While many have felt less welcome in the United States since Donald Trump’s election eight months ago, Muslims have been affected perhaps more than any other group. On the campaign trail, Trump suggested again and again that Muslims are presumably dangerous and should be subject to mass profiling and blacklisting. In December 2015 he proclaimed that “tens of thousands of people” were coming into America with “cell phones with ISIS flags on them.” And after the mass shooting in Orlando on June 12, 2016, Trump tweeted: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
Since moving into the White House, he’s taken his rhetoric to policy, instituting what was ultimately deemed a mostly illegal ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations. He continues to demonize Islam and refuses to strongly denounce the violence of white supremacists, as seen in his reactions to the events in Charlottesville earlier this month.
In response there has been a national wave of emboldened grass-roots Islamophobia, ranging from street harassment to assault and murder.
That much we know. But if you want a glimpse of what can come next—how Muslim America can withstand and overcome—you might start in Murfreesboro, a town in the heart of Tennessee. A proposed mosque in 2010 brought out a noxious mix of fear and revulsion that nearly wiped out the community of Muslim academics and refugees. They braved bomb threats, arson, assault, and seemingly endless legal proceedings for the crime of simply constructing a community center. But they stayed, resisted, moved forward, and seven years later claim to be better for the experience, their faith steeled and their relations with the town stronger.
Murfreesboro is no Eden. Last May a female driver was run off the road allegedly for wearing a hijab. But the community endured and got back to the better stuff: They healed the anger, built trust, constructed their mosque. Here’s how they won.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM) sits on Veals Road, adjacent to the Grace Baptist Church. When I visited, the street was quiet as kids played tag outside on the lawn. The most egregious crimes here seem to be the sloppy serves and backhands at the Ping-Pong table in the rec room.
It’s difficult to imagine that this building was perceived as presenting any sort of challenge to American liberties. But from 2010 to 2013 the community center became a lightning rod for the rising tides of Islamophobia across the country.
Though a Muslim community has been active in Murfreesboro without serious incident for about 30 years, the public notice of the ICM’s proposed construction triggered anti-Islamic sentiment in the town and eventually snowballed into years of protracted court proceedings and public protest, even arson.
Politicians stoked the flames of controversy, and Murfreesboro’s Muslims paid the price for it. Their children were bullied in school, their places of worship became targets of violence, and their peace of mind in a town they called home was all but robbed.
“We were completely blindsided,” says Dr. Saleh Sbenaty, a founding member of the ICM and an engineering professor at Middle Tennessee State University. During the crisis, Sbenaty became the public face of the mosque and a national figure in the process.
The Murfreesboro that Sbenaty encountered in those years was a far cry from the hospitable town that warmly welcomed him when he first arrived from Syria in 1993. There were just a handful of Muslims in town at the time, and they prayed together in a one-bedroom apartment rented out by Dr. Essam Fathy, a local physical therapist. Soon the local Muslim population ballooned, as thousands sought refuge in central Tennessee from the Gulf War and the unrest following the collapse of Mohammed Siad Barre’s dictatorship in Somalia. These conflicts, along with Nashville’s low cost of living, booming industry, and the generosity of church groups that helped resettle refugees, combined to double greater Nashville’s foreign-born population in just eight years.
Fathy’s one-bedroom apartment soon became too small for prayers, so the group moved to a two-bedroom apartment, then a garage, and then a converted doctor’s office. Through the transitions, Sbenaty and the community worked to integrate with the Murfreesboro community at large. The Muslim community engaged directly with the city’s large conservative Christian population, partnering with churches to hold frequent interfaith dialogues and panels. All questions and concerns about Islam were tackled head-on with potlucks and open houses. Even after 9/11, as Muslims around the country feared Islamophobic backlash, the community in Murfreesboro enjoyed the support of its neighbors. They worked together to denounce terror.
That’s not to say that Murfreesboro had always been accepting of immigrants and outsiders. The Rutherford Reader, a local newspaper, had for years been publishing rhetoric described by many accounts as Islamophobic and xenophobic. In 2010 the paper published a supplement titled “Islam and the Divine Deception,” a scathing indictment of Islam’s supposed threat to American freedoms. In response, supermarket chain Kroger pulled the Rutherford Reader from shelves. A similar argument was made about Roman Catholicism in another local paper, the Tennessean, in 1929, when Murfreesboro’s Catholics proposed the construction of the Church of St. Rose of Lima.
