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Murfreesboro Mosque Controversy Sparks Islamophobia, Threats And Vandalism (VIDEO)

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By some accounts, Anthony Mijares is a bit player in the story of Murfreesboro, Tenn., a small city 40 minutes south of Nashville. In Murfreesboro, a growing Muslim community’s plan to build a new mosque has unleashed a public furor, produced threats and counterthreats, and revealed just how far fear of another terrorist attack has spread across the United States.

Since the mosque won local government building approval in May 2010, Murfreesboro's 250 Muslim families have taken an undesirable spot at center stage. Unidentified individuals vandalized a sign that had marked the future worship space site for months and in a separate incident, someone set ablaze a piece of construction equipment. On Labor Day an anonymous caller threatened the group again. A bomb, the caller said, will explode over the September 11 weekend inside the office space where Murfreesboro’s Muslims currently worship. Local law enforcement, the FBI and ATF are investigating the incidents and will not comment on their status.

But Mijares, a retiree and Roman Catholic, is also the lone voice behind a letter-writing campaign to discourage companies from displaying or advertising in a local paper that he believes is helping to fuel the local controversy. For more than a year, the paper has featured stories about the planned mosque, Islam and the alleged threat they pose to Murfreesboro. And this summer, that publication launched its own campaign against Mijares, publishing his home address in an ad that called for readers to "combat" his efforts.

"Yes, I consider that a threat," said Mijares, 54. "What else could it be when every local right-wing nut, some militia member in Idaho or some Aryan (Neo-Nazi) in West Virginia can read the words 'combat' printed next to my address online? The Rutherford Reader knows what it's doing. That wasn't a mistake."

What is happening to Mijares may be the final proof that the crisis in Murfreesboro has been created by nothing more than irrational fear and hate, not legitimate concerns about safety, said Reavis Mitchell, a historian at Fisk University in Nashville who specializes in 20th Century American history.

"There is a long line of people who have been branded an outsider, a troublemaker of some kind, because they won't tolerate injustice silently," said Mitchell.

Historically, community crises like the one in Murfreesboro have been resolved, or at least calmed, after the name-calling, threats, acts of intimidation or actual violence begin national attention turns to the troubled town or ringleader, Mitchell said. During the McCarthy anti-Communist campaign and The Civil Rights Movement, that's the point at which change occurred, he said.

CNN, Time Magazine and international publications have covered the mosque controversy in Murfreesboro. But Mijares and his campaign have remained largely unknown.

In April 2010, just a few weeks before the new mosque won local government approval, Mijares picked up a copy of The Rutherford Reader, a free weekly newspaper, at a Murfreesboro Kroger. Mijares had scanned The Rutherford Reader before, but that day Mejares was appalled. In stories, editorials and hard-to-describe items where opinions and facts were commingled, the paper called for a halt on "Muslim immigration" and described Islam as "dehumanizing" and "defiling."

Mijares decided to contact Kroger. Within weeks, the grocery chain directed its distributor to stop making room for The Rutherford Reader on its free publication racks.

Mijares insists that he isn't a fan of censorship, arguing that The Rutherford Reader can print what it wants and distribute it anyway that it can. But businesses that keep The Rutherford Reader afloat by supplying advertising revenue and access to consumers should think about this carefully, Mijares said, or they risk offending their own customers.

Over the next year, Mijares sent similar letters to the owners of local stores, restaurants and the local Chamber of Commerce. When seven stores, restaurants and chamber locations decided to stop displaying The Rutherford Reader on their free publication racks, Mijares expanded his efforts to advertisers.

"This is hate speech, pure and simple," Mijares said. "I thought advertisers should know that The Rutherford Reader has taken a turn."

Pete Doughtie -- The Rutherford Reader's editor, publisher and owner -- did not respond to multiple requests for comment left at his office and home. But this week, Doughtie's column posed a revealing challenge.

Muslims are not in America to assimilate. They are here to change our system ... Our preachers should go beyond telling us more than 'we must love our enemies.' That is simply passing the buck. They should be getting every Christian ready and armed with the Word of God and an understanding of the Quran and Hadith, to defeat those who are out to destroy Christianity, and our American way of life.

(Hadith is a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the prophet Muhammed.)

Since the mosque project was approved, Doughtie -a self-described white Christian American - has described Islam in his column as a "political ideology," rather than a religion. He has told readers that Islam compels violence and attempts to implement sharia, a code of Islamic laws. He has described Mijares as a Muslim. And he has described as "terrorists" Mijares and other locals who have objected to The Rutherford Reader's content and the vandalism and arson at the mosque.

"Pete Doughtie is a bully and a bigot," said Mijares. "I may be a 5'4" Italian-American guy with a big nose and olive skin who gets looks around town. And I know that he cannot fathom that there are non-Muslims who do not agree with his ideas. But I am, in fact, not a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. And I am not afraid of Pete Doughtie."

Mijares is a retired international cargo expeditor who spent September 11 directing cargo traffic at the panic-stricken Los Angeles Airport, so he does not scare easily, he said. He moved to Tennessee to care for his ailing mother in 2005.

The Rutherford Reader is a right-of-center publication that represents the community's concerns, said Kevin Fisher, an unpaid Rutherford Reader columnist. Fisher, who is African American, is a corrections officer and also the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that aims to stop construction of the new mosque.

