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The Tennessee Mosque and the Struggle for Religious Freedom

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Murfreesboro, a small city you'd pass in a few minutes while taking Interstate-24 out of Nashville to Chattanooga, has never been a town of much interest to the rest of the country. Other than temporarily being Tennessee's capital (1818-1826) and hosting the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Stones River in 1862, it has remained largely out of the limelight of American affairs.

But Murfreesboro made national attention recently when a local mosque announced a plan to build a new Islamic center to tend to the needs of it's growing community. Despite being in the community for 30 years, the plan led to large protests, a 20,000-person petition to stop construction, vandalism and, most recently, an arson attack that has frightened the Muslim community throughout middle Tennessee. The rise of anti-Muslim sentiment has revealed itself through the region, with a mosque being rejected for a building permit in Brentwood, Tenn., and another suffering vandalism in Nashville.

Murfreesoboro is also where my mom and a significant portion of my family live, many in the neighboring small town of Shelbyville ("Shebvull" in local parlance). I recently took a weekend to visit family, but was intrigued by the issues surrounding the Islamic center. During the weekend of relaxing with family, I trekked to Murfreesboro to meet with some key activists addressing the issue.

It turns out that while I was in town, many residents of Murfreesboro, including various religious leaders, joined together to demonstrate in support of the Islamic center. The media, unfortunately, failed to report this. Some of the activists who I spoke with lamented this fact, because they, much like the Muslims they are standing with, wish to challenge the stereotypes of their community. The group Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom is mobilizing to continue supporting the religious communities that comprise their neighborhoods.

I also had the opportunity to meet with a documentarian who has been capturing the story as it unfolds. Eric Bell, who moved to Murfreesboro two years ago, was struck by the nature of protests. "A chilling wave of anti-Islamic sentiment is sweeping the country and seems to be hitting Murfreesboro especially hard," he shared. "What this documentary seeks to do is to learn more about the fears, concerns and objections people have and to discern fact from speculation." He hopes to reveal the fear and illuminate the interfaith support that has engulfed the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

As I returned to New York, I thought about how the issue of Muslim Americans has become central to the American family. If we as Americans can't expand our social fabric to include Muslim Americans, it won't be an issue that only touches cities like New York, but communities like Murfreesboro. Failing to spread religious literacy won't only lead to uncomfortable work environments. It will also cause rifts in the increasing number of interfaith families. From the classroom to the workplace, from both coasts to Middle America, the shift towards inclusion is already happening -- even if headlines fail to catch it.

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