But Sbenaty never felt any of these divisions in his personal life or saw it in his community, which continued to grow. The ad hoc community centers and places of worship would no longer suffice.
The community banded together to buy a property on Veals Road in November 2009. They put up a sign declaring it the future home of Murfreesboro’s Muslim community. When it was vandalized two months later—“Not Welcome” spray-painted over the announcement—Sbenaty thought little of it, chalking it up to a few confused teens. Community leaders went ahead and drafted plans for a mosque and community center, complete with a walking trail, pool, gym, and playground, and presented them to the city council on May 24, 2010.
Soon after the city decided to approve the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, opposition began to brew in the traditionally white, conservative, Protestant city. June 2010 saw the first mass protest when 600 citizens showed up to speak out against the mosque at the planning-commission meeting. In July of that year 800 locals who opposed the ICM set up outside the Rutherford County Courthouse in protest. They were met with an equally strong counterprotest by people who had lived side by side with Murfreesboro’s Muslims for decades.
It happened to be a U.S. senate election year in 2010, and the mosque quickly became a political flashpoint in the Tennessee campaign. Some local politicians pointed to the center as a sign of the inevitable rise of sharia law and terrorism. Lou Ann Zelenik, a 2010 U.S. Senate hopeful, based much of her campaign on anti-Islamic rhetoric, saying, “This ‘Islamic Center’ is not part of a religious movement; it is a political movement designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee.” Bill Ketron, a state senator representing Murfreesboro, submitted a bill to outlaw sharia law, to allow the state attorney general to identify sharia organizations, and even to sentence supporters of these organizations to 15 years in prison.
Things worsened from there. Construction was approved in August 2010, but only a few days after ground was broken, construction equipment that had been stored on-site was set ablaze. Investigators ruled the fire to have been arson. When Sbenaty went to investigate the scene the next day, unknown assailants fired multiple rounds in his vicinity. A case was never opened, despite multiple witnesses. The attack sent fear rippling through Muslim communities around the nation. Donations began pouring into the ICM, and costs that were expected to take years to pay off were covered in a matter of weeks.
Protests became a regular sight at the lot. Signs read “Mosque leaders support killing converts” and “To embrace Islam is to embrace terrorism.” More impressive than the hundreds of Tennesseans who showed up to shut the mosque down were the counterprotestors, who often doubled the opposition.
Court proceedings soon followed. The first was led by anti-mosque lobbyist Laurie Cardoza-Moore, filed along with three plaintiffs in September 2010. The arguments presented began as purely technical proceedings surrounding the legality of the proposed construction and the public notice given by the planning commission. “They were smart to file a suit with the county and the mayor, because [the ICM] did not do anything wrong,” Sbenaty says.
Other arguments against the mosque included increased traffic and lower property values. Both were rejected out of hand by the planning commission, which had little power to deny approval to religious facilities under federal law. Another argument was directed at an earlier permit, approved by the commission to allow the ICM to bury a member of its congregation on the Veals Road property. Islamic tradition dictates burial in a plain white sheet, and local opposition dubiously suggested that such a burial could pollute the groundwater.
As these initial tactics failed, opposition began to target the very foundations of Islam.
In the September 2010 case Estes v. Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission, private investigations were conducted to determine further links between ICM members and support for terrorism. Anti-Islamic activists demanded a public investigation to the same end. Noted conspiracists like Frank Gaffney were called as expert witnesses, while ICM members had to stand on the sidelines: They were not considered defendants in the case.
When the argument turned to the religion itself, the plaintiffs contended that Islam could not be considered a religion under U.S. law. As such, the proposed mosque would not be shielded by the protections allowed to religious institutions of “true” faiths. In an amicus brief submitted to the court of Rutherford County, author Louie E. Johnston wrote, “The strangest and most untrue thing that can be said about Islam is that it is a Religion of Peace.” Attorney Joe Brandon, who represented mosque opponents, summed up the fears of the town. “First, there will be a cemetery, a sports field, and, then, a Muslim Brotherhood training center targeting not only Rutherford County,” but all of Middle Tennessee.
It was not until the federal government joined the court battles in a game of tug of war with the local government, which was withholding a necessary occupancy certificate, that the mosque’s construction was allowed to continue.
Interfaith dialogue continued and the neighboring Grace Baptist Church opened its arms to Muslims. Sbenaty was asked to speak in other Middle Tennessee State professors’ classrooms about Islam, and the head of the university declared that anti-Islamic speech would not be tolerated. After two years the court cases were beaten back by the ICM, with help from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberties and attorney John Green, who worked pro bono. The mosque finally opened for services on August 10, 2012, just in time for Eid.
