Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation’s heartland, far from the heated fight in New York over plans for a mosque near ground zero, are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive.
Foes of proposed mosques deployed dogs to intimidate Muslims holding prayer services and spray-painted “Not Welcome” on a construction sign, then later ripped it apart.
The 13-story, $100 million Islamic center that could soon rise two blocks from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks would dwarf the proposals elsewhere, yet the smaller projects in local communities are stoking a sharper kind of fear and anger than has showed up in New York.
In Murfreesboro, opponents of a new Islamic center say they believe the mosque will be more than a place of prayer. They are afraid the 15-acre site that was once farmland will be turned into a terrorist training ground for Muslim militants bent on overthrowing the U.S. government.
“They are not a religion. They are a political, militaristic group,” said Bob Shelton, a 76-year-old retiree who lives in the area.
Shelton was among several hundred demonstrators recently who wore “Vote for Jesus” T-shirts and carried signs that said: “No Sharia law for USA!,” referring to the Islamic code of law. Others took their opposition further, spray painting the sign announcing the “Future site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro” and tearing it up.
In Temecula, Calif., opponents brought dogs to protest a proposed 25,000-square-foot mosque that would sit on four acres next to a Baptist church. Opponents worry it will turn the town into haven for Islamic extremists, but mosque leaders say they are peaceful and need more room to serve members.
Islam is a growing faith in the U.S., though Muslims represent less than 1 percent of the country’s population. Ten years ago, there were about 1,200 mosques nationwide. Now there are roughly 1,900, according to Ihsan Bagby, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky and a researcher on surveys of American mosques.
The growth involves Islamic centers expanding to accommodate more Muslims — as is the case in New York, California and Tennessee — as well as mosques cropping up in smaller, more isolated communities, Bagby said.
A 2007 survey of Muslim Americans by the Pew Research Center found that 39 percent of adult Muslims living in the U.S. were immigrants that had come here since 1990.
“In every religious community, one of the things that has happened over the course of immigration is that people get settled and eventually build something that says, ‘We’re here! We’re not just camping,’” said Diana Eck, a professor of Comparative Religion at the Harvard University. “In part, that’s because those communities have put down roots in America and made this their home.”