Tennessee is an unlikely place to hold an argument over Islam but the construction of a mosque in the US state has recently become an unlikely issue in a nasty Tennessee Republican congressional primary.
In a primary to represent the rural district, Freshman Republican Representative Diane Black beat Lou Ann Zelenik. Nothing unusual there except that the main issues the rivals fought over were not the normal fare brought up in town hall meetings. The heart of the struggle was over a new Islamic center which has been controversial since construction began two years ago.
Though an existing mosque has been operating in the neighborhood for 30 years, attendance had outgrown capacity and a new extension was proposed. But since plans for the new 4,831 square meter Islamic Center of Murfreesboro were approved by local authorities in 2010, local opponents have tried to stop it. They claim Islam was not protected by the US Constitution, that the center would promote Shariah law, and it would have unspecified “terrorist” ties. Opponents of the mosque have also argued that Islam is not a religion deserving of First Amendment protections.
The backlash was stinging and included intimidation, lawsuits and an August 2010 fire that destroyed construction equipment and damaged vehicles at the construction site of the mosque. Police said it was arson. A sign announcing the mosque was spray-painted with the words “Not Welcome”.
Opponents of the mosque are displaying religious intolerance and ignorance of the law. Islam is a world religion and is therefore entitled to protection under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. A mosque is a place of worship, and US federal law is obligated to treat it as it would a church or synagogue. Some states dominated by Republicans have passed laws to prevent Shariah from being applied in US court cases, but Shariah is based on justice, just as the US government is committed to protecting the rights of freedom of religion of people of all faiths. What makes America supposedly so special is the values it espouses and how it protects such freedoms.
The Tennessee mosque expansion gained national attention because in some ways it was similar to the proposal to build an Islamic center two blocks from the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. Clearly 9/11 did much damage to Islam and its followers and 11 years later the fight to support Islam in the US remains as tough as ever. Sometimes, it seems that the only thing that can be done is to rely on the goodwill and tolerance of the members of the rest of society who do not hold extremist views and have common sense.
For the record, Black received 69 percent to Zelenik’s 31 percent of the vote. Zelenik vigorously opposed the mosque and warned of potential terrorist connections. Black was not far behind. Their debates in the run up to the elections turned into absurd arguments over who was more opposed to the Islamic faith.