"I take civil rights seriously and I wouldn't participate in anything that tramples on people's rights. I wouldn't write anything that intentionally offends anyone," said Fisher. "If I have, I am sincerely sorry. But I know Mr. Doughtie and I've always thought he was a really nice guy."

Fisher objects to the lack of detail included in the public meeting notice where the mosque project was approved. The notice -- which included the same information as other planning commission announcements -– allowed the mosque to escape comment from people who oppose it, Fisher said. But that is not his only concern.

"We don't know enough about the motivations here. It's only been 10 years since 9/11," said Fisher, who has sought and lost two bids for public office since 2008. “In the blink of an eye, foreign students went from students to terrorists. And I think that this is why our whole thinking as a nation changed. We have to judge the issue of terror and the potential for Islamic radicalization a little differently. We certainly have to look at that potential in our own community."

Fisher would not comment on the ads featuring Mijares' complete home address. But, Fisher said, Mijares invited the attention when he began his campaign.

When Mijares says that the ads may be dangerous, he is right, said Eric Allen Bell, a documentary filmmaker. In 2010, Bell moved to Murfreesboro planning to take a break. Instead, he wound up making a documentary about the mosque controversy. A full-length version of that film, "Not Welcome," will be released next year, Bell said.

While Bell was making the film, he wrote a series of editorials that criticized the mosques' opponents, including The Rutherford Reader. The weekly's subsequent issue included Bell's picture beneath a headline that read, "The Rutherford Reader's Free Speech is Being Threatened."

Bell began to receive death threats via email, he said. Bell hired a private security to accompany him to certain public events. Then one particularly scary threat arrived over Facebook. When Bell approached local law enforcement, he was reminded that an official complaint would become a matter of public record and would include his home address. A police officer warned him that this might put him in greater danger, Bell said.

"I was advised by people who know that community that you probably need to take this seriously and leave town," said Bell, who returned to California in November 2010.

It is not a coincidence that when the small but vocal group of Murfreesboro residents who oppose the mosque describe their concerns, the sorts of claims made in The Rutherford Reader often come up, said Saleh M. Sbenaty, a board member of Murfreesboro's mosque and a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

"There are people and publications in this city that specialize in making false accusations," said Sbenaty, who moved to the United States from Syria, 30 years ago around the same time that Muslims in Murfreesboro formed the city's mosque. "They insist that all Muslims are dangerous. And unfortunately, there are a small number of nut jobs who will take that seriously."

Late Wednesday, the mosque's board voted to suspend usual weekend activities at the mosque because of the bomb threat. On Saturdays, the mosque typically holds religious education classes for children. On Sundays, there are sports or community events for kids.

"It is quite unfortunate that our children are bullied in school and now are the subject of a new threat," said Sbenaty, a father of two.

Threats, or what some people consider threats, are becoming common in Murfreesboro.

Back in May, Mijares noticed a Rutherford Reader ad for a Nissan dealership. Mijares contacted the dealer. And since the Japanese car company's North American headquarters are located in nearby Franklin, Tenn., he also called Nissan's community relations staff.

"After he (Mijares) made us aware of the publication where this ad was placed," said Paula Angelo, Nissan's director of corporate communications, "it was clear immediately that its content does not align with Nissan's core values."

Mijares contacted corporate headquarters on May 24. The dealership makes independent decisions about advertising, but there was a conversation between the business and corporate officials, Angelo said. On June 8, Angleo contacted Mijares to advise him that the dealership had purchased Rutherford Reader ad space in May and June but that additional ads would not be placed, he said.

On July 18, The Rutherford Reader began running its series of full-page anti-Mijares ads.

"Murfreesboro, to borrow a phrase, is the ground zero of Muslim bashing in America right now," said Faiz Shakir, vice president of the Center for American Progress and one of the researchers behind "Fear, Inc.," a six-month study released in August by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank that examined the rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment.

The study found that small groups of individuals have funneled the same pieces of questionable research to activists, commentators and politicians, who have then stirred or led groups such as the one that opposes the Murfreesboro mosque, Shakir said. In August, one of those individuals, Frank Gaffney, testified in the Murfreesboro case hoping to help stop the mosque. Fisher first met Gaffney in the courtroom, he said.

"I am nobody's puppet," Fisher said.

On August 30, a judge ruled that the mosque's construction could move forward. The decision will be appealed, Fisher said.

Inside Murfreesboro, some people suspect that The Rutherford Reader's interest in covering the alleged threats posed by Islam may be driven by profit. In Tennessee, local governments are required to list public notices -– advisories about government meetings and other activities -– in general interest publications. These ads generate revenue for newspapers.

"I think it may be Mr. Doughtie's goal to write just enough about this local controversy to drive up his circulation and meet the definition of a general interest publication," said Ernest G. Burgess, Rutherford County mayor. Murfreesboro is the largest city in Rutherford County and Burgess is the county's chief executive officer.

In late August, the ads with Mijares' home address disappeared. Mijares received a few nasty letters and emails. But, Mijares says, he won't stop his letter-writing campaign.

"I've never been terribly social. In fact, some people may call me a misanthrope," said Mijares. "I don't mind if some people don't like me. I just don't appreciate anyone threatening my family."

If the ads with Mijares' information return, Mijares said he will post Doughtie's home address online with a description of Doughtie's activities and ideas in Arabic.

This story was updated to clarify which ads would lead Mijares to post Doughtie's home address online.

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