Mega-Mosque Conflicts in America
Tennessee is considered to be the heart of the Bible belt in the United States. Yet, the swirl of controversies surrounding the acquisition and development of so-called mega-mosques in Tennessee is emblematic of a civilizational conflict emerging in the American heartland between Muslim and non-Muslim communities over how Islam and Sharia are viewed and defined. More fundamentally, it is about the question of whether Islam is a religion or a political doctrine seeking domination with a thin veneer of religious practices. What is a mosque? Is a mosque a worship center or something else?
In a companion New English Review interview with Sam Solomon, a former Muslim and Sharia jurist, he noted:
A mosque, totally unlike a church or a synagogue, serves the function of orchestrating and mandating every aspect of “life” in a Muslim community from the religious, to the political, to the economic, to the social, to the military. In Islam, religion and life are not separate [. . .] there is no concept of a personal relationship between the person and the entity being worshiped, so “worship” itself, is of a different nature than that performed in a church or synagogue. So we see that a mosque is a seat of government. A mosque is a school. A mosque is a court. A mosque is a training center. A mosque is a gathering place, or social center. It is not just a place of “worship” per se as understood and as practiced in Western societies.
The Debate in Tennessee Goes National
Consistent with Solomon’s views, The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (ICM) mega- mosque plans have been criticized by Tennessee Sixth Congressional District (CD) Republican candidate Lou Ann Zelenik as a regional training center for indoctrination of Muslim extremists. Ms. Zelenik is not alone in raising these concerns. Vijay Kumar, GOP Candidate in the adjacent Tennessee Fifth CD has raised the issue of the threat of universal Jihad in billboards, signs and campaign materials in Metro Nashville. Tennessee Republican gubernatorial candidate Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey was cited in a New York Times Lede blog post as having characterized Islam as being a “cult.” Ramsay clarified those remarks caught on a campaign video quoted by the New York Times Lede blog:
On Monday, Mr. Ramsey responded to a request for comment from Evan McMorris-Santoro of Talking Points Memo by writing in an e-mail message, “My concern is that far too much of Islam has come to resemble a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion.”
”This is just the beginning of a national campaign to educate the public about threats to the civil and human rights of former Muslims who leave Islam and the dangers from adoption of Islamic Sharia law to all American citizens.”
What is happening in Tennessee is a microcosm of the ‘sturm and drang’ over an eruption of mega mosque proposals ranging across America from the Cordoba House ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ in lower Manhattan to one proposed for the City of Temecula, California. Recently, the proposed purchase by the Muslim American Society (MAS) of a former convent to be converted into a mosque in the Midland Beach Section of Staten Island, an outer borough of New York City, was turned down by the board of the Parish.
The Brentwood Mosque Controversy
The Islamic Center of Williamson County (ICWC) in Tennessee filed application for development of a mega-mosque complex on 10 acres of a 14 acre site in Brentwood. The 40 member families of the ICWC wanted to build a convenient worship facility and avoid travel to Nashville to attend mosques there. The community was opposed. During the hearings on the mosque’s zoning application, its counsel invoked as pre-emptive of local zoning laws the exemptions and anti-discriminatory provisions of the federal Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000 and the Tennessee version of the Religious Freedom Restoration ACT (RFRA).
Before that issue could be resolved, the ICWC withdrew its application on May 20, 2010. The Brentwood Home Page gave this account, “The Islamic Center of Williamson County has withdrawn its application for the rezoning of property on Wilson Pike”.
In an email to Brentwood Planning Director Jeff Dobson, center trustee Mohammad Fazilia stated the decision was made “with regret and a heavy heart.”
“If you can convey to all that we just wanted something for ourselves where we could have gone with our families to worship,” Fazilia wrote, a place that would be “safe and secure for us.”
