Sharia Scare in Tennessee

In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, just outside Nashville, the Muslim community won a hard-fought victory Wednesday. After a two-year legal battle that inflamed anti-Islamic sentiment across the state, a federal judge ruled that a new Islamic community center could get the permits necessary to open. Elsewhere in the state, however, Muslim residents got a cold reminder this week of just how much prejudice exists around them.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a conservative Republican who's pro-life and anti-tax, is facing a chorus of angry voices from county Republican parties. It seems he's just not concerned enough about the threat of Sharia law. According to The Tennessean, Republicans in Stewart, Carroll, and Williamson counties passed resolutions criticizing Governor Haslam for hiring Samar Ali, a Tennessee native and Muslim American, as international director of the state's Department of Economic and Community Development. The Tennessean reports that six other counties have also adopted resolutions condemning the governor.

Two groups helped promote the condemnation: the Eighth District Tea Party Coalition, which operates in western Tennessee, and the Center for Security Policy, a D.C.-based, anti-Muslim group that actively opposed construction of Park 51, the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, in New York. In recent days, the Center has again been in the news for a report casting suspicion that Huma Abedin, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. (Senator John McCain condemned the allegations, which were picked up by Michele Bachmann and four other House members, as "ugly" and "sinister" on the Senate floor yesterday.)

The resolutions accuse Haslam of increasing the threat of Sharia law by hiring a Muslim American lawyer. Or, as they say, an expert in "Sharia-compliant finance." Earlier in her career, Samar Ali, the lawyer in question, helped businesses with Muslim owners structure their contracts so they would not violate the religion's ban on collecting interest. Ali boasts an impressive list of qualifications, including helping to open firms abroad. Her new job at the Department of Economic and Community Development—promoting trade efforts and helping the state expand its exports abroad—has nothing to do with Islam. But that hasn't stopped the groups from making accusations. In June, less than a month after Ali was appointed, the Center for Security Policy sounded the alarm: "Given Ms. Ali's close associations with Shariah Finance entities and specialization in Shariah Finance, it is reasonable to expect that the financial jihadists will soon be targeting the Volunteer state for infiltration and influence operations." 

After that, the backlash spread. "Governor Bill Haslam has elevated and/or afford [sic] preferential political status to Sharia adherents in Tennessee," reads the resolution from Williamson County, "thereby aiding and abetting the advancement of an ideology and doctrine which is wholly incompatible with the Constitution of the United States and the Tennessee Constitution." The resolution from Stewart County doesn't stop there—it also also criticizes the governor for variety of other transgressions, including allowing "openly homosexuals [sic.] to make policy decisions in the Department of Children's Services.")

The idea, it seems, is that a truly conservative governor would conduct background checks to purge from state rolls anyone who's doesn't match a Norman Rockwell painting of America. According to these resolutions, Muslim people should not hold government positions at all. In an e-mail to Talking Points Memo, Williamson County Republican Chair Kevin Kookogey said Haslam and his administration "seem willing to accept the claims and defense of the Muslim Brotherhood at face value, refusing to even consider that, perhaps, those bent on destroying Western Civilization might just be infiltrating our institutions"—an argument strikingly similar to that of Michele Bachmann and other members of Congress who've warned of Brotherhood "infiltration." Kookogey compared the situation to Communist infiltration. "Shariah, however, is an even greater threat," he wrote, "because it has cloaked itself under the auspices of a religion, thus confusing the uninformed.”

The state Republican Party is distancing itself from the county-level actions. "We stand behind the governor 100 percent," says Tennessee GOP spokesman Adam Nickas. "People need to make sure that they do their homework before rushing to judgment."

Nickas pointed to Ali's roots in the rural town of Waverly, Tennessee, where she was part of the 4H Club. He noted her degrees, both a bachelor's and law degree, from Vanderbilt University. That she is in any way linked to Islamic extremism, Nickas said, is a "gross mischaracterization." Meanwhile, the governor's office has only publicly responded to the resolutions by pointing to Haslam's popularity and economic message.

This is hardly the first incident of anti-Muslim sentiment in the state. Over the last two years, Muslim Tennesseans have seen a dramatic rise in Islamophobia both in the capital and in smaller communities like Murfreesboro. "The situation's pretty bad in Tennessee and has been for several years now," says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Potok calls Tennessee "one of the more Islamaphobic states" in the country.


The Battle of Mufreesboro

In 2011, Republican state Senator Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro sponsored one of the most extreme anti-Sharia-law bills in the country. Prompted by fears of radical Islam, such measures were popular around the country, but in many cases, had little real impact beyond affirming that foreign laws have no bearing in American courtrooms. (The Center for Security Policy produced a report arguing for the need for such laws.) In Tennessee, however, a significantly more virulent version of the law was introduced, which called out Islam by name, going so far as to say Islamic law contradicted constitutional principles. The initial proposal gave the attorney general enormous power in designating "Sharia organizations." If you materially supported Sharia the organization, you could get a 15-year prison sentence. The law was eventually rewritten, with direct references to Sharia and Islam removed, though the version that eventually passed still carried criminal penalties.

In Ketron's hometown, a different fight had already been brewing as the Muslim community got ready to construct a new Islamic center. In May 2010, the county commission granted approval. It seemed non-controversial at first. Even though a sign announcing the new home of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro had been vandalized earlier in the year, most in the Muslim community ascribed the act to juvenile silliness rather than any real anti-Muslim sentiment. That soon changed. "We were not accustomed to this hate that started at the time," says Saleh Sbenaty, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and a board member. After all, there had been a mosque in Murfreesboro for almost 30 years—the community had just outgrown it.

