Mosque Building and National Reaction

by Michael Russell

Introduction

                The controversy surrounding the “ground zero” New York mosque is well known and was seemingly covered by every national news network in the country. However, what is not as well-known was the effects that this coverage had across the nation. Many mosques in the process of being built began to be scrutinized for reasons ranging from traffic concerns to concerns that large mosques would be used to train extremists. Some mosques received national coverage such as a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee where a court case, based on lack of public notification, was established to stop construction. Others were simply listed in conjunction to largely covered new stories –whether or not it was truly justified—such as a community in Florence, Kentucky (a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio). While anti-Islam sentiment was clearly a factor, many cases focused on legal minutiae, while others, such as Temecula, California, were overtly anti-Islam, with little attempt to even hide the sentiment. The Murfreesboro Mosque and the controversy surrounding it was one of the most covered examples, largely due to a court case against the local government that caused construction to start and stop several times. However, I will show that the coverage at the local and national levels were different in their focus and intent, with national coverage often amplifying the ability of opponents to voice their opinion. While there seemed to be a misconception that the mosque was opposed because of its existence in a conservative Bible-belt state, a look at Ohio and California shows this not to be the case.  The generally held belief that the South would be more resistant to Muslim communities was not established and instead there was a focus on unique, local factors in each situation.

Murfreesboro, Tennessee

The most widespread AP articles about the mosque in Murfreesboro are from regional associates and are on minor details after the mosque was built. In one case, it was reported that the mosque was seeking a cemetery permit[1]. However, the report was brief and relied entirely on a local news source, the Daily News Journal. Community members were trying to block the issuing of the permit on health concerns as they felt that since the body would not be buried in a casket, it would contaminate water supplies. However the mosque had been allowed to perform a burial two years prior, observed every precaution, and completely complied with state laws regarding burial. The cemetery would not be viewable from any of the surrounding properties and the mosque would be one of several nearby places of worship who have cemeteries on their grounds (whose permits appear to have been issued without any water contamination concerns)[2].

The other report by the AP briefly informs the reader that the mosque has been officially opened and focuses primarily on the actions of the US attorney’s office to overturn a court ruling that halted construction. It also relies on the same local new source, the Daily News Journal. [3] The brief AP report seems to suggest that it was the actions of the US federal government alone that allowed the protection of the Muslim community’s rights. However, the original source provides a different view. The Daily News Journal is primarily for the local population and offers a much longer article. It reports that Father Joseph Breen of the Diocese of Nashville, stated “If we really believe in that God of love, how can we not love our neighbors? If one does not have the freedom to practice their religion, then before long none of us will.”[4] This article also stresses the importance of the case for religious freedom which it reinforces with quotes from both Christian and Muslim leaders.  Comment on quote of M leader?  However it is interesting to note that the article never once mentions an Imam by title, although it does quote Ossama Bahloul, who is an Imam[5]. While this in itself is not necessarily interesting, both quotes from Christian leaders were cited with the speaker’s title, “Father” and “Rev.” suggesting the author does not view them as equivalent titles.

The Murfreesboro mosque did receive national attention. CNN published stories on the Mosque, but coverage was heavily concentrated in 48 hour intervals about once a month from the spring through the fall[6]. This is interesting to note in that, for such a local issue, this is a fairly high amount of attention in the national media, although it was by no means continuous and still relied heavily on local media. CNN performed an interview with the plaintiff in the case, Sally Wall, and her lawyer, on May 30th of this year, after a ruling was made on the case that made the construction permits void, but did not stop construction. The interview is interesting, especially in contrast to the local news reports (try and find local Videos NC5? WKRN?). The tone of the interview is immediately against the interviewee. The interviewer lists several different reasons that were brought against the mosque by other critics, many of whom were not from the local area. She does not mention the lack of public notification which is the basis for the legal case. It is almost as if there are two simultaneous news pieces clipped together to form the interview. Wall comments that her opposition is not based on “Islamaphobia”, but rather the lack of due process. “They did it all behind closed doors. It was under the table. There were several meetings with county officials and people and the uh, Muslims[7].” While she is clearly against the construction of the mosque, there is little evidence to suggest whether it was discontent with Muslims or her local government that drove her desire in the case.