In the context of the mosque controversies in Tennessee RLUIPA may not conflict with federal and state laws authorizing local authorities to exercise police powers to conduct salient background investigations. Such issues as possible foreign sourced funding and support of foreign terrorist groups designated under federal authority are issues raised in the Murfressboro and Brentwood, Tennessee mosque disputes.
RLUIPA was passed unanimously by both Houses of Congress in July, 2000 and signed by President Clinton. The legislation was to correct deficiencies in the RFRA of 1994 and reflected language in the Religious Liberty Acts of 1998 and 1999.
The Congressional Record on July 27, 2000 indicated the purposes of the federal law.
The bill targets two areas: land use regulation, and persons in prisons, mental hospitals, and similar state institutions.
Within this scope of application, the bill applies the standard of the RFRA, 42.
U.S.C. §2000bb–1 (1994): if government substantially burdens the exercise of religion, it must demonstrate that imposing that burden on the claimant serves a compelling interest by the least restrictive means. In addition, with respect to land use regulation, the bill specifically prohibits various forms of religious discrimination and exclusion.
The land use regulatory discrimination issues that were the subject of Congressional hearings preceding the RLUIPA’s enactment were further identified in the Congressional Record legislative history:
The right to assemble for worship is at the very core of the free exercise of religion. Churches and synagogues cannot function without a physical space adequate to their needs and consistent with their theological requirements. The right to build buy, or rent such a space is an indispensable adjunct of the core First Amendment right to assemble for religious purposes.
The hearing record compiled massive evidence that this right is frequently violated.
Churches in general, and new, small, or unfamiliar churches in particular, are frequently discriminated against on the face of zoning codes and also in the highly individualized and discretionary processes of land use regulation. Zoning codes frequently exclude churches in places where they permit theaters, meeting halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes. Or the codes permit churches only with individualized permission from the zoning board, and zoning boards use that authority in discriminatory ways.
During the debates over the zoning application for the Brentwood Mosque, the issue of whether RLUIPA and the Tennessee version of RFRA surfaced. These issues were addressed in a background legal memo supporting opposition concerns.
Question: Would denying the application to amend the R-1 zoning classification at issue present a substantial burden to those seeking a change to an SI-1/SR classification or otherwise violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”)?
Short Answer: No. Denying the application to amend the R-1 classification would not impose a substantial burden on applicants under the RLUIPA or the federal or state RFRA because (1) Brentwood’s R-1 classification is facially neutral; and (2) SI-1 zoning tracts already exist in the city.
Analysis: One Member of the Council indicated that the Council must have a “compelling reason” to deny the application and could not consider such factors as flooding and property values. As explained below, Brentwood’s well crafted R-1 zoning ordinance does not violate RLIUPA’s anti-discrimination provision. Because Brentwood has multiple areas zoned SI-1, denial of an application does not impose a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion. As a result, the Council’s decision is not subject to strict scrutiny and, even if it were, the Council may indeed consider what is in the best interest of the City and its residents in making a decision.
The legal Memo cited relevant US Case law that supported this position:
Section (b) of RLUIPA prohibits ordinances that treat a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution. Brentwood’s R-1 ordinance, however, does not discriminate against any specific religious group nor does it allow secular assemblies but not religious assemblies. An example of an ordinance that violates the non-discrimination provision of RLUIPA can be found in Midrash Sephardi, Inc. v. Town of Surfside, 366 F.3d 1214, 1231 (11th Cir. 2004). In that case, an ordinance permitted secular assemblies but not religious ones.
The Brentwood R-1 classification makes no such distinction, however. Instead, it is more like the ordinance discussed in Civil Liberties for Urban Believers v. City of Chicago, 342 F.3d 752, 762 (7th Cir. 2003) which placed the same zoning restrictions on religious and secular institutions alike, “Rather than remove any substantial burden on religious exercise, however, the February 2000 amendments simply place churches on an equal footing with nonreligious assembly uses, thereby correcting any potential violation of the nondiscrimination provision.” Id. at 762 (emphasis added).
