U.S. Department of Justice visitors tell Muslims they have their back in the Murfreesboro mosque dispute

Danger Zoning by STEPHEN GEORGE click to enlarge JUDE FERRARA Some 200 people gathered at an Aug. 30 candlelight vigil at the Rutherford Cou...

Danger Zoning

Over the summer months, Muslims in Murfreesboro — for three decades a virtually silent minority and a sliver of the city's population — have endured challenge after challenge to their fundamental right to build a house of worship. The latest comes in the form of a trial that started Sept. 27 in Rutherford County Chancery Court, where three aggrieved citizens and their attorney, Joe Brandon Jr., are fighting the proposed expansion of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

On their side, the plaintiffs have allies such as Frank Gaffney Jr., president of the conservative think-tank Center for Security Policy. Gaffney told the court he is not an expert on Sharia law, which made skeptics wonder why he was on hand "to warn this community of seditious acts of Sharia law." But on Sept. 28, the same day Gaffney was giving the Chancery Court a non-expert crash course in Islamic conspiracy theory, local Muslim leaders were quietly receiving encouragement from an unexpected guest: the U.S. Department of Justice.

Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, spent the day making house calls in Middle Tennessee, assuring Muslim leaders — including the imams of the Murfreesboro mosque and the Islamic Center of Nashville — that his office has their back if it turns out that opponents aren't as interested in zoning esoterica as they are in sidelining the practice of Islam in Murfreesboro.

"Basically, what we're being told is that if there's any civil violation of the rights of the Muslim community here, they'll step in," says Abdou Kattih, vice president of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, who also met with government officials.

It makes sense that the feds would arrive in Murfreesboro, where Muslims who have lived and worshipped without incident for three decades suddenly find themselves eyed as some kind of sleeper cell. Their most fervid opponents — including Nashville-based lobbyist Laurie Cardoza-Moore and a posse of web prowlers playing connect-the-dots on Google — seem to think the mosque's congregation (like all the others) is biding its time until radical Islam makes its move.

Their contention, as expressed in part two of the lawsuit — to which Cardoza-Moore is not a party; her strategy has been to stir and step back — is that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's endgame is to subjugate Middle Tennessee to the grisliest, most extreme tenets of Islam's holy Sharia law.

"Sharia law is jihad," attorney Brandon told the Murfreesboro court last week. "We believe there is a direct connection to the ICM [Islamic Center of Murfreesboro]. Sharia says the U.S. Constitution is suitable for toilet paper."

The Murfreesboro mosque's worshippers, however, suggest that alarmist warnings about Sharia rule in Middle Tennessee are what should be printed on Charmin.

"It's ridiculous," says Kattih. "If you look at our members, we're a system of government. Everything is done through certain government systems. Our congregation is less than 1 percent of the population in this area. How can we possibly impose anything on the government?"

Mohammad Ahmed Al-Sherif, imam of the Islamic Center of Nashville, says it is reassuring in a time of fear and anxiety for Middle Tennessee Muslims to have the fully expressed backing of the U.S. government.

"They said they extend the commitment to protect the religious freedom of this country without anybody being discriminated against or harassed from this group or that group," he says. "We never had a question about our government [being there]. We always trusted them. It's very nice to hear this message, and their commitment and reminding us of our rights. It's very important, I would say, that we hear this."

The Department of Justice conversations took place almost 10 years to the day after President Bill Clinton signed into effect a law that would protect religious organizations from discrimination in local zoning matters. Greeted with bipartisan support and agreement from frequently opposed groups, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was the federal government's response to an insidious new form of bigotry and subjugation — a tactic worming its way around both the Constitution and existing anti-discrimination laws.

In the mid-1990s, reports surfaced that local zoning boards throughout the country — driven by ideology, not urban planning — were starting to deny permits to minority religious groups who sought to build or expand their worship facilities. Denying a permit on religious grounds is, of course, unconstitutional. But procedural arcana proved just as effective for turning away unwanted religious neighbors.

Especially those without numbers on their side. In a series of nine hearings held over three years, Congress found that half the incidents concerned faith groups who collectively make up only 9 percent of the population.

Perez says it's common for the justice department to make its presence felt in a discriminatory environment, if only to remind those under siege that laws like the Religious Land Use Act exist. American Muslims have been a particular target during the past year. According to a recent justice department report, of the 18 complaints under the land-use law that the government has monitored since Sept. 11, 2001, eight have come since May.

