Muslims in Bible Belt town become microcosm of Islam and Christian face-off in America
A midsize college town in the heart of Tennessee has become the focus of national attention because of its wish to ban Islamic law and where a congressman co-sponsored a plan to “defund Muslim ‘refugees’” and local residents sued to block construction of the only mosque, a fight that ended at the Supreme Court.
Murfreesboro is one of hundreds of Bible belt towns in the deep south facing change. The town is a microcosm of America with the interaction between Christians and Muslims.
The town’s Muslims have carried on through all of it, raising their children, saying their prayers, teaching at college, filling people’s prescriptions and filling their tanks, contributing to the civic life in a city of 126,000. They felt the familiar grief and fear of reprisal last year when a Muslim man killed four Marines in Chattanooga, 90 minutes away, according to a report in the Washington Post.
And now president-elect Donald Trump — a man who has repeatedly cast doubt on the patriotism of Muslims — has selected a national security adviser, retired in the person of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has called Islam a “cancer.” The result is that a deep unease has again seeped into the daily life of many here in this Muslim community of about 1,500.
There has been a smattering of post-election harassment and insults — at schools, in parking lots, on the road — but nothing to take to the police or put Murfreesboro back in the national headlines, according to the Post.
“Right now, we’re hoping that it’s going to be calm,” said Saleh Sbenaty, an engineering professor at Middle Tennessee State University and one of the founders of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. “But we don’t know if it’s the calm before the storm or the calm after the storm.”
Are Muslims the new black, in America? American Muslims came into the spotlight following the Democratic Party Convention where a certain Mr Kahn publicly shamed Mr. Trump over his lack of understanding of the U.S. Constitution. Kahn and his wife lost their son in a firefight in Afghanistan.
Murfreesboro is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and an increasingly diverse one. Muslim and Christian students go to school and play sports together; their families patronize the same restaurants and stores.
Residents variously describe the town as a proud example of Southern hospitality, a growing “melting pot,” a suburb of “little blue dot” Nashville and the “buckle on the Bible Belt.” Its downtown with the old courthouse and Confederate-soldiers memorial yields to strip malls and chain stores, new housing developments and old cotton fields, and the university, with its 20,000 undergraduates.
You can drive to the popular shawarma joint for some Arab cuisine, then get back in the car and hear syndicated talk-show host Michael Savage on the radio wondering how many veterans are in jail “for having the guts to kill an Islamo-fascist.”
Among the town’s couple hundred places of worship are 59 Baptist churches, including an Arabic Baptist church as well as Grace Baptist, whose deacon in 2010 greeted the construction of the new mosque next door by erecting 23 huge white crosses on the road.
There are people such as Abdou Kattih, a pharmacist at Walgreens and one of the mosque’s founders, and Jason Bennett, an evangelical advocate for the homeless and a onetime mosque opponent; the two now consider each other close friends.
There are people such as the self-described “right-wing Southern Baptist,” shopping at Bullseye Gun, Gear and Pawn on a recent day, who is certain that Muslims think they have the right “to kill you and take your wife as a sex slave.”
On the other hand, said James McCarroll Jr., a pastor at First Baptist Church, “we’re seeing more of an acceptance, a lot of it being spurred by the university having a large community of Muslims.”
The day after the election, flowers were left on the mosque’s doorstep, and a stranger approached the new imam, an Egyptian, at the Walmart and welcomed him to town.
Nothing seems to illustrate the complicated attitudes better than Tammy and Ahmed Ragab’s family — three conservative Muslims and three evangelical Christians sharing a house. The couple bought a home with Tammy’s parents five years ago.
To the Ragabs, Trump is a threat personified. They see him as a man whose policies and rhetoric have emboldened people to attack and vilify Muslims, including their 12-year-old daughter, who they said was threatened at school the week after the election.
Tammy’s parents and sister voted for him.
In five years of diverging viewpoints and lifestyles — the couples cook separately, watch different news channels and celebrate different holidays — a simple harmony has prevailed, they said, because they love each other.
Tammy’s parents eat pork, go to church and keep “a whole cabinet of Jesus statues” in the house, Tammy said. They also remind their granddaughter to pray five times a day and help her pick out clothes to match her hijab.