Approving the application despite numerous safety, flood, aesthetic, property value and city planning issues and solely because of threats of litigation under RLUIPA is tantamount to an acknowledgement that Brentwood’s zoning laws do not apply to religious institutions. That is inconsistent both with RLUIPA and the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In Petra Presbyterian Church v. Village of Northbrook, 489 F.3d 846 (7th Cir. 2007) the court refused to find a substantial burden in an ordinance that prohibited churches in an area zoned for industrial use, noting that, “[t]he ban on churches in the industrial zone cannot in itself constitute a substantial burden on religion because, then, every zoning ordinance that didn't permit churches everywhere would be a prima facie violation of RLUIPA.” 489 F.3d at 850-51 (emphasis added). See also Civil Liberties for Urban Believers v. City of Chicago, 342 F.3d 752, 761-762 (7th Cir. 2003)(“Otherwise, compliance with RLUIPA would require municipal governments not merely to treat religious land uses on an equal footing with nonreligious land uses, but rather to favor them in the form of an outright exemption from land-use regulations. Unfortunately for Appellants, no such free pass for religious land uses masquerades among the legitimate protections RLUIPA affords to religious exercise.”) (emphasis added).
The purpose of RLUIPA is to place religious institutions on an equal footing. Consideration of land use issues is not only appropriate, it is mandatory. Otherwise, by basing a decision solely on the fact that an institution is religious in nature the Commission would be violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. World Outreach Conf. Ctr. v. City of Chicago, 591 F.3d 531, 534 (7th Cir. 2009).
The Murfreesboro Mosque Controversy
The Murfreesboro ICM expansion has mushroomed into a conflict over a preliminary approval of a burial on the 15 plus acre Veals Road site in the community on May 17th, followed by approval of the plans by the Rutherford County Planning Commission on May 24th. Allegations of lack of adequate legal notice were voiced in a crowded session of the RCPC on June 17th, when more than 600 residents thronged the hearing at the County Court House. Twenty-two persons spoke in opposition to the project, among them was Pete Doughtie of The Rutherford Reader (The Reader), who is engaged in a separate First Amendment conflict over alleged hate speech against Muslims and Islam with Distributech. Distributech places free weekly newspapers in its tracks in retail outlets such and Krogers and KFC. A complaint brought by a lone Smyrna, Tennessee resident to Distributech, Krogers, and other Reader advertisers has exacerbated the controversy over the ICM project approvals.
Possible issues of water contamination, traffic congestion and access to the Veals Road site were also raised.
The uproar led to a protest march in opposition to the ICM project on July 14th by community organizer Kevin Fisher and a counter protest organized by Mosque supporters from Middle Tennessee State University. The purpose of the community protest march and rally was to sign petitions requesting that the RCPC re-open the approval hearings on the controversial expansion plans for the ICM. Following the July 14th event, the opposition is focused on the August 12th final approval hearing by the County Commissioners. The peaceful encounter between the throngs of protesters and counter protesters was exacerbated by ICM accusations that its sign had been destroyed at the Veals Road site. Further, campaign signs for Congressional candidate and mega-mosque opponent Lou Ann Zelenik were defaced and she reported death threats. [The competing placards and signs at the July 14th Murfreesboro ICM protests can be in an Iconoclast report by NER colleague, Rebecca Bynum].
A Nashville WSMV Channel Four story, “Swastikas, 'Fascist' Painted on Campaign Signs” drew attention to the conflict:
Campaign workers found out about the defaced signs Sunday. They filed a report with Murfreesboro police.
"She is very disappointed that people would do this kind of behavior. It's very disheartening to see that in a political campaign," said Jay Heine, Zelenik's campaign manager.
This isn't the first time Zelenik has had to call police. Last month, she received death threats at her campaign office and at home after she issued a statement about the proposed Islamic Center in Rutherford County.
"This Islamic Center is not part of a religious movement; it is a political movement designed to fracture the moral and political foundation of Middle Tennessee," Zelenik wrote in a statement.