Five years later the mosque is flourishing, and the politicians that ran against the ICM are no longer in office. However, the community of Murfreesboro once again lives under a cloud of fear and anxiety. In June Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rounded up and detained members of Nashville’s Kurdish community—America’s largest—as part of a revitalized nationwide enforcement campaign backed by the White House. Just last week Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff convicted of criminal contempt for his use of racial profiling.
Sbenaty emphasizes that Trump’s rhetoric does not reflect the feelings of most Americans. “Immediately after the election, we had people coming over with flowers and signs saying ‘We love you’ and ‘We support you.’ It was encouraging to see all these people come out, these people we had never met before,” Sbenaty says.
Nevertheless, the Murfreesboro mosque has not been exempt from heightened tensions throughout the nation. Last month the center was vandalized by two men who spray-painted “F**k Allah” and placed bacon strips at the front door. The next day, in true Murfreesboro form, 400 people showed up at the mosque with flowers, signs, donations, and cleaning supplies.
Sbenaty says that the most difficult part of these local events and the national headlines is explaining them to children.
“They come to us and ask, ‘Why do they hate us?’ And they were born, raised, educated in Murfreesboro. It’s a time of unease from the youngest to the oldest.”
Nevertheless, Ossama Bahloul, an imam of the ICM during the fight to build the mosque who has since left for a post with the Islamic Center of Nashville, is thankful for the experience.
“It was a gift. A lot of people might not see it like that. But I truly believe it was a blessing,” Bahloul says, his bare feet tucked under him as he sits in a dark green leather reading chair in his office at the ICM. Two large bookshelves stand guard behind his neat desk, carrying volumes of leather-bound books on Islamic law.
Imam Bahloul has spent his life studying the Quran and defending his faith. He’s traveled the world, presenting on religious panels with some of the world’s most prominent Christian televangelists, and he’s heard just about every argument in the book against Islam. But neither his degree from al-Azhar University, in Cairo, nor his extensive library could have prepared him for the fight he had in his own hometown.
“The craziness was at an 11 for a while. And it’s never really gone back to zero,” Bahloul says. During the height of the controversy, Bahloul was personally maligned incessantly. Tenuous links were drawn between his education in Egypt and the Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. His failure to respond to a “freedom pledge” to denounce killings of former Muslims only intensified tensions. He remains a popular target of conspiracy websites to this day.
After the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, Bahloul, along with other imams in Nashville, released statements condemning the violence and declaring it as un-Islamic behavior. Bahloul points out that these were not made to appease the non-Muslim community, but instead for internal dissemination and to root out violent intentions. He is proud to say that the ICM and several other mosques in the area work hand in hand with the FBI and Homeland Security to report suspicious activity.
Imam Bahloul still fields calls and receives voicemails asking him to denounce violence. He also receives rants from Americans telling him to get out of America with his violent beliefs. The imam returns as many of the calls as he can, because, he says, “these people don’t understand Islam.” He also believes that answering calls like these and engaging with those who didn’t want the mosque to be built are exactly what brings the community together. It’s what made Sbenaty’s daughter, who had not previously worn a headscarf, choose to wear one and represent her faith.
“When I wear it, I feel stronger, and there’s been so much positive support from the community when I wear it,” Dima Sbenaty says, adding that words of encouragement are not uncommon when she goes shopping in her hijab. “I don’t feel threatened.”
This is the paradox of Murfreesboro: There may be a small silver lining to a very troubling time. The more the haters scratch and pick at the community, the more solidarity they unearth, a bedrock understanding between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Neither legal activists nor right-wing media nor would-be arsonists could shake the foundation.
But there was another key partner in their campaign for inclusion. It was the Department of Justice, which filed suit using a George W. Bush-era law to compel the local government to issue permits to the mosque. It was enough pressure to tip the balance, and it was a result of the legal and political consensus that has governed Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
Nashville announced last year that it will accept some of the 10,000 refugees slated to come to the U.S. from Syria in the coming years. Davidson and Rutherford counties may have a tough time adjusting, as will the newcomers seeking a better life in America.
Sbenaty has been in their shoes. “It’s not going to be easy. It’ll take time to adjust. But life in the United States is very beautiful. You’re respected as a human being. Your rights are guaranteed by the constitution. The freedom you have here is much more than the basic life you have there. That’s the beauty of the United States.”