“But at the same time, when it comes to the Trump issues, she’ll say, ‘Oh, he only said that one time,’ ” Tammy said of her mother. “They don’t believe he’s going to do the things he said.” Tammy, who converted to Islam a few years before meeting Ahmed, an Egyptian immigrant, implores her mother to consider “the things we might face” under Trump. “And she says, ‘Well, that’s your choice.’ ”
Her mother, Linda Harmon, said she knows “a lot of people are scared that Muslims are going to have to register and get shipped back.” But, she added, “even a lot of Muslims want people vetted. . . . He’s not going to send any back that aren’t causing any trouble, I don’t think.”
Kattih, the pharmacist, remembers a day a few years back when a customer came in to fill a prescription and said, “Did you hear those damn Muslims want to build a church in town?”
Kattih, who immigrated as an adult from Syria, told her that he is a Muslim. His skin, like many of the Arab immigrants in the town, is just as pale as the whites who can trace their American lineage back generations. The exchange resulted in a moment of shock, a hurried exit and, a week later, an apology.
“I didn’t know you were one of them,” he remembered her saying the next time she came in. “I just wanted to apologize. If you need anything, call me.”
The incident shaped his outlook, he said: Maybe people just don’t know enough about each other.
Abdou Kattih, a co-founder of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and president of Murfreesboro founded Murfreesboro Muslim Youth, a community service group that aims to make Muslims visible and familiar to people who would not dare visit the mosque.
“What people in America are failing to realize: Most immigrant Muslims lived under dictatorship. Fear is embedded in their skin. So when they’re afraid, they retract,” Kattih said. “And I think that’s the opposite of what needs to happen. You need to stretch out your hand to allies. And you’ll be surprised what hands reach out back.”
A week after the election, the group’s members, most in their late teens or early 20s, gathered in the town square and handed out flowers to strangers. Some people from other faiths joined in. On Thanksgiving, the students cooked 48 meals and gave them to families in need.
When students hosted a meet-a-Muslim event on the university campus earlier this year, “most people came up to us and said they had never met a Muslim,” said Basant Salem, 18, who moved to Murfreesboro five years ago from Morgantown, W.Va., when her father became a genetics professor at the university.
“We don’t have to change their views,” said Basant’s sister, Samar, 21, who once brought cookies to mosque protesters, “but just make them aware that we aren’t what they think we are.”
What worries and perplexes many Muslims and their friends here is what lies beneath the surface. What impact will Trump have as president when distrust of Muslims already exists?
Bennett, director of the Murfreesboro Cold Patrol homeless-aid group, used to belong to an evangelical church opposed to the mosque, which protesters and politicians accused of supporting terrorism.
Vandals struck the building site three times, at one point setting construction equipment on fire. Bennett changed his thinking after he met Kattih and other Muslims also involved in providing social services to those in need.
He said the fear and the false pronouncements — that Muslims worship a different God, are taught to lie or use mosques as militant training centers — are as pervasive in the town’s Sunday sermons and Bible studies as they were five years ago.
“All that stuff is still there,” Bennett said. “When policies start to take effect after January, or start to move, I think we’re going to see some pretty rough times again.”
McCarroll, who leads a predominantly black church in Murfreesboro, echoed that concern. “I think we could see people displaced,” he said. “Right now it’s just rhetoric, but I think the town is really holding its breath.”
Ask locals about the churches that oppose Islam and many point first to the World Outreach Church, the largest megachurch in town.
“We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam,” the pastor, Allen Jackson, declared at a hearing on the mosque plan in 2010.
The church declined to comment on Jackson’s view now, but a man who worships there said the pastor continues to view Islam through a prism of holy war: “He thinks it’s biblical.”
Men and women who once sued and protested against the mosque come in to fill prescriptions from Kattih, buy doughnuts or cigarettes from Essam Mohammed at the Quik Mart or attend one of Sbenaty’s engineering classes.
They trade pleasantries. They’re polite. They continue on their way.
Howard Wall puts it like this: “If I have to go the store to get a Coke or something, we talk. I’m nice to them, they’re nice to me.” Wall and his wife, Sally, are local developers who were among those who sued to stop the mosque construction, litigation that was resolved when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case.
The couple have no plans to take up another fight. They also think it won’t be necessary, because Trump will limit the arrival of more Muslims.
Murfreesboro doesn’t need “to have a lot of Muslims,” Sally Wall said. “I think they can stay where they are and we stay where we are.”
But there’s more tolerance because of the public acrimony over the mosque, said City Council member Bill Shacklett.
“I wish some of the things hadn’t happened. But the one thing it has done is compel people to open their hearts and minds to be drawn toward each other . . . get out and flesh out your faith with different people,” Shacklett said, adding that Muslims and Christians have started to do that.
“Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t had the spotlight put on us for all of that.”