Planned Tennessee Mosque Also Gets Mixed Reaction

New York City isn’t the only place in the country where people have protested the building of an Islamic community center and mosque. Murfreesboro, Tennessee is home to a similarly-planned construction. Host Michel Martin speaks with Saleh Sbenaty about the opposition against building a new mosque there. He is also a member of the Planning Committee for the new Murfreesboro mosque.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Soledad O'Brien is on the program today. The CNN special correspondent will help kick off our coverage of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Her new documentary airs tomorrow.

Also, the Barbershop guys are with us with plenty on the perception of nearly one in five Americans that President Obama as a Muslim the false perception, I should say. We'll hear more about what they have to say about that.

But first, the politically and emotionally charged question of the construction of a new mosque. And, no, we are not talking about that cultural center propose for Lower Manhattan near ground zero. We're talking about Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that's about 40 minutes outside of Nashville. It's one of a number of proposed mosque sites across the country that is facing resistance.

In Murfreesboro the facility could be as large as 52,000 square feet. And the region is becoming more and more divided. Local TV news viewers on WSMV and WTVF heard these and other voices of opposition.

Unidentified Man #1: Who is behind the mosque? Why is it here, right? And why is it so big?

Unidentified Man #2: This mosque that they're trying to build, all it is a training center. In Islam, a mosque means we have conquered this country. And where are they? The center of Tennessee. They're going to say: We have conquered Tennessee.

Unidentified Man #3: Do you forget 9/11 so fast? It seems like the American people do.

Unidentified Woman: The size of the building means something. It is a very large building, and it's supposed to have only 200 memberships and I don't want anybody in there creating something that can be used to attack us.

MARTIN: So as you heard, questions have been raised. So we decided to answer those questions. So we've called Saleh Sbenaty. He is a member of the planning committee for the proposed Islamic center. He's a longtime Tennessee resident. He's been living in Murfreesboro for 18 years. He's also a professor of computer engineering technology at Middle Tennessee State University. And he's with us now, and welcome, and thank you for joining us.

Professor SALEH SBENATY (Computer Engineering Technology, Middle Tennessee University): Thank you, and thank you for hosting me.

MARTIN: So let's just ask the questions that some of these folks have been asking. And let's assume that these aren't the only voices that one could hear, but these are some voices who obviously have some very strong feelings about this. So why is this proposed building so big?

Mr. SBENATY: That's a really question, but let me make one point very clear. We're not going to build 52,000 square foot mosque or facility. What we presented to the commissioners of Rutherford County is our vision for the future. And what we are going to start with is phase number one. Phase number one is about 10,000 square foot. That's including a 4,500 square foot multipurpose room that can be used for holding prayers like the Friday prayer, and then holding, also, social events. For example, like, a Ramadan the fasting month of Ramadan. We have dinners for the community, and also we are going to host a dinner for the non-Muslim, also.

MARTIN: So just to clarify, where you're praying now, it's like two business suites and you separate by gender during prayer, right? Customarily.

Mr. SBENATY: Now, I mean, they have to be in a different location altogether because, you know, the place would not be accommodating for men as...

MARTIN: I understand. I'm just clarifying what the situation is now. You're saying that the people in the congregation, they're, what, about 200 families? 250 families?

Mr. SBENATY: We estimate about 250 families. You know, you need to keep in mind that family probably including four or five members, you know, kids and so on. And then we have a growing Muslim students in the university. Many students are basically practicing Muslims and that's in addition to those 250 families.

MARTIN: Okay. So let me just ask you, you've lived in the community for almost 20 years. Are you surprised by the response that you're getting to the proposed new facility?

Mr. SBENATY: We are extremely surprised, actually, because, you know, the almost 30 years that I've been in Tennessee, I haven't had any issues about my religion. People respect me and I respect them. My kids grew up here and, you know, their friends, actually, we know their families and so on. So we were really surprised and we did not have any indication before we put the sign on our new property.

And then the first indication was vandalism to the sign, you know, wrote on the sign: Not welcome. And then later on, you know, they broke the sign totally. And then after getting the approval, actually, we applied like anybody else for our permit. And after we get the approval, people, you know, started to rally against this project.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering, if you don't mind my asking, after 9/11, there were some people who experienced some negative reaction in some parts of the country.

Mr. SBENATY: Right.

MARTIN: Did any of that happen to you?

Mr. SBENATY: Yeah, let me tell you, Michel. It was really heartwarming, actually, after 9/11. Even though 9/11, it was really a tragic, tragic day that I would never forget to the end of my life, it would be surprising to walk on the days after 9/11, and my wife with a scarf on her head. And she's known to be a Muslim, right?