Anderson Cooper of CNN also did an interview on the Murfreesboro mosque in September of 2010. It is worth noting that as the interview begins, it depicts scenes from a protest in Murfreesboro where several Israeli flags are clearly visible in the background, which suggests it is part of a larger political story.  Surprisingly, this interview is of two men, neither of whom are from Murfreesboro. The interviewees were Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy and Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. Gaffney accuses the Imam of the mosque and members of its board to be proponents of Sharia and promote Hamas. He defines Sharia as “This totalitarian program, political military legal program, that is absolutely at odds with the Constitution of the United States, in fact has as its purpose supplanting it.” He goes on to say that jihad is required and interestingly creates a distinction between “violent jihad” and “stealth jihad,” but fails to define either. To him, Muslim communities are a cancer who have created “no-go zones” for civil authorities in European countries. He also accuses all mosques in the US “of any significance” of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood which, he claims, is well-known as wanting to destroy Western civilization from within. Besides making outlandish and misinformed claims, he provides almost no evidence as to the connection between the Murfreesboro Mosque and his arguments. Anderson Cooper counters his only connection that the FBI investigated the member of the board for a comment made on MySpace, but the FBI did not press any charges. Akbar Ahmed counters the arguments made by referencing a mosque that was firebombed in a nearby town and stressing his concern of the fear and mistrust towards America’s Muslim population. Ahmed explains the situation of American Muslims in general and references the absence of Sharia in Pakistan, again failing to connect his arguments to the supposed reason for the interview, the mosque in Murfreesboro.[8]

What stands out most in this interview is its supposed focus on the Murfreesboro mosque, but its apparent disregard for any evidence or information about the Mosque or its leaders. While there are accusations against them, they are broad and generally connected by Gaffney to larger arguments, with little supporting evidence. Likewise Akbar Ahmed provides little evidence about Murfreesboro and instead focuses on the American Muslim community in general. This interview contrasts with the actual legal bases that are focused on by the plaintiff in the case. The complete disregard for the local situation and factors suggest the reason why the Murfreesboro Mosque got any national attention was for the network to work it into a larger discussion of Muslims in America without directly confronting the issue.

The interest that the mosque in Murfreesboro attracted was quite intense, resulting in a lawsuit and repeated delays. However, a mosque in the nearby town of Antioch (about half an hour away) received little attention at all and its construction has proceeded unimpeded. In an article for the local newspaper, The Tennessean, the author points out that there were two significant differences. The mosque was in a business area, rather than residential one, and the site was also already zoned for religious usage[9].  This presents two unexplored possibilities. The first being that the opposition to the Murfreesboro mosque was actually based on legitimate legal, construction, and health concerns. However the variety of complaints that caused the project to be halted makes this improbable. The second possibility is that for some unique, local reason, such as one resident who mobilized the community, the Murfreesboro Mosque created a response unlikely to be replicate elsewhere. However, this is clearly not the case as there has been opposition to mosques, also in residential areas, in the nearby town of Franklin (17 miles from Antioch and 30 miles from Murfreesboro). It is important to point out that all three of these towns form a triangle in the suburbs south of Nashville. Interestingly, Antioch is closest to Nashville (10 as opposed to 20 miles) and likely contains a more diverse, urban population. Is Antioch unique in the area due to demographic differences? It may be beneficial to examine this difference within such a small area further.

Across the state the opposition to Mosque building creates a much more encouraging picture than the Murfreesboro coverage has suggested. In an article written by Travis Loller of the AP and picked up by most local media(but not national ones), he presents examples of a mosque in Memphis and a mosque in Chattanooga, west and east Tennessee respectively, as examples of the true situation in the state. In Memphis, the mosque was built next to a church whose pasture put up a sign saying “welcome to the neighborhood.” When the mosque was not going to be finished by Ramadan, the neighboring church was opened every night for the mosque’s congregation. These two communities have come together and cooperate with community works and even social events. In Chattanooga, the mosque had no opposition at all and had a significant number of Christians at the celebration of its opening[10]. Both these mosques are very similar to the one in Murfreesboro as they are similarly sized, designed as community centers, and are near several churches. However, in both communities, it was recognized that the sentiment that exploded in Murfreesboro existed in the areas at some level, but had not become directly oppositional or even relevant. These examples suggest that the sentiment against mosque building is widespread, but fairly minor unless it finds an avenue to become highly vocal and mobilizing. It also appears that support in these communities was much more vocal and immediate then in Murfreesboro where the support was muted and overshadowed by opponents who got significant national coverage.

