By Michael Cass
The recent battle over plans to build a mosque in Murfreesboro put tensions about the meaning of Islam in high relief, generating noisy denunciations of Muslims’ faith.
But the people making the most noise were actually outnumbered, a recent poll found.
The statewide poll by Vanderbilt University revealed that 62.6 percent of respondents believe Muslims should have the same rights as other groups to build houses of worship, while 37.4 percent believe local communities should be able to prohibit construction of mosques.
Eric Bell, a Murfreesboro resident and filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the mosque controversy, said he wasn’t surprised by the poll results.
"I have found that a lot of your everyday, mainstream people in Murfreesboro are afraid to speak out against the more vocal, xenophobic people," Bell said.
Murfreesboro attracted national attention last year after Rutherford County’s planning commission approved construction of a 52,000-square-foot mosque by the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. The organization said it had outgrown the site where it had operated for more than two decades.
Questions about the planning commission’s decision spurred a lawsuit, which was unsuccessful in a Rutherford County court. Arsonists burned excavating equipment at the mosque construction site, and protesters rallied in the streets — all of it against the backdrop of an election season.
John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, said the new findings show a more measured reality.
"Vocal minorities have a right to be vocal," he said. "But the people who make noise aren’t necessarily representative of the typical person in the state. Public opinion looks a lot more extreme in the absence of polling data."
People of faith
Bell said he was troubled to find that the percentage of people expressing tolerance for Muslims wasn’t higher. Conversely, Rebecca Bynum, publisher and managing editor of the Nashville-based publication New English Review, said she was "encouraged" to find more than one-third of respondents "are wary of having a mosque built in their neighborhood."
"They’re correct to be concerned about the teachings of Islam," she said.
Bynum, the author of a new book titled Allah Is Dead: Why Islam is Not a Religion, said the faith has an "inverted" morality that emphasizes material needs and the supremacy of some people over others. She said she’s been concerned about Islam’s intentions since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But Rabbi Rami Shapiro, an adjunct professor of religion at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, said most Muslims want the same things other people want.
"We’re not talking about terrorist cells," he said. "We’re talking about people of faith."
Shapiro, who also leads Wisdom House, the interfaith center at Nashville’s Scarritt-Bennett Center, said the presence of multiple faiths in a community should promote dialogue and challenge beliefs "in a healthy way."
"That’s how it works here," he said. "It’s a marketplace of ideas. If you’re interested in the notion of the sacred, if you’re interested in the notion of human religiosity, then the more expressions we have of it, the better off we are."
Contact Michael Cass at 615-259-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org