Tennessee Islamic Center delayed on procedural technicality

The sign has been spray-painted with the words "Not Wanted." Photo: CNN

The proposed Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is no stranger to controversy. Since 2010, plans to set up the facility have been constantly thwarted by opponents. Some argued that Islam is not a legitimate religion and thus not protected under the U.S. Constitution. Others protested that the mosque would create traffic problems and lower housing values. Still others decided to take the law into their own hands, spray-painting “Not Welcome” on signs announcing the center, and even setting fire to construction equipment and vehicles.

The center prevailed through a string of lawsuits, so opponents adopted another tactic, this time attacking the planning commission who granted the building permit. Now it seems that construction may be held up on procedural grounds. On May 30, a county judge ruled that plans for the center, which had previously been approved by the planning commission, are now “void, and of no effect.”

The ruling argued that the planning commission did not provide proper public notice of construction before granting a permit. Although the commission announced public meetings in a local free newspaper and on their website, the judge ruled that the announcements were not adequate, as they were “in relatively small type near the bottom of a page which contained a number of advertisements and legal notices.”

The ruling did not specifically order construction to stop, however. Ossama Bahloul, Imam of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, said that construction would continue until specific orders were issued to the contrary.

Regardless of procedural issues, the attack on the center seems like little more than thinly veiled Islamophobia. Consider these statements by Joe Brandon, the plaintiff’s attorney:

This Shariah-compliant facility must show they are a religious organization, which we vehemently dispute. They are a political organization with Shariah-compliant rules and regulations. Shariah and the U.S. Constitution cannot coexist.

Brandon’s statements do not bemoan a lack of procedural integrity. They are clearly an attack on the legitimacy of Islam. Saleh Sbenaty, a member of the center, responded to Brandon’s accusations, saying:

Who is asking for Shairah law to be implemented? It looks like Joe Brandon and his associates are the ones pushing for Shariah law to be implemented. Nobody from the Islamic community has been pushing for Shariah law. They keep mentioning this just to scare off people.

Throughout the relentless attacks, Imam Bahloul deserves recognition for his steadfast belief in the American legal system. In direct contradiction to those who argue that Islam and American democracy are incompatible, Bahloul remains committed to his vision of a fair America. Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University commented:

What surprised me about Bahloul, in both his public talk and our private conversations, was his deep and abiding faith in America. Signs at the construction site for his planned mosque had been vandalized twice and federal investigators had determined that a fire at the site was intentionally set. Efforts to build that mosque, appropriate for a growing congregation that had been active in the area for roughly two decades, were met not only with protests but also with a lawsuit. Yet Bahloul continued to believe that what was right would win out in the end.

And Bahloul demonstrated that same conviction even after the last ruling. He told CNN:

I am confident that American values will prevail in this. What makes America so special is how it handles freedom. This decision does not seem like it reflects American values.

Do you think the latest ruling reflects a genuine oversight on the part of the planning commission, or do you think it’s just an excuse for Islamophobia? Do you share Imam Bahloul’s conviction that American values will prevail in his favor? Please share your questions and comments below.

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