from Nashville.
Since plans for the new mosque to replace a 30-year-old facility were approved by local authorities in 2010, opponents have tried to stop it.
Opponents have argued that Islam is not a religion protected by the US Constitution, and that the mosque would promote Shari`ah.
Before the mosque plans were unveiled, Muslims in Murfreesboro faced almost no problems.
“I didn’t know that there were any Muslims in this community,” said Pete Doughtie, owner of the Rutherford Reader, a local free newspaper.
Like other anti-Islam activists, Doughtie was affected by claims of “stealth jihad”; or Muslims trials to undermine America from within.
These fears, stocked by the right-wing Tea Party distrust of the federal government, were first raised by author Robert Spencer, who runs a blog called Jihad Watch.
Since at least 2009, that claim has been repeated by local activists meeting in churches and community groups in Middle Tennessee.
Those meetings have regularly featured speaker known for their hostility against Islam as Spencer, Brigitte Gabriel of Act for America, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, and Bill French, a former Tennessee State University professor who goes by the pseudonym Bill Warner.
So when a Muslim student asks for permission to pray at school — which is allowed under the First Amendment — critics see it as an attempt to infiltrate schools with Islam.
“We have been a strong Christian country, and if we don’t get back to it, the whole face of this nation is going to change,” Doughtie said.
Sociology professors see the hostility against Islam a result of a growing “persecution complex” or the activists’ idea that they are losing influence in American culture.
“People understand the world to be a zero sum game — so if someone else is winning, they are losing,” Amy Binder, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, said.
Binder likened mosque critics to other conservative groups, like supporters of teaching creationism at school.
She said that when creationists have lost court battles, they regrouped and tried a new strategy.
These feelings were apparent in the case with the mosque critics.
For months, lawyers for anti-mosque plaintiffs have filed a motion to intervene in the federal lawsuit filed by the mosque and did not dispute that Islam is a religion.
Losing in court might re-energize mosque opponents by making them feel like a persecuted minority standing up for what they think is right, Binder noted.
“Once you have that persecution complex, you want to hang together and you can’t hear what anyone else is saying,” she said.
Living in peace with their neighbors for decades, Murfreesboro’s Muslims feel betrayed when people stereotype them as being radicals.
“I like to say there isn’t a war against Islam in Christianity. The war is good people versus evil people,” Aisha Lbhalla, chairwoman of the women’s committee at the Islamic Center of Tennessee, said.
“When you see a person that happens to be Muslim doing something atrocious, think of that as an evil person, not a representation of Islam.
“As citizens here, we should be working together to ward off any type of evil and amoral behavior in our society, not brand a whole people.”
The area Muslims say they want to live out their faith just like any other Americans.
“It’s very tough to make sense of nonsense,” Imam Ossama Bahloul of the Islamic Center said.
“It’s very hard to answer a question so many times and you intend not to listen.”
Undeterred by critics, the imam hopes for a better future for Muslims, saying winning the legal fight for building the mosque will show that the Constitution applies to all Americans.
If required inspections are completed, the opening of the new center, which could happen as early as this week, will be a great day for Murfreesboro, Imam Bahloul said.
“I think it will be a day of celebration for all of us that religious freedom is a fact existing in this nation,” he said.“People can fight as much as they want, but what is right will prevail in the end. American values will prevail in the end.”
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