Some 200 people gathered as the sun set on the steps of the Rutherford County Courthouse Monday, holding lit candles and signs in support of Murfreesboro Muslims whose planned new facility has brought national controversy to this small town.
“As Americans, we must always act with justice if we are to be peacemakers,” the Rev. Joseph Breen, longtime pastor at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Nashville, said from the courthouse steps to many cheers. “We must speak up for the freedoms and liberties of every person, regardless of their religion.”
Breen was pastor at St. Rose Catholic Church in Murfreesboro for 10 years, and said he had nothing but fond memories of the town, which he added has drawn a bad — if inaccurate — reputation in the national media of late.
Much of that attention came in the wake of controversial comments made by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who called Islam a “cult” several weeks ago, and vocal opposition to the proposed mosque, mostly after the county’s planning commission had approved the facility.
But the national spotlight has shown more brightly on Rutherford County since Saturday, when a fire at the proposed site destroyed one piece of excavating equipment and damaged three others. According to Eric Kehn, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, investigators had gathered evidence and were processing it Monday afternoon. It has been widely reported that the investigation, which also involves the FBI, is focused on arson.
“It’s sad,” James Deane, a 24-year-old Murfreesboro resident who rode his bicycle to the vigil, said of the fire. “There’s been so many people calling Muslim terrorists — that’s terrorism, what happened over the weekend.”
“It’s domestic terrorism,” said Lisa Rung. She drove an hour from Sewanee to attend the vigil, which was organized by Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom and promoted via Facebook. “So you have to stand up against it, you have to say we don’t support that.”
Jamie Smith, an adjunct English professor at Middle Tennessee State University who was sharing a bench with Rung, whom she’d just met, lamented the reputation her town is gathering.
“Of course, if you see yourself on ‘[The Daily Show with] Jon Stewart’ for the wrong reasons, you’re a little bit embarrassed,” she said.
Many at the vigil spoke of the fear over the proposed 52,900-square-foot facility, which will include a mosque, athletic field, playground, pavilions and green space on its 15-acre swathe in Rutherford County. But, according to Camie Ayash of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, the first phase would include just an entryway, a multipurpose room for things like daily prayer, and a smaller side room. The multipurpose room would be three times the size of the current one, which she said is too small to accommodate the congregation’s 250 families (which adds up to about 1,000 members).
It could be another decade, she said, before the congregation raises the money needed to build out more of the proposal.
A construction crew broke ground at the site on Friday, Aug. 20.
Ayash, who did not attend the vigil, said the fire has put everyone at her mosque on alert.
“When somebody sets something on fire, that goes beyond breaking a sign or sending a nasty email,” she said. “Someone could’ve gotten hurt. And so that makes me think that the person just has no respect for human life.”
There have been at least two prior acts of vandalism at the site.
Ayash said the Islamic Center asked Murfreesboro police for additional patrols of the site, adding that local and federal law enforcement officials have been helpful and cooperative all along. A patrol car passes by the site every half hour, she said, and on Monday night after the vigil, a police car sat at the front of the open field with its headlights on.
Imam Mohammad Ahmed Al-Sherif, of the Islamic Center of Nashville, said in an interview Monday afternoon that Metro police have stepped up patrols of his 12South site. There are two guards on the property at all times, he said, and Metro police have dedicated patrol cars coming by more regularly than usual.
“Of course, people are very terrified,” he said. “I have a 6-year-old, she’s afraid to go to school. Some people don’t want to come to congregation.”
Naturally, Monday night’s vigil wasn’t absent a little controversy. A small contingent of 20 people or so stood at the back and argued with attendees about the mosque and, more generally, Islam in America and the breadth of religious freedom here. After arriving in a black GMC truck with a hand-painted wooden sign in the bed that read “No Mosque,” Collier Hopson and three other young men began arguing with a small cluster of vigil-goers.
The most vocal was Cody Donovan, an Army veteran who said he did one tour in Iraq before coming home with injuries. He said he came to the rally because he thought it was over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in Manhattan, although he acknowledged he has a problem with Islam overall.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the fire continues. And on Sunday, officials from the Islamic Center who were at the site reported hearing multiple gunshots in the area. A spokesman for the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office said Monday that investigators haven’t connected the shots to the site, adding that now is squirrel-hunting season, so the shots may have come from hunters.
The ATF is asking anyone with information about the fire to call 1-888-ATF-FIRE.