It appears with the Murfreesboro mosque that there was resistance based on mistrust of the Muslim population and, while it was widespread with several separate examples, it only expressed itself when there was a possible legal challenge. There is a lack of anti-Islam rhetoric among local residents and even attempts, sincere or not, to claim it as not being against the Muslim community, but the building process.  It is apparent that although there is anti-Muslim sentiment, it is not large enough or widespread enough to create blatant opposition on religious grounds alone. There is also evidence that while outcry was small and vocal, support took a much quieter tone even though it was widespread. The national media also appears to have taken advantage of the situation and gave the opposition an opportunity to be vocal that was not offered to the supporters. This caused the specific and local issues to be put aside as it was seen as part of a larger, national situation influencing the discussion at the local level. The length of the legal proceedings allowed the media to use it as a reason to examine the vast differences of opinion that exists in the country as a whole. Meanwhile, local media outlets were much more conservative in their approach and were generally supportive, while at the same time promoting community ties to avoid division. The stronger language came from the national outlets and while the sentiments may have existed at the local level, they were not overtly visible.

 

Temecula, California

After two months of meetings after a December 1st approval to build the mosque, on January  26th at 3:30 a.m., after a nine hour meeting, the Temecula City Council voted 4-0 to allow a mosque to be built. The mosque faced strong opposition related to concerns that the mosque would bring extremist activity and traffic woes to the area[11]. Here, there is an interesting contrast with the opposition in Murfreesboro. Opponents cite religious reasons, extremism, legal opposition, and traffic concerns. While defining traffic objections as a legal issue is a stretch, it is justified as building projects are often protested against locally due to their effects on traffic and is comparable to water safety and other concerns that were cited in Murfreesboro. It is also interesting that there was significant local support for the mosque from those outside its congregation. At the meeting it was stressed that the council could only oppose the building of the mosque on legal and traffic grounds, whether or not the residents wanted a mosque in their city[12]. Similarly to the Murfreesboro congregation, the Muslim community have been in the area for a significant period of time—ten years. The community had also owned the land for a while and did not receive significant opposition until the New York Mosque drew national attention[13].  It is interesting that although the mosque drew significant anti-Islam remarks, letters, and pictures directed towards the councilmen, the opposition still attempts at some level to cite traffic and flood issues as its primary concerns.

In the case of the Murfreesboro mosque, CNN provided an outlet for the opposition and national viewpoints, but did not provide supporters with significant coverage. The Temecula mosque made it into national coverage, but mostly in reference and often as part of a list. It does not appear to have received the repeated and lengthy coverage of Murfreesboro. In Temecula’s case, CNN interviewed a supporter, the Imam, and an opponent, a pastor of a nearby church, at the same time. The pastor provides no legal objections and instead focuses entirely on the radicalization it would create. The site is objected to as well as the fact that it is next door to a church. This is in glaring contrast to the welcoming provided by some of the churches mentioned earlier. The Imam, of course, refutes the claims and believes the views are based on a lack of education. He is happy to be next to the church and believes they can cooperate in many areas[14]. This interview reinforces the views from the council vote that opposition was based entirely on religious grounds.

Supporters of the mosque were largely members and leaders of other houses of worship, mostly nearby churches. The supporters were most vocal when referencing constitutional guarantees of free speech and freedom of religion. While the supporters in Temecula appear to have been more vocal than those in Murfreesboro, they were still not as vocal as the opposition, even without extensive use of national media. It is interesting that support and opposition both came from religious sectors and both sides used it as their driving arguments.

Florence, Kentucky (Cincinnati)

Along with the prior two examples, a mosque in Florence, Kentucky is often listed along with the prior two examples, however it is almost always listed with little accompanying detail. There is a reason why it is frequently mentioned, but rarely examined. Ohio has frequently been mentioned in the news in relation to violent actions towards religious minorities, significantly more so than Tennessee or California, but rarely for legally obstructing a religious community. Similarly to the Murfreesboro Mosque, there was an attempt to create opposition towards the mosque by a small group.[15] The group had previously tried to build a mosque and had been unable to  as they required the land to be rezoned. After moving locations they were approved. Similarly to Temecula and Murfreesboro, there were attempts to stifle the construction, however the land had already been zoned for religious use[16]. Opposition, while limited, was clearly more in line with Temecula. The largest difference between Florence and Murfreesboro is the existence of a law suit. It is also interesting to note that this mosque was most heavily criticized by the same groups that supported the other mosques. The foundation of their criticisms is because they feel it does not look like a mosque from the outside.[17] One such critic was Akbar Ahmed who was interviewed regarding the Murfreesboro mosque. While there are clearly similar factors to the other cases, it does not warrant being mentioned by other articles as it was a relatively a  non-issue for the area.