So people who we don't know, we would be walking in a grocery store and people would come to us and tell us, please do not feel afraid, you know, we know that your religion has nothing to do with this. This is just terrorism and, you know, we don't want you to feel afraid or scared. So that's why, you know, we were really surprised with this, you know, wave of attacks against Muslim and Islam in general because we have not anticipated any (unintelligible).

MARTIN: You never had this before. This is very interesting. Well, what do you attribute it to? What do you think is going on here?

Mr. SBENATY: I think this is a nationwide going opposition and I think there are forces inside our county and city that probably moved because of someone from outside motivated the residents here.

MARTIN: Like who?

Mr. SBENATY: Well, I, you know, when you hear comments by so-called leaders who tried to probably bash Islam, to attract what they think, you know, the conservatives or, you know, people who might have some concern about Islam.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're talking about the opposition to a mosque being built not in Lower Manhattan, but in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. And I'm speaking with Professor Saleh Sbenaty, who is a member of the planning committee for the Murfreesboro Islamic Center. He's a longtime member of that community, and he's talking to us about how the plans to build a mosque have been received.

What about this whole thing about, I don't want anybody in there creating something that could be used to attack us? Let me ask the reason I'm asking this is that there have been a number of high-profile incidents. There was the Major Nidal Hasan. He was the Army psychiatrist who killed and wounded a number of people at Fort Hood before being shot himself. And a lot of people look at that example and they think that he sought out religious institutions, where he was validated in these beliefs - and they are concerned.

Mr. SBENATY: Well, let me say first, there are crazy people in every society, in every religion and everywhere you go. This is the nature of the human being. You know, this is an unfortunate, you know, event, and we understand that. But, for example, you know, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is completely open and we have, I mean, you know, we have made ourselves and our facility completely open to the inspection of anyone.

We have many non-Muslims who participated and came to our Friday prayer. We actually used to broadcast our Friday prayer sermon on our website. And, you know, everything is open to the public.

MARTIN: I see your point. But can I just ask you, though, on this just if I may just press you on the question, there have been some mosques that have, for whatever reason, become a center for people who have become radicalized, and they have experienced validation there. In some cases, maybe they sought out that validation there. That was not the intention of the people who built those institutions, that may not be the attitude of the majority of the people worshipping at those institutions.

But for whatever reason, there have been places that have become a magnet for individuals who then adopt a very specific worldview that then leads them to wish to do harm to Americans, and that people are afraid. So, what would you say to people who say that they have that fear? What are you going to do to see that doesn't happen?

Mr. SBENATY: I understand this fear. And I just I want to emphasize, you know, the majority of our congregation the majority is U.S. citizens who have been here for a long time, who want to live here for a long time. I had after 9/11, I was interviewed by federal officials and they basically, you know, they were concerned about our community in general and about our safety, also. And I really thank them for coming. And I would tell them straight, you know, I would tell them, if I see anything that is going to harm this country, I'm going to be the first to report it. Our imams say that to everyone.

Everybody has an open eye to whatever goes on. Everything goes, for example, in terms of curriculum that we teach, in terms of the books that we have in the mosque, in terms of, you know, who we elect, for example, for the board members and so on. Everybody is checked extremely, extremely under the microscope to make sure that, you know, there's no hidden agenda, there is no political attachment, there is no political affiliation nothing.

So, you know, I can give you this assurance, you know, that everybody would actually come forward and say, if there is any suspicious activities...

MARTIN: So you think it will go forward? You think the mosque will go forward? It's already been approved...

Mr. SBENATY: Right.

MARTIN: ...by the county commission, so...

Mr. SBENATY: Right, I mean, you know, we're doing everything according, right, according to the law and according to the books. So, you know, we're going forward with the plan and with the construction. And hopefully we will let our community celebrate with us. And we are going to invite everybody. And we are going to make an open house as soon as we get the facility bill.

So this is something that we are going to be proud of, the community is going to be proud of. Murfreesboro and Rutherford County and Tennessee in general is going to be proud of. So we're going to go forward.

MARTIN: Saleh Sbenaty is a member of the planning committee for the proposed Murfreesboro Islamic Center. He's also a professor of computer engineering technology at Middle Tennessee State University. And as he told us, he's lived in Tennessee for 30 years, and he's with us from Franklin, Tennessee. Thank you so much for speaking with us, professor.

Mr. SBENATY: It's my pleasure. Great to be here.

MARTIN: I should mention that this is just the latest conversation we've had on this topic, which is, as we've said, highly charged. If you want to check out previous conversation, including one with civic engagement leader Rich Harwood, about how communities can resolve difficult topics like this, or with two Muslim Americans who oppose the Manhattan Islamic Center site, please check out the TELL ME MORE programs page at npr.org.

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