MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — A suspicious fire that damaged construction equipment at the site of a future mosque in Tennessee has some local Muslims worried that their project has been dragged into the national debate surrounding Manhattan's ground zero.
Authorities told leaders of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro that four pieces of heavy construction equipment on the site were doused with an accelerant and one set ablaze early Saturday morning. The site is now being patrolled at all hours by the sheriff's department.
Federal investigators have not ruled it arson, saying only that the fire was being probed and asked the public to call in tips. Eric Kehn, spokesman for the Nashville office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said arson is suspected.
The site has already seen vandalism, said Joel Siskovic, a spokesman for the FBI in the Memphis office. A sign at the site was spray-painted with the words "Not Welcome" and then torn in half. The FBI is investigating the fire in case it is a civil rights violation.
"We want to make sure there are not people acting with the intent to prevent people from exercising their First Amendment rights," Siskovic said.
Essam Fathy, chairman of the planning committee for the mosque, said he has lived in the city about 25 miles southeast of Nashville for almost 30 years and has never run into problems with his faith until now. He's concerned that outsiders could be involved.
"I don't think this is coming out of Murfreesboro," he said. "There were no issues at any time, even after 9/11, there were no issues. It just seems like there's a movement in the United States against Islam."
The debate in New York over a proposed Islamic community center and mosque two blocks away from ground zero has pitted advocates for religious freedom, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama, against opponents who think it is insensitive to the victims of the terror attacks.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, weighed in on the project for the first time on Monday.
"I guess I would ask everybody to remember that this is a country whose deepest origins are in religious freedom – it was founded by people who escaped to it to practice their religions – and to ask people to please have great respect for anyone's religious preferences and their rights to practice those in the United States. I think it goes right to the heart of what this country is about."
Supporters of the Tennessee mosque and some leaders in other faiths hope the fire could be a wake-up call to support religious freedom.
Two years ago, several men broke into the Islamic Center of Columbia, about 30 miles southwest of Murfreesboro, and torched it with molotov cocktails, stealing a stereo system and painting swastikas and "White Power" on the front of the building.
In some ways, the Muslim community in Columbia has emerged stronger than ever. After being welcomed at a local Presbyterian church for a few months, the group bought a new building with the support of people of many faiths from across Tennessee and across the country, Daoud Abudiab said.
But the firebombing affected him, and others, in ways that are harder to see.
"Every night, after that incident, I've activated the alarm at my house," he said. "Every night I arm it and I think of that incident and I think of my kids."
A candlelight vigil was planned Monday night in support of the Murfreesboro project by the group Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom, or MT4RF.
The group formed earlier this year to show support for the new mosque and Murfreesboro's Muslim community. Group leaders previously organized a counter-protest when mosque opponents marched on the courthouse in July demanding approval for the new mosque be rescinded.
"This definitely shakes up the community," spokeswoman Claire Rogers said. "These actions are not encouraged by any member of this community. This simply portrays us in such a negative light."
Some opponents of the mosque said they were concerned about how the project went through the city planning process and increased traffic. But many of the opponents at a recent rally expressed a fear that Muslims want to overthrow the government and bring Islamic law to the U.S.
Kevin Fisher, organizer of a July demonstration and petition drive against the mosque said he is opposed to any type of violence. But he wants to wait for the investigation of the fire before concluding that it was set by a mosque opponent.
Loller reported from Nashville.