Tennessee Town Grapples With Sept. 11 Legacy While far from the Sept. 11 crash sites, Murfreesboro is embroiled in a debate over the building of a mosque. According to the local imam, the attacks have become a political wedge between the Muslim community and some residents.

Tennessee Town Grapples With Sept. 11 Legacy

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SCOTT SIMON, host: To many Americans the attacks of September 11th marked a realization that the U.S. is vulnerable to terrorist, the kind they thought only happened overseas. This weekend, we look at what the attacks have meant for a Southern town that, while far from the crash sites, has been embroiled in some of the same emotional debates as the places that were struck. NPR's Debbie Elliott has our story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, more than 5,000 people are expected tomorrow for the annual 9/11 memorial. What started as a small flag ceremony at the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department 10 years ago is now a major community event. And there's a new element this year.

Sergeant JIMMY CASSIDY: This piece right here is from Tower One, which was the second tower that went down.

ELLIOTT: Sergeant Jimmy Cassidy is standing alongside a giant steel beam, a foot thick and 15 feet long. It's warped from fire, and chunks of the building's concrete facade still cling to its rivets.

CASSIDY: It reinforces the fact we should never forget. I don't know how many days like that anybody has in their lifetime, where you were. You have this feeling like you need to do something. Of course, there's nothing we can do down here. But it changed a lot of people in just a few short minutes.


ELLIOTT: It's a sentiment put into song by country-music star Alan Jackson.

ALAN JACKSON: (Singing) Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?

ELLIOTT: 9/11 draws an emotional response here in Tennessee and elsewhere, says Vanderbilt University sociologist Richard Lloyd.

RICHARD LLOYD: There still is this idea that New Yorkers have this sort of special ownership on trauma and the war on terror, and I think that 10 years out it's really the same thing as saying that Hawaiians have special ownership of World War II.

ELLIOTT: One legacy of 9/11 has been playing out in Murfreesboro, in a controversy over a mosque.

Mayor ERNEST BURGESS: I think it's created a wide gulf of understanding between people of other religious faiths.

ELLIOTT: Ernest Burgess is the mayor of Rutherford County, Tennessee.

BURGESS: That has created a lot of pushback over a number of years that continues to be aggravating and confounding and confusing everybody as to how many people out there are really trying to do something to us?

ELLIOTT: Rutherford County has been embroiled in an almost mirror controversy to the one that surfaced in New York City over building a mosque near the Twin Towers site.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Twin towers, have we forgotten? I hope not.

ELLIOTT: This was the scene a year ago on the historic town square in Murfreesboro. Hundreds of opponents of a local mosque's plans to build an Islamic community center protested the county's approval of the project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Islam is not a religion.

ELLIOTT: A group of residents sued to stop it, but a judge has ruled the Muslim congregation has a right to build a new, bigger place to worship.

Saleh Sbenaty, an American citizen originally from Syria, is on the mosque's planning committee. The congregation now meets in a non-descript office suite in an industrial area. He takes me to the new 15-acre site in a rural neighborhood south of town.

SALEH SBENATY: It's not like it's going to be completely out of place.

ELLIOTT: He says contractors have been reluctant to bid on the new construction.

SBENATY: It has some Islamic elements, such as a dome on the top. We're sure debating having, you know, minarets or not. But it's going to be like a steeple, like for example the church next door.

ELLIOTT: The mosque site is beside a Baptist church and close to several subdivisions where American flags fly from front porches. Sbenaty says most of the neighbors have been supportive. And polls show that two-thirds of the county's residents say they don't oppose construction of the new mosque. Still vocal opposition remains.


ELLIOTT: Beneath the bell tower of the antebellum Rutherford County courthouse, local Tea Party founder Lou Ann Zelenik explains why she thinks the mosque is a threat.

LOU ANN ZELENIK: When you have Islam that is more political than religious, that is something that doesn't work under our constitution.

ELLIOTT: She's executive director of the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, whose mission includes stopping the growth of radical Islam. The group's chairman and founder is Andy Miller.

ANDY MILLER: Who has been attacking us? It wasn't a bunch of radical Lutherans.

ELLIOTT: Miller says there's a reason the fight is playing out in Tennessee.

MILLER: I think that there's an effort being made to target what they view as the buckle of the Bible Belt. If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere.


ELLIOTT: On a recent Friday prayer service at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, hundreds of men crowded into the old building. Imam Ossama Bahloul says it's nonsense to think the congregation is a threat.

We did not do anything. Nothing, zero.

He says for 30 years, the Muslim community had no problems here, even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But since, he says, the attacks have become a political wedge. He says he doesn't want to minimize the loss of that day.

But also I don't want September the 11th to dominate us, to take our right away from us.

In Rutherford County, Mayor Ernest Burgess says that won't happen on his watch.

BURGESS: You stand on those basic fundamental principles that are contained in the constitution and those green books right behind me here in the state of Tennessee, the laws and the constitution of the state of Tennessee.

ELLIOTT: If you do that, Burgess says, most of the time, it works out.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.


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