Ms. Zelenik issued a news release reinforcing her previous position in opposition to the ICM. She has raised questions about the alleged sources of funding for the ICM expansion. She has questioned the radical views of a board member based on investigations by Steven Emerson of The Investigative Project. She has also received a letter from Frank Gaffney’s Washington-based Center for Security Policy regarding investigation of the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) for possible violations of the Federal Foreign Agent Registrations Act (FARA) based on major sources of Middle East funding. Nihad Awad national CAIR head had requested Republican leaders ‘repudiate’ Zelenik for her opposition to the ICM project. They rejected the CAIR request.
Prior to the July 14th protests, the Murfreesboro, Daily News Journal, opened up its Opinion page to ICM leader Saleh Sbetany, an engineering professor at MTSU, in a lengthy Q+A, “New Islamic center response to growth”. He suggested the controversy was a reflection of “misinformation and fear.” Sbetany didn’t quell those fears with his justification based on the extensive regional growth of the Muslim population in Middle Tennessee. This is a reflection of the US humanitarian immigration and resettlement policies that spawned it. Sbetany noted:
We need to explain something to the community. Murfreesboro and Tennessee are really moving along in terms of population. MTSU as a university has attracted many professionals and students as well, and many of these come from either Islamic countries or they were born and raised here in the United States. MTSU is growing, the health care industry is growing, and many of the doctors, the engineers and professionals, and they were either born outside the United States or were born to immigrant families. So we have a growing community that is a professional community … that’s basically why the Muslim population is growing.
Also, if you remember that because of the Iraq War and prior to the Iraq War, many of the refugees, Somalis, Iraqis, the national community, the Muslim community has been growing, and there are around 50,000 Muslims in the Nashville area. Many of them actually live around Nashville, in Murfreesboro, La Vergne or Smyrna. Many industries and professions in the area have been attracting nationally Muslims.
Sbetany was dismissive of community complaints about the lack of adequate public notice given by the RCPC about the ICM plans, a matter that prompted the July 14th protest march:
There was more than adequate notice. First of all, right after we purchased the lot, we posted a sign: This is the future site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, and that was done in December. We bought the land, we closed in November, and we had a sign in December. We applied in May or late April. We did everything that we as an institution or an Islamic Center should do, based on the law, so the public notice was given and they did that with this site as any other site, accordingly May 2 that went into the Murfreesboro Post. … If this is not an Islamic Center, let’s say if this is a church, and the next church next to us was approved in the same way, how could that be that the church next to us was approved in a similar fashion?
At issue is what is known about the ICM and possible radical Muslim group connections, support of terrorist groups by a board member and denial of human rights for those who have left Islam by their own choice.
Witness this about the ICM in the weekly newsletter of the ACT! Middle Tennessee chapter:
1. 6 Pamphlets obtained at the ICM's open house last week showed connections to the Muslim Brotherhood via the Muslim American Society, Ahmad Sakr, The Foundation for Islamic Thought, and The Institute of Islamic Information and Education.
The Institute of Islamic Information and Education is part of ISNA, or the Islamic Society of North America, which is part of the Muslim Brotherhood organization.
ISNA was named in a May 1991 Muslim Brotherhood document --titled "An Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America" -- as one of the Brotherhood's likeminded "organizations of our friends" who shared the common goal of destroying America and turning it into a Muslim nation.
2. ICM uses the Muslim Brotherhood reading list.
3. ICM board member Mosaad Rawash supports violent jihad.
4. ICM leaders and its Imam are silent on requests by Former Muslims United that they sign pledges to allow Muslims to convert out of Islam to other religions and to disavow killing for apostasy.
5. ICM’s Imam and board organized a protest of IDF Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 in support of HAMAS, a terrorist organization. Watch the video.
