Protesting the mosque
- Published: 14 August 2010
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The street protests against a mosque being built in Tennessee are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Islamophobia in the US, but those protesting would do well to look to the country’s founding fathers for inspiration and guidance, writes Jonathan Hayden.
Last week protestors poured into the streets of Murfreesboro, Tennessee to voice their displeasure at a proposed new mosque just outside of the city.
Some of the protestors were very clear on why they were opposed to a mosque in their neighborhood. “We’re at war with these people,” said one woman. Local political figures likewise did not mince words. Lou Ann Zelenik, a congressional candidate, said Muslims aimed to “fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee."
In a television news report, local Channel 5 reported on a small Muslim community in a rural part of the state. The reporter seemed shocked to find the there were no signs of “anti-American activity” or “flag desecration”. Nor, he told us, were there “reports from neighbors complaining of unexplained gunshots or explosions.”
This animosity towards and suspicion of Islam is by no means restricted to Tennessee. Mosques across America are being attacked at a startling rate. In the past few months, mosques in Iowa, Florida, Georgia, New York, have been targeted with physical attack.
Over the last few years, I have visited to over 100 mosques throughout the country for field work research which resulted in the book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam and a film by the same name by world renowned scholar Akbar Ahmed.
We found that these occurrences were far too common. I would estimate that over half of the mosques we visited have been targeted in one way or the other—sometimes with aggressive actions like windows being broken or arson.
Sometimes more passive actions are taken like complaints over parking issues, or threatening letters. Some mosques protect themselves by hanging no sign or image indicating that the building is even in use.
In Columbia, Tennessee, about 50 miles due west of Murfreesboro, last year we met Daoud Abudiab, director of the local Islamic Center, and heard the remarkable story of his community.
The community of 55 people had purchased the building and were proud of their adopted home in this idyllic small town. The mosque was the only one within a wide radius at the time and Muslims from other small towns in the area came to worship there. It was the center of all community life.
Abudiab was awakened by a call from the fire department one morning in early 2008. The town’s only mosque was ablaze. Three individuals, from a group called the Christian Identity Movement, had broken in and spray-painted several swastikas and the words “white power, we run the world”. They then torched the mosque with Molotov cocktails.
A small vigil in the town was organized by local Muslims but hardly any non-Muslims attended. Daoud was disheartened. Since it was rare to hear a condemnation of the attack, Daoud’s children asked him if all Christians hated them. One of his children was mocked in school, called a terrorist and teased mercilessly. The victim of terrorism was himself accused of being a terrorist.
Yet in the midst of the silence, one man stood up against the tide of anti-Islamic sentiment. Reverend Bill Williamson of the local Presbyterian Church offered money and a key to his church to the Muslim community. He brought Daoud and others from the Muslim community to a room that he had set aside for them to use for meetings and prayers. He even offered to remove any symbols or pictures which might offend.
Presumably, Williamson was drawing his compassion from Christ. Others without that same set of beliefs could look to further into history to the namesake of the county directly west of Murfreesboro, Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin so strongly believed in religious pluralism that he offered financial support to the construction of a large new hall in Philadelphia that would provide a pulpit to members of all faiths, “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”
Franklin was not alone among the Founding Fathers in welcoming Muslims. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams professed similar beliefs. Adams even placed the Prophet of Islam alongside Confucius and Socrates as one of the world’s great thinkers.
Islam was commonly seen as a violent religion during the founding fathers time as well. But they saw through the distortions and went to the original text. When they did, they saw a religion that they believed would make a great contribution to America and enrich their vision of freedom for all. To the founding fathers, this vision was the very essence of the America they had created.
Most Muslims see the resistance of the mosque developments in Tennessee, Manhattan and Brooklyn as a simple case of Islamophobia. The detractors, for their part, have cited more banal reasons for their opposition.
Whatever the mechanics of the conflict, the principals could look to the founding fathers for inspiration and guidance. While they may not always provide easy or lucid answers for the issues we face today, on the freedom of religion and worship, they showed remarkable clarity.
Jonathan Hayden has worked at American University running the office of the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed since 2005. Hayden was a research assistant on several research projects examining the relationship between the Muslim world and the West resulting most recently in Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization and Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam. He has been published extensively in newspapers and journals. He received his bachelor’s degree in history and political science from the University of Alabama.
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