But the anti-Muslim sentiments soon became impossible to miss. At the next month's county commission meeting, hundreds came to voice their opposition not only to the center but to Islam as a whole. "They seem to be against everything that I believe in, and so I don't want them necessarily in my neighborhood spreading that type of comment," said one man at the meeting, according to ABC News. Another told reporters: "We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, we should not be promoting this." Because the center was not on the agenda, Sbenaty says, no one from the Muslim community was there to defend it. 

Things got uglier fast. Islam may not be a religion but "a nationality, a way of life or a cult," Republican Lieutenant Governor Ross Ramsey said at a 2010 campaign event. "You cross the line when they start trying to bring Sharia law into the United States," he added.

In late August 2010, arsonists set fire to the construction site in Murfreesboro, destroying one piece of equipment and damaging several others. Meanwhile, two congressional candidates were linking the center to terrorism. "This Islamic Center is not part of a religious movement; [i]t is a political movement designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee," read a statement from candidate Lou Ann Zelenick of nearby Mount Juliet. (She lost the primary, but is now running again for Congress.) 

Eventually, several residents sued Rutherford County. Among the central arguments initially made in court was that Islam is not a religion and therefore not entitled to the same land-use rights as other religious organizations. The Department of Justice actually had to file a brief affirming that, yes, Islam is in fact a major world religion. According to The Tennessean, the plaintiff's attorney argued that Sharia law prompted domestic and sexual abuse. The attorney called in various experts, including neoconservative Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, who described Sharia law as a threat to local governments. Because the lawsuit was against county officials, Sbenaty says, the Murfreesboro Muslim community had little opportunity to respond to the false claims about its religious beliefs. 

The lawsuit dragged on for two years, wreaking havoc on community relations. There was a bomb threat to the center in 2011. According to Sbenaty, bullying became a problem for Muslim children in schools. "Kids [began] asking their mothers who have head scarves not to go to the malls because they're scared of seeing their mom being harassed," says Sbenaty. Among adults, and particularly the elderly, "people were afraid to come to the mosque and pray."  

The claims that Islam was not entitled to the same land-use rights as other religions were eventually dismissed, but this May, a local judge ruled that the county had failed to give sufficient public notice of the meeting in which it approved the mosque. The county had used the same practices and advertisements it uses for every other meeting, but the judge said that because so many people had strong opinions about the center's construction, the county should have provided additional notice. While the construction was close to completion the judge granted an injunction, blocking the center's ability to get an occupancy permit. Without a permit, the center could not open.

On Wednesday, the day before Ramadan began, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro sued for a temporary restraining order so that it could get necessary inspections completed and use its building. Sbenaty calls it a last resort. Happily for the Muslim community, a federal judge granted the restraining order.


Causes and Solutions

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and the resolutions against Governor Bill Haslam are hardly isolated incidents. Thirty miles from Murfreesboro, the Muslim community in Brentwood, Tennessee, applied to rezone some land in 2010, in order to build the Islamic Center of Williamson County. It was an area with few neighbors, and the Center agreed to a number of restrictions to limit its impact on neighbors: no loudspeakers to make a call to prayer, for instance, and few outside lights. But an intense anti-Islam campaign eventually led mosque organizers to withdraw their application. And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Rutherford County sheriff recently brought in former FBI agent John Guandolo to train law enforcement on Islam and the threat of terrorism. Guandolo has said that First Amendment rights don't apply to Muslims.

Potok says that the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in Tennessee rose up after the controversy surrounding the "Ground Zero Mosque" (a center that was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero). "Murfreesboro is one of the direct spin-offs of that," he says. 

Tim Rudd, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee from Murfreesboro, says the situation with the Islamic center "has been blown out of proportion into something it's not." He argues that logistical issues drove the opposition. "They put a huge facility in a small country road," he said. "They kept it secret." Rudd, who says he hasn't had much contact with the Muslim community, pointed to the acceptance of Buddhist and Hindu temples in Murfreesboro. He would not comment on the resolutions against Haslam.

Hedy Weinburg, the executive director of Tennessee's ACLU, says that the resolutions and the Murfreesboro controversy are all part of the same bigotry. "You don't have to dig too deep," she says, "to see and hear the very rampant xenophobia and anti-Muslim voices."

So far, there's been little direct response to the anti-Muslim sentiment from lawmakers—hardly shocking from a legislature that passed an anti-Sharia-law bill in 2010. Rather than speaking out against the resolutions criticizing him, the governor has instead tried to downplay them. Republican leadership has not confronted the fear-mongering that prompted the resolutions and the situation in Murfreesboro.

Weinburg and Sbenaty are quick to say that the prejudice is limited to a vocal minority. Sbenatry points to the influence of outside groups like JihadWatch and the Center for Security Policy, D.C.-based groups that have helped influence the discussions in Tennessee. "They have interfered in our community," he says. "Tennessee is known to be the Volunteer State—it's known to be hospitable." Nashville, in fact, has a reputation for being particularly diverse and welcoming to different cultures. 

Sbenaty, who's lived in Tennessee for more than 30 years, says that the Muslim community will remain engaged and active in Murfreesboro. "We have educators, doctors, businessmen. Our kids have been born and raised here," he says. "We try to show others that we are part of this community."

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