After years of threats, attacks and court action, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's new mosque opened its doors for the first time on Friday, where 300 people prayed together in congregation.
The opening went off without the protests or violence that some had feared.
Muslims from across Tennessee gathered at the 12,000-square-foot center to begin the final week of Ramadan. The congregation's former building was so small that members often spilled into the parking lot and car-pooled to save parking spaces. Here, they fit comfortably.
"We're all humbly enjoying the right to worship, an American tradition that a small minority tried to eliminate out of ignorance and misunderstanding,â" said Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who flew here from Washington.
For two years, the opposition in this city of 110,000 about 30 miles southeast of Nashville has been small but vocal. In 2010, vandals painted "not welcome" on construction signs at the mosque and set fire to construction equipment. A Texas man was indicted in June on charges that he left messages threatening to detonate a bomb at the center on 11 September.
In May, a county judge ruled that the construction plans had not received sufficient comment from the public and that an occupancy permit could not be granted. Federal prosecutors filed a discrimination lawsuit, and a federal judge ruled in the mosque's favor last month.
Only one opponent of the mosque came to voice his concerns at the opening. Dan J. Qualls, 50, a former auto plant worker, wearing an "I Love Jesus" hat and a Ten Commandments shirt, said he understood that the First Amendment protected the right to worship freely but said he believed Islam represented violence. When he heard about the mosque's opening on the local TV news, he decided to come out and "represent the Christians."
"My honest opinion is, I wish this wasn't here," he said.
The mosque prayer hall forms just one part of the center, which will eventually be expanded to more than 50,000 square feet to include a gym, a swimming pool and other facilities, said Saleh Sbenaty, a board member. The prayer hall itself, about 4,500 square feet, can hold up to 500 people, but has a movable wall to divide the area to allow for other uses, like interfaith events with churches, synagogues and other religious groups.
The center is in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, beside a Baptist church. On Friday, workers hoisted an American flag up a pole.
Many in Murfreesboro have embraced the congregation's right to worship freely. "That religious organization has been treated just exactly as we treat any other religious group," said Ernest Burgess, the mayor of Rutherford County. "It has been a difficult struggle through the legal process. But we treated these people fairly, as they deserved."
Mr. Sbenaty said the center will hold an official, full-scale opening in several weeks after a permanent certificate of occupancy is issued, but on Friday the prayer hall was opened for the weekly Friday worship, known as jumaa. He estimated there were about 250 to 300 Muslim families in the area who would likely be regularly served by the center.
Mr. Sbenaty said the center's members were "very concerned" about safety after the Sikh temple shooting near Milwaukee and the fire at the mosque in Joplin, Mo., and had hired a private security team. "Even before those incidents, we were the subject of vandalism, intimidation, arson and bomb threats," he said. "We are not new to this. But we are not going to be deterred. We are not going to give up our rights just because somebody is going to threaten us."
And it looks like the struggle is not over.
On Thursday, 13 Rutherford County residents filed a motion in U.S. District Court to void the temporary occupancy permit and prevent a permanent move-in. The motion would insert the residents as a third party in the lawsuit.
A judge will decide whether the so-called defendant intervenors will be able to participate and whether the judgment they seek is legal. Joe M. Brandon Jr., an attorney representing the 13 residents, did not return a phone call seeking comment Friday.
Robbie Brown and Christine Hauser, "After a Struggle, Mosque Opens in Tennessee" The New York Times August 10, 2012
Laura J. Nelson, "A week before Ramadan ends, disputed Tennessee mosque opens doors" Los Angeles Times August 10, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today