Notice the shouts of "Allahu Akbar". Allahu Akbar is a battle cry of Jihad. Phil Berg, Daniel Pearl, Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh, and the Ft. Hood victims were slaughtered to the shouts of Allahu Akbar.
6. Lou Ann Zelenik received death threats for opposing the ICM mosque complex.
7. The Rutherford Reader was pulled from local newspaper racks in retail outlets for alleged “hate speech" against Islam.
In the waning days of July, a group of 20 concerned citizens sent a letter to Truman Jones, the Sheriff of Rutherford County to discuss two issues: the circumstances behind the conditional use permit for burial of an ICM member authorized by RCPC director Doug Demosi and signed by his assistant Elizabeth Ensley.
A formal letter requesting his assistance was signed by the group July 26th, and issued to the press on July 29th.
WSMV TV Channel Four News in Nashville investigative reporter Larry Flowers did two news stories on the early burial controversy at the ICM Veals Road site. The reporter interviewed citizen spokesperson Laurie Cardozo Moore of Proclaiming Justice to The Nations (PJTN). She asked that the identity of who was buried there be revealed and whether the RCPC executive director DeMosi had seen the decedent’s death certificate, or coroner's report prior to authorizing the conditional use permit. The Rutherford County Sheriff’s investigation is focused on whether such a permit could be issued in DeMosi’s sole authority without proper documentation by the county coroner, or a doctor to sign a death certificate, or whether it is the responsibility of the County Commissioners to authorize the issuance of the conditional use permit used for the burial. The ICM Imam, Bahloul refused to appear in an on screen interview, instead passing off the issue in favor of maintaining ‘peaceful relations’ with the community.
When Cardoza Moore held a subsequent news conference at the Rutherford County Court House, a young Muslim by the name of Naim Abulaban appeared introducing himself as the alleged grandson of the decedent buried at the ICM site. He came replete with a prominent picture of the deceased individual, who may have died of a sudden heart attack. Abulaban stated that the family was upset about the brouhaha raised about the burial done in accordance with Sharia. Cardoza-Moore responded by stating that the group of concerned citizens were requesting that the sheriff investigate if proper protocol was followed in the issuance the conditional use permit issued for the burial, and that a death certificate be provided stating the decedent's name, and cause of death be provided to the community. No disrespect was intended.
Ms. Cardoza-Moore also asked that an investigation be conducted on suspended board member Rawash. As of July 29th, his MySpace page has been scrubbed clean of his support for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, as well as those sections encouraging others to launch jihad against Jews to free Palestine. All of this has occurred on the cusp of the scheduled August 12th meeting, the final stage approval hearing by the Rutherford County Commissioners. The Mufreesboro mega-mosque controversy continues.
Temecula, California Mosque Controversy
The Californian reported “dueling protests’ in front of the existing mosque in Temecula Valley over a proposal to greatly expand from a small, industial building to a 25,000 sq. ft. structure. The imam of the Temecula Valley Islamic Center is a Syrian with connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Mano Bakh, an Iranian American apostate and board member of Former Muslims United was present at the protest. He noted in The Californian Report:
On one side of the debate stood a group of about two dozen sign-bearing men and women, some wearing American flag T-shirts and hats with slogans such as: "Proud American."
For this group, standing on the south side of Rio Nedo, the center's plan to build a 25,000-square-foot mosque is part of an "Islamic expansion" that could lead to the country being taken over by Muslims.
"We don't have to let that happen," said Mano Bakh, a Wildomar man who said he escaped Islam when he left Iran in 1979 to come to America.
On the other side of the debate ---- and the other side of Rio Nedo ---- stood about 60 members of the Islamic Center and members of local churches who support the center's construction plans.
The Muslim Brotherhood connection was also evident in the person of Salaam al-Mayarti, Executive Director of MB front group, Muslim Political Action Council (MPAC). Note the controversy over dogs brought by the protesters to this rally and al-Mayarati’s response:
An e-mail that circulated in Southwest County calling for mosque opponents to bring dogs to the anti-mosque side of the rally didn't really have much of an impact. As of 1:45 p.m., there were only two people with dogs, both of which were well-behaved pooches restrained by leashes.
