August 9, 2012, 8:06 p.m. ET
Amid Strife, a Mosque Rises
Tennessee Islamic Center That Prompted Protests and Lawsuits Will Hold Its First Prayers Friday
By CAMERON MCWHIRTER
MURFREESBORO, Tenn.—A newly built mosque—after overcoming a two-year legal battle, bomb threats, protests and vandalism—plans to hold its first prayers here Friday.
The opening comes as a national Islamic group is warning mosques to be vigilant about possible violence after a suspicious fire burned a mosque to the ground in Joplin, Mo., on Monday, and a white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, killing six, on Sunday. Sikhs aren't Muslims but are sometimes mistaken for them.
Those for and against a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., demonstrate in July 2010.
The 52,000-square-foot Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which includes a mosque, school and gym, has been the subject of controversy since 2009, when its growing congregation purchased land just outside the city for about $1 million and began construction of a $2 million facility. A crowd of supporters is expected for the mosque's first prayers Friday, which is Islam's holy day.
"We are hoping to build bridges with the rest of the community, especially with those who might have second thoughts about our congregation," said Saleh Sbenaty, a Murfreesboro mosque board member.
The opening of the center in this town of 110,000 about 30 miles southeast of Nashville is the latest flashpoint in the struggle over religious tolerance, as more mosques open or expand to accommodate an estimated seven million Muslim-Americans.
A 2011 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington-based Muslim civil liberties group, found 2,106 mosques in the U.S., compared with 1,209 in 2000.
Disputes over new mosques or mosque expansions have erupted over the past few years across the country, including in New York City, where plans for a mosque several blocks from Ground Zero drew opposition. Some of the rancor attracted the attention of the Justice Department, which has investigated under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The 12-year-old federal law prohibits authorities in land-use decisions from imposing an undue burden on religious groups or treating them "on less than equal terms" than other groups.
Some mosques are girding themselves as opposition grows. CAIR recently issued a "Muslim Community Safety Kit"—a checklist for mosques "to protect against anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bigotry or attacks." It instructs how to install security systems and deal with bomb threats or suspicious packages.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro plans to hold its first prayers Friday.
Murfreesboro has grown in recent decades due in part to a Nissan plant in nearby Smyrna and expansion at Middle Tennessee State University. A small Muslim community formed the Islamic Center in 1982, but it outgrew its mosque as Muslims moved to the area for jobs or to attend the university. Today, the center's congregation includes about 250 families and several hundred university students, mosque officials said.
In 2010, soon after the congregation began building its new facility, a sign at the site was spray-painted with the words "NOT WELCOME." Later, a construction vehicle was set on fire and threatening phone calls were made to the center's offices, including bomb threats.
That same year, some residents sued in state court, saying the county hadn't followed open-records law and proper zoning procedure when it approved the construction. The suit said residents would be "irreparably harmed by the risk of terrorism generated by proselytizing for Islam" if the mosque opened.
A state judge ruled in their favor in June, stating county officials didn't do enough to notify the public about mosque plans. But the Justice Department and the mosque filed suit in U.S. District Court, and a federal judge in Nashville issued a temporary restraining order, allowing the mosque to open now, during Ramadan, Islam's holy month.
Joe Brandon Jr., a lawyer who represents several Murfreesboro residents who sued to block the mosque, said area residents fear the center has members who are Islamic extremists trying to impose their beliefs on the community. "A bullying manner of doing business is the way of Islam," he said. He said he expects litigation to go on for years.
Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, a blog critical of Islam, condemned the mosque's opening. He said in an email that most mosques in America teach "Islamic supremacism, and hatred and contempt for Jews and Christians."
Essam Fathy, chairman of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, points to plans for the new religious center.
Mr. Spencer and others who attack Islam are misrepresenting the religion and trying to frighten people with "manufactured issues like Murfreesboro," said Ibrahim Hooper, a CAIR spokesman. Mosque leaders in Murfreesboro say they only wish to practice their faith in peace.
On Thursday, construction workers and landscapersput the finishing touches on the mosque, which sits next to a Baptist church near the edge of town. The building bore no signs declaring it to be an Islamic center, nor any Arabic writing. Mosque officials are on alert, coordinating with local law enforcement about the Friday opening, Mr. Sbenaty said. Volunteers from the congregation will be on the lookout for signs of trouble, he said.
Write to Cameron McWhirter at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared August 10, 2012, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Amid Strife, a Mosque Rises.