Bob Smietana's Tennessean report was sparked in part by the furor over the proposed mosque in Murfreesboro and a series of disturbing racist attacks against Muslim residents of the area.
The proposed Islamic center site in Murfreesboro has had at least one arson attack on construction equipment, and the Al-Farooq Islamic Center in nearby Nashville was vandalized with red spray paint reading: "Muslims go home" and images of crosses.
In Columbia, Tenn., an Islamic center was burned to the ground two years ago by men who also spray-painted swastikas on the site, along with the phrases "White Power" and "We run the world."
As Smietana notes, the economic crisis has intensified anti-Islam sentiment in Tennessee. Unemployment in Rutherford County, which contains Murfreesboro, has doubled in the past four years. It now stands at 8.6 percent, more than twice what it was in 2006:
When revenue for state and local budgets shrinks, immigrants become a target--especially their perceived toll on education and health-care systems. And non-Christian immigrants often bear the brunt, said Katharine Donato, chair of the sociology department at Vanderbilt.
Chinese immigrants were considered un-American because they were not Christians, while Catholics were ostracized for being the wrong kind of Christians. Today, Muslims are seen as part of the problem.But most people who dislike Muslims don't describe their reasons so eloquently, or maybe don't even understand the reasons. Retired Murfreesboro resident Jerry Paschal does it in one sentence: "They don't want to be us."
Despite this, there are encouraging signs of people rallying to the defense of Muslims in the area. According to a poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University, 76 percent of Tennesseans said U.S. Muslims deserve the same rights as other Americans, and about the same proportion either support or would not oppose construction of an Islamic facility in Murfreesboro or near where they live.
According to the Associated Press, "Other faiths have risen to the defense of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. The newly formed Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, which is composed of prominent Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Southern Baptists and other Protestants, has filed a brief in the [court] case."
As Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical megachurch pastor and coalition member, explained, "Every minority--and Islam is very much a minority in this country right now--has had to struggle for equal rights. Islam is facing that now, and we will not rest until they have equal rights with other religions."