The call for dogs, animals that some Muslims consider unclean, was criticized by members of the Interfaith Council as a sign of disrespect.
One of the women who brought a dog, Zorina Bennett of Temecula, said she attended the rally to stand with those opposed to the spread of Islam.
"They don't fit in; they don't belong in this country," she said. "It's spreading all over the U.S. like a cancer."
Asked whether she was making a statement by bringing her dog, Bennett said she brought along Meadow, her 6-year-old Vizsla, because she takes her almost everywhere she goes and because "American families all have dogs."
Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said the call for dogs was "not in good taste."
"We love God and God's creatures," he said, adding that any concern Muslims have with dogs has to do with them wandering around in their prayer areas for cleanliness reasons.
Later, Al-Marayati and Hadi Nael, president of the Islamic Center's board of directors, addressed the members of the Interfaith Council at 12:30 p.m., thanking them for their support.
"Thank you for embracing the mosque and the great values of America!" Al-Marayati said. "The value of hope, not fear."
Bakh and a woman protester gave some cogent arguments about why mosques in Temecula, Mufreesboro and Ground Zero are being opposed:
Diana Serafin, a Murrieta woman who helped organize the rally, said people opposed to the mosque have been unfairly criticized as religious bigots.
"It's not just the mosque," she said. "It's a political way of life that they're trying to force on us. It's not religion; it's a political movement."
Bakh, the Iranian immigrant who said he has cast away Islam, said the problem with the religion is that there is no moderation, no respect for opposing viewpoints.
Asked if there were some good things about Islam, Bakh said, and “I've seen the worst side of Islam. ... There is a good side of the Muslim, but there is no good side of Islam. If you believe in Islam, you have to believe in the writing of the Quran. There is a moderation in the Muslim people, but there is no moderation in the Islamic ideology. It's black-and-white.
Tennessee as an exemplar for opposing Mosques and Sharia
Tennessee is a battleground in contending with the visible aspects of Islamization in America. It is also a testing ground for developing a multi-pronged strategy involving:
1. Education and Research:
Tennessee’s media is dominated by print and some electronic media that are uninformed about Islamic doctrine and have a tendency to view community conflicts over mosque development and possible introduction of Sharia for domestic dispute resolution and finance through a prism of multi-culturalism. Nonetheless, education about these issues has come through alternative media and grass roots activism. The example of Pete Doughtie, publisher of The Rutherford Reader is one. Doughtie has published an ongoing series about Islam and Sharia on the front page of his free news weekly that reaches more than 43,000 subscribers and tens of thousands of users at retail outlets through the Middle Tennessee region. The ACT! For America Middle and Western Tennessee chapters have brought packed audiences to listen to lectures on these topics by noted experts in the field. Moreover, these ACT! For America chapters publish weekly newsletters containing articles of interest on local, national and international topics of concern. ACT! Chapter members have conducted background investigations that have materially assisted in gathering relevant information for investigation of local Sharia-related issues.
2. Informed Political Candidates
Tennessee has the good fortune of political candidates in both parties who have become knowledgeable about anti-Jihad and Sharia issues in both statewide and Congressional races. We have mentioned Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey who is running for Governor in the GOP primary, but equally knowledgeable is Congressman Zach Wamp, of the 3rd CD covering Eastern and Middle Tennessee who is a contender in the same gubernatorial primary. Fifth CD contenders Vijay Kumar, Jeff Hartline and Lonnie Spivack, running against Democratic incumbent Jim Cooper, are well versed in these issues. We noted the positions on the ICM controversy of Republican primary contender, Lou Ann Zelenik in the 6th CD. Moreover, there is candidate, Charlotte Bergman running in the 9th CD in the Memphis area who is knowledgeable about Sharia given issues that have arisen locally.
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