ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
Many opponents of the planned mosque in New York near Ground Zero argue that an Islamic center is fine, just not there. But in other parts of the country, people are saying: Not here, either. Outside Nashville, a proposed mosque has divided the community.
From member station WPLN, Blake Farmer has the story.
(Soundbite of siren)
BLAKE FARMER: Police make their presence known as hundreds of marchers parade around the town square in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They carry signs that read "Enough is enough" and "Stop terrorism."
Unidentified Woman: Islam is not a religion!
FARMER: Another woman yells out: Have you forgotten the Twin Towers?
What's got these people so upset is a proposal to build what would eventually be a 52,000-square-foot Islamic center, complete with worship space, a cafe and even a pool. There's already a small, inconspicuous mosque hidden in a complex of office suites behind a Quick Lube. But the congregation has outgrown the space.
The leader of the opposition has tried stopping construction with environmental and traffic concerns. But that's not what's on the mind of most who are rallying against the mosque, like Ben Fletcher.
Mr. BEN FLETCHER: We're Christians, and this religion represents people that are against Christians. I mean, that's something that we need to look at, you know, because you're going to have a lot of trouble down the line.
FARMER: Fletcher says he doesn't know exactly what trouble looks like, but he and others worry about terrorist links and Muslims wanting to impose Shariah law.
Professor SALEH SBENATY (Engineering Professor): All of sudden now, you know, there's a movement against Islam and Muslim.
FARMER: Saleh Sbenaty is an engineering professor from Syria and a leader of the growing Muslim congregation. He's lived in Tennessee three decades but says he's never seen this level of Islamophobia.
Mr. SBENATY: We did not see that immediately after 9/11. And all of sudden now, it is part of politics. And it is like, you know, I can get more votes if I can bash Islam more and Muslim more.
FARMER: The mosque debate has played out in state politics. The lieutenant governor had to back away from campaign statements suggesting Islam might be a cult. A candidate for Congress who was upfront about her suspicions of Muslims nearly won the Republican primary this month.
But in Murfreesboro there is also a healthy amount of support for the mosque, even among non-Muslims. In fact, many are Christians themselves, like Allison Belt.
Ms. ALLISON BELT: Anyone who has a religion that falls within the boundaries of our laws, such as the Muslim community here, should have access to a place to worship. They need more room. They need more space. I went to an open house at their place two weeks ago. It is crowded and hot.
FARMER: At least one opponent is trying to find out more about Islam. Tanzi Webb showed up at the existing mosque this week. She said she wants to look its leaders in the eye and get some questions answered.
Webb arrives just before the afternoon call to prayer and is invited in.
Ms. TANZI WEBB: Is that okay?
Unidentified Man #1: That's fine.
Ms. WEBB: And I behave. I'm actually very nice.
FARMER: Webb slips off her shoes and watches from the back.
(Soundbite of imam performing the call to prayer)
FARMER: After seeing prayers, Webb talks with the imam. She tells him she's afraid following the Quran to the letter makes for extremists and terrorists. Afterward, she says the meeting didn't convince her otherwise.
Ms. WEBB: It did not put my mind at ease at all, but I tried to come in with a very open mind. I did not come in thinking this group is evil. My main thing is safety, safety, safety.
FARMER: That's safety from violent extremism, she says. Webb says she has a long way to go before she can be comfortable with a big Islamic center, whether it's going to be next door or in New York City.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.