On Sunday, March 27th, CNN aired “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door,” in which correspondent, Soledad O’Brien went to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to examine the controversy around the building of an Islamic center.
In 2010, the city commission committee approved plans for the local Muslim community to build a 52,000-foot facility that would include not only a mosque, but also a school, a swimming pool, a gym, and a cemetery. Residents of Murfreesboro, which houses 180 churches and currently one mosque, came out in protest of the the Islamic center. In addition to protests, the sign at the site of the future center was vandalized twice: the first time the words “not welcome” were sprayed on it and the second time it was cut in half. Also, the construction equipment at the site was doused with gas and lit on fire. Finally, some residents filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop construction of the mosque.
O’Brien interviewed both opponents and supporters of the project. The question that emerged throughout the interviews was this: Is the problem with the building of the mosque itself or is the prevalent emotion symptomatic of a broader Islamophobia?
Supporters of the project argued that the Muslims in Murfreesboro had a right to build a place of worship, the size of which is not relevant. The Muslim community itself maintained that they had far outgrown the current mosque and that it was their right as Americans to build a place of worship.
Opponents had a myriad of reasons for preventing the construction of the Islamic center that went from concerns over traffic (even though there is already a Baptist church across from the site and there wasn’t concern over traffic when it was built) and the way Muslims bury their dead to questions over why the facility was so large. Some claimed it would become a training ground for radicals.
In the lawsuit, plaintiff’s attorney Joe Brandon argued that Islam is not a religion because he maintained it condones violence, and thus the law that the building of religious facilities are exempt from giving notice does not apply. In an unusual move, attorneys from the Federal Department of Justice came in the middle of trial and met with the judge to say that according to the United States government “Islam is plainly a religion.” Even though there was so much discussion around Islam, O’Brien highlighted the fact that not one Muslim was asked to testify in the trial, even when there were questions about sharia law.
Watching this documentary was quite disturbing for two reasons. First, the information that opponents of the project mentioned about Islam is completely false. For example, during the trial, Brandon said that in sharia law a Muslim man must keep a whip hanging to beat his wife or girlfriend. He also said that sharia law says that the Constitution is based on ignorance. These two statement alone show how little he knows about Islam. Yes, there is a verse in the Qur’an that mentions hitting a wife for a sin against God, but there are many interpretations about the verse. However, there is agreement that “hitting” does not mean “whipping” but rather using something like a pen or even the edge of a piece of clothing. Whipping is absolutely forbidden. As for the other point, sharia has absolutely nothing to say about the American Constitution.
The second reason that this documentary disturbed me is the fact that the expression of this level of hate was seen as acceptable. There seem to be different standards applied to different groups. If a group of Muslims protested anything and made false claims about the Bible or Torah and expressed that kind of hatred, many people would say that they are hateful, violent, and maybe even terrorists. Yet, that kind of rhetoric is continuously being used towards Muslim Americans and it seems to be okay.
The special did, though, shed light on what I think is a growing problem: Islamophobia. This is clear from all the protests last summer around Cordoba House in New York, the protests at other mosque sites around the country, and the recent Peter King hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. As O’Brien said in the program so adeptly: “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from suspicion.” This is the reality that Muslim Americans face now.
Did you watch the special? What did you think? Do you think that the Muslim community in Murfreesboro should not be allowed to build an Islamic center? What about in other parts of the country? Should the Muslim American community be treated differently? Please share your thoughts below.