Combatting Islamophobia and Preserving Religious Freedom in Tennessee

By Remziya Suleyman

Last year when anti-shariah legislation was introduced in Tennessee, I never imagined it would awaken our community as it did. But now the community alliance that was forged in that struggle is facing its greatest test in protecting the expansion of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. At a time in American history when Muslims around the country continue to be portrayed in a negative spotlight, the Tennessee Muslim community and allies rallied in one of our state’s most historic mobilizations against the anti-shariah bill making its way through our state legislature.

Hundreds of community members poured into legislative plaza in the past few weeks, many for the first time, to say enough is enough. No longer as a community would we allow it to be politically convenient for our state lawmakers to target Islam and Muslims.  No longer would we allow the Islamophobes to define who we were as Tennesseans.  It was time for us to rise up collectively and address the anti-Muslim sentiment in our state.

Even though the bill was no longer an anti-shariah bill as originally introduced — due to our combined community activism — and had been amended extensively to replicate a previous anti-terrorism law, we knew all along that the intent was still the same: To criminalize our Muslim community simply for practicing our faith. I watched as the final vote was cast in the Tennessee house and senate committees to pass the bill, and it tore through the hearts of our community.

Seeing only disappointment, sadness and grief at first, I was afraid of how our community would move forward. Would we continue to feel as strangers in our own home? Would we continue to repeat history and allow ourselves to be categorized as the other?

However, to my surprise, and with a blessing from God, there sprung forth a sea of overwhelming passion, determination and perseverance. I watched our community take one of the most difficult disappointments and transfer it into uncontrollable motivation to ensure that our state would be a better place for the next generation.

As a community, every moment last year had felt like a nightmare dealing with the continuous onslaught of attacks. We were thrown into a whirlwind with a series of vandalisms, and most notoriously, the controversy around the expansion of our mosque in Murfreesboro, which stoked the growing flame of Islamophobia in Tennessee.

But, this year we took a temporary sigh of relief knowing that the legislation was not directly targeting us.  The debacle surrounding the proposed expansion of the mosque had slightly calmed down — even with the ongoing court cases claiming that Islam isn’t a religion and that the mosque shouldn’t be recognized as a religious institution.

That all changed a few weeks back. To our complete shock, we received word that local Rutherford County Judge Corlew had ruled that the permit for the Murfreesboro mosque had been revoked because the County Planning Commission failed to give sufficient public notice. Media headlines stated that construction for the center had to halt immediately.

I thought to myself, could this possibly be? Could the construction be halted based on a simple technicality? Could religious equality is Tennessee be taken away that easily? The judge’s ruling truly did not make sense. Why was the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro being singled out?

Not knowing what to conclude, I immediately contacted the leaders from the mosque to see how they were taking the news. The leaders were just as baffled as I was. The ruling was simply not comprehensible. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM) had applied for and obtained the permit based on all applicable federal, state and county laws. The leaders had submitted the application according to the existing rules of law and were approved accordingly. Therefore, as the leaders of ICM put it: “We do not believe that singling out the ICM permit and hiding behind ‘providing adequate public notice’ is justified; thousands of permits have been granted using the same exact process.”

As we continued to try to make sense of the ruling in our Muslim community, the greater Tennessee community came to our defense. In the first few hours alone, we received countless calls and e-mails in our support. Interfaith leaders from across Tennessee were ready to ensure that the religious freedom in Tennessee was preserved; leaders from across middle Tennessee came together and implemented a grassroots plan to contact Rutherford County local officials and ask them to appeal the judge’s decision and preserve religious equality in Tennessee.

The community effort and outpouring of support for the center truly reflect the values of Tennesseans. Tennessee communities have always refused to sit on the sidelines and allow any fringe group to destroy our state’s welcoming image. Through all the years of heated debate, the Muslim community received more support than opposition, and this time was no different.

Just when we thought things could not get any more interesting, Rutherford County Chancellor Robert Corlew stated in a written order on June 1, 2012 that although the building permit for the center was void because the county violated Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act, construction did not have to halt. The judge instructed that if the mosque opponents want to halt construction, they must begin a new court action against the Islamic center and not against the county.

Knowing the persistency of our opponents,  we were not surprised when a lawsuit was officially filed against the construction of the mosque. We will be back in court fighting to protect religious freedom in Tennessee. In Murfreesboro the community is still moving forward cautiously with the new mosque. We will continue to work with our friends to protect the constitutional rights of all Tennesseans. One of the greatest things that I have learned throughout this issue is that Tennesseans are tired of intolerance and are ready to move forward. The support the Muslim community has received has been based on the true teachings of each and everyone’s faith and traditions.

Remziya Suleyman is the Director of Policy and Administration for the American Center for Outreach (ACO). ACO is a Tennessee based non-partisan organization that was established to inform, educate and empower Muslims to become engaged in society by providing the assistance they need to become productive citizens. By doing so, ACO aims to better connect the Muslim community and government while supporting individuals in becoming a catalyst for positive change in their own neighborhoods and communities.


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