Murfreesboro, Temecula, and Florence are very different communities. Politically they are red, blue, and polka-dotted and yet the underlying feelings among their populations towards Muslims appear to be similar. While the Murfreesboro Mosque received significant national attention for close to two years, it actually appears to have been significantly milder, at least with overt rhetoric, than a similar example in California. Meanwhile, in Florence, it appears that the mosque was rejected and later approved due strictly to zoning regulations. Mosque building, and the controversy that revolves around them, often garners undue attention. A few high profile examples have caused all others to be cast in the same light. In fact, opposition tends to be less widespread then the public is generally led to believe. However, this should be unsurprising as “Non-controversial Mosque Built” would fail to create any attention, let alone be relevant. Opposition to mosques appears to be a common underlying emotion across the entire country, but is usually not acted upon. However, it does appear that once this base feeling is used, it becomes much more vocal and visible then the significantly larger support. In regards to Mosques, it appears that there is a silent majority. While the Murfreesboro mosque received much more attention, opponents had to publically made legal claims. In the other cases opponents were willing to directly oppose them with solely anti-Islam sentiments. This finding was a surprise as most coverage, and stereotypes, would have suggested the opposite to have been the case. If the national coverage and viewpoint is removed, the mosques become uncontroversial, suggesting that it is the national level that causes the local issue to become significant and for the opposition to grow.   It is also clearly relevant that people who were against the mosques are generally misinformed about Islam as a religion. Local areas are making large strides in acceptance of Muslim communities, but they are being undermined at the national level. Mistrust of Muslims in America is a national issue that occasionally surfaces at a local level. Focus tends to be on supposedly isolated incidents, but the underlying problems must be recognized to exist nationally in order to make progress at understanding and accepting Islam as a peaceful element in American society.



[1]   The Associated, Press. "Murfreesboro mosque seeks cemetery permit." AP Regional State Report - Tennessee (November 1, 2012): AP NewsMonitor Collection, EBSCOhost

[2] Scott Broden  http://www.dnj.com/article/20121101/NEWS/310310035/Mosque-seeks-cemetery-permit?source=nletter-news&nclick_check=1

[3] The Associated, Press. "Murfreesboro mosque celebrates official opening." AP Regional State Report - Tennessee (November 19, 2012): AP NewsMonitor Collection, EBSCOhost

[4] Samantha E. Donaldson http://www.dnj.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012311190013

[5] Based on caption of photos accompanying the article

[6] Based on CNN search of ‘Murfreesboro Mosque’

[7] Sally Wall http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/30/tn-mosque-critic-not-islamophobia/?iref=allsearch

[8] http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2010/09/28/ac.tennessee.mosque.battle.cnn

[9] Bob Smietana, The Tennessean, Nashville January 3, 2011 Monday

[10] TRAVIS LOLLER - Associated, Press. "Murfreesboro mosque response not typical in Tenn." AP Regional State Report - Tennessee (September 16, 2012): Newspaper Source Plus, EBSCOhost

[11] City Council Approves Controversial Temecula Mosque Project. KTLA-TV (Los Angeles, CA) [serial online]. January 26, 2011:Available from: Newspaper Source Plus, Ipswich, MA

[12] "Calif. mosque approved after 8-hour hearing." UPI Top News (January 26, 2011): Newspaper Source Plus, EBSCOhost (accessed November 28, 2012).

[13] GILLIAN, FLACCUS. "Mosque to be built in California city after denial of appeal by residents who fear extremism." Canadian Press, The (n.d.): Newspaper Source Plus, EBSCOhost

[14] http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2010/08/17/jk.rench.harmoush.mosque.cnn

[15] Scherer, Ron. 2010. "Ground zero and beyond: four mosque battles brew across US." Christian Science Monitor, August 19. N.PAG. Newspaper Source Plus, EBSCOhost

[16]"Plan to Build Mosque in Florence Approved." India -- West, August 27, 2010., B24, Newspaper Source Plus, EBSCOhost

[17] ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS - Associated, Press. "Ohio mosque designed to blend in, not stand out." AP Regional State Report - Michigan (September 24, 2011): Newspaper Source Plus, EBSCOhost