Despite being absent from the Rutherford County Commissioners’ meeting agenda, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro — and its proposed and officially approved project to build a new mosque and community center — was the main topic of discussion at the County Courthouse Thursday night. The same day, opponents filed a lawsuit alleging the commission did not follow proper procedure in approving the project.
Opponents of the mosque, staging a protest at Thursday's meeting, were met and seemingly outnumbered by members of the group Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom, who staged a counter demonstration outside before both groups, each displaying American flags and Bible verses, filed inside, filling the court to capacity.
Though pro-mosque demonstrators believed they had been unheard at a previous meeting of County Commissioners, their presence was not unnoticed this time. Of 10 speakers during the allotted 30 minutes for citizen comments, only one spoke in opposition. Those speaking in support of the mosque raised driver’s licenses in the air as they commented, presumably in response to criticism from mosque protesters saying that many of the congregation’s supporters are being flown in from around the country.
Both Layla Hantouli and John Green spoke in support of those they called their “neighbors and friends.” Hantouli, a Muslim and self-proclaimed “Southerner through and through,” asked the crowd to consider who the real terrorists are when someone “can’t go to the grocery store in a head scarf without being yelled at to go home.”
Green, an attorney and longtime resident of Murfreesboro, responded to accusations of illegal action by County Commissioners by saying emphatically, “Nothing wrong has occurred here.” He was met with loud applause as he finished, saying that as a fifth-generation Murfreesboro citizen, “The embarrassment I feel cannot be expressed in words strongly enough.”
Though the mosque’s supporters controlled most of the time at the podium, the evening’s lone dissenting voice from the microphone was met with equally loud applause, revealing many in the audience who agreed. Donald Westcott spoke of the Shariah law and called Islam “more than a religion, but a political ideology with a militant agenda. The real issue,” Westcott said, “is not the First Amendment, but political Islam.”
Meanwhile, attorney Joe Brandon filed a lawsuit alleging the commission did not properly notify residents of a public meeting before approving the mosque plans. And, mirroring a legal challenge to a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, the suit also includes a constitutional challenge suggesting the mosque and community center would be a seedbed for radical Islam.
The legal challenge comes several weeks after excavating equipment was burned at the mosque site in what authorities are investigating as arson.
While there were one or two collars to be seen among the crowd Thursday night, the town’s clergy, it seems, are not taking to the streets. As Murfreesboro finds itself newly acquainted with national voices from The New York Times to Michael Moore, some local religious voices are treading lightly, hesitant to speak publicly on the matter. While all who chose to comment expressed plans to leave the marching to other parties, the opinions and responses of surrounding churches are decidedly varied.
Several pastors in the area surrounding the Islamic Center expressed their views in the days before Thursday night’s demonstrations.
Pastor Ron Byers of Barfield Baptist Church in Murfreesboro expressed complete opposition to “any kind of vandalism or violence,” and explained his church’s response, one based in peace and understanding. Every Sunday night in September, congregants will have the opportunity to hear from Dr. Raous Ghattas, an Egyptian and Southern Baptist missionary who is presenting what Byers calls “A Christian’s Guide to Islam.”
While Byers said the church’s stance spiritually affirms Jesus Christ as a source of salvation, he and his church wish to share their faith not with signs on courthouse steps, but through understanding and even in Arabic phrases, which he said Ghattas has been teaching the congregation, allowing them to show “a gesture of friendship” to their Muslim neighbors.
“As citizens, we want to live in peace with our fellow citizens,” Byers said. “We’d love to reach out to them and share our faith with them. We want to come to a better understanding.”
Dr. Craig Goff, senior pastor at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, alluded to a similar goal. “The position of the United Methodist Church is to work toward dialogue,” he said.
Other church leaders described the situation as having little if any effect on their congregations, and some expressed doubts about the benefits of either side’s strategy, affirming constitutional rights on one hand and citing irreconcilable theological differences on the other.
“As far as their right to build, they have every right. If we deny them, someone is going to come along and deny us,” said Pastor James Avaritt of Bellwood Baptist Church. “I’d fight for their right to worship.”
Avaritt spoke of mosque opponents’ tendency to equate all Muslims to extremist groups associating themselves with the faith.
“Not all Muslims are extremists,” Avaritt said. “The Muslims in our county have been here for years, and we’ve never had any problem.”
The congregation has been in Murfreesboro for 30 years.
That said, Avaritt won’t be found among those trying to bring members of both faiths together. He finds such attempts as futile as those of protesters.
“Theologically, I’m opposed to Islam,” he said. “Christianity itself doesn’t have anything in common with Islam. I don’t see any point in trying to unite with the Muslims.”
Don Morris of Fellowship Church expressed a similar sentiment.
“Islam and Christianity are totally different,” he said. “My worry, my fear, is that a non-Christian will say, ‘Wow, if all these people are holding hands together, maybe there’s no difference between Jesus and Muhammad.’ But there is a difference. They’re miles apart.”
Despite personal opposition on theological grounds, Avaritt expressed a fear that was clearly on the minds of officials Thursday night as police officers lined the streets and even rooftops.
“I’m afraid before it’s over with,” Avaritt said, “if these people don’t calm down, someone is going to get really hurt.”