"We have seen a spike in the zoning confrontations, in efforts to keep mosques and the like from being built," Perez says.

Perez and Jerry Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, say that federal enforcement of existing civil rights laws is crucial, citing a recent precedent close to home. Under the 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act — itself the swift legislative response to a rash of arsons against black churches in the 1990s — the government successfully prosecuted the perpetrators of an arson that claimed the Islamic Center of Columbia, Tenn., in 2008.

That's precisely the kind of activity, Perez says, that his office monitors — and it has been on the rise. In February, vandals spray-painted graffiti on Nashville's Al-Farooq Mosque near the fairgrounds. Even now, the FBI and ATF continue to investigate the burning of construction equipment Aug. 28 at the mosque site in Rutherford County. The fire has been ruled arson.

"It was a very sobering meeting to listen to Murfreesboro leaders describe the climate of fear that they're living in," Perez tells the Scene.

The current legal attack on the proposed mosque expansion is far less dramatic. Several months ago, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro asked permission from the Rutherford County Planning Commission to build a 52,900-square-foot facility on Veals Road, just outside the Murfreesboro city limits. The commission granted the permit unanimously.

Typically, a public meeting notice must be widely circulated in advance of a hearing. When rumors of a legal challenge stirred a month ago, however, Doug Demosi, county planning director, explained to the Scene that because of state law, the mosque was not subject to the same kind of public hearing process that non-religious facilities must undergo.

Nevertheless, the plaintiffs contend that the commission did not properly alert the public of the hearing it held May 24, when it gave final approval for the facility. They accuse the commission of violating the state's open meetings act.

But as the heated rhetoric from Brandon and Frank Gaffney made clear, this is not a debate about proper procedure. It's a line drawn in the sand against Sharia law — a poorly understood concept that, like many poorly understood concepts, makes a handy all-purpose bogeyman of a buzz term.

The mainstream version of the Muslim faith — the kind practiced in Murfreesboro — neither requests nor requires the faithful to overthrow other forms of governance, much as today's conventional Christians are not called to crusade. In Islam, Sharia is the sacred law derived from the Prophet Mohammed, and it governs all aspects of Muslim life, including prayer and family rituals.

There is much debate in the Muslim world over the implementation of Sharia law and how to balance religion with secular government.

"Sharia law tells us we obey the law of the land where we live," says Ahmed, of Nashville. "The only difference, I think, in my opinion, between Sharia law and the American law is that Sharia, for us, is divine. The Constitution is human. That's it."

According to a 2009 report by the Council on Foreign Relations, while critics of Islam home in on the most controversial aspects of Sharia — overt sexism and corporal punishment, on highest display in countries such as Saudi Arabia — most Muslim scholars believe changing times should usher new interpretations of Islamic law. It's a curious parallel to many Americans' evolving views of the Constitution, another relatively ancient document run through a thoroughly modernized world.

"There is no contradiction between Islam and the U.S. Constitution," Kattih says.

In fact, most times American law intersects with religion of any kind, it is to protect the religious from intolerance. In 2009, the U.S. justice department sued (and eventually settled with) Metro government after local officials changed zoning laws to keep Christian-based Teen Challenge from building a residential drug treatment facility. In April 2005, the civil rights division sued the city of Hollywood, Fla., for denying a building permit for an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in a residential neighborhood. The city wound up paying $2 million in damages and attorneys' fees.

After the city of Garden Grove, Calif., denied a Buddhist group's request to convert a former mechanical building into a temple in 2007, the justice department investigated. It halted its query earlier this year, when the city finally relented. And in Berkeley, Ill., a congregation seeking to expand its mosque and accommodate its growing population was denied the appropriate permit until the department investigated. The township granted the permit in March 2008.

The Murfreesboro trial resumes Oct. 20. In the meantime, understanding is at a low ebb. Muslim, Sharia, terrorist — these terms are starting to blur so insistently in the public mind as to be indistinguishable. Yet they require the same distinctions that make all Christians not Koran-burning buffoons with Civil War mustaches, or all Americans not greed-crazy warmongers.

"During times of uncertainty in our nation's history, people often look for scapegoats," Thomas Perez says.

Evidently, we are uncertain.

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