A federal court attempted to put to rest Wednesday a two-year-long bitter battle in Rutherford County, Tenn., between a small group who opposed the building of a 6,800-square-foot mosque, and the Muslim residents who hoped to worship there.
Just hours before the start of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, which begins at sundown Thursday night, a federal district court judge ruled the state must allow the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to complete its inspection process, and that the mosque will be able to open its doors soon. In a statement, the mosque said it hopes to open within 10 days. A state ruling had earlier blocked the mosque from opening.
But Murfreesboro attorney Joe Brandon, who has for two years represented residents opposed to the mosque, says the fight is far from over.
"We're exploring our options ... and a possible new lawsuit," says Brandon, who added the suit could focus on the mosque's "terror risk" to Murfreesboro.
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Located 30 miles from Nashville and in the heart of the bible belt, Murfreesboro is Tennessee's fastest growing city. But with the city's growth has come opposition to its new Muslim residents. Brandon says members of the Murfreesboro community have been alarmed to see a reading list distributed by the mosque that recommended two authors "known" to be extremists.
"And now I find it ironic and suspicious that the U.S. Department of Justice is getting behind an organization that has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood," Brandon said of Thursday's ruling, naming the influential Islamic organization that this week Michele Bachmann said had "deep penetration" into the U.S. government.
The mosque's imam, Ossama Bahloul, has long dismissed these ties. On Thursday, he spoke with a strained voice as he both celebrated the ruling but mourned continued anger directed at the mosque.
"Today's ruling makes us all believe even more in our constitution," he said. "But it's very unfortunate to have the energy of a small group of people in the community unnecessarily placed on this fight against us."
Bahloul said a lawsuit based on allegations of the mosque's connections to extremists "isn't going to fly with anyone."
"We encourage everyone to read different perspectives," he said. "Ignorance is the enemy of all of us."
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Despite two years of conflict, and in a city of just 39 square miles, most of the members of the mosque and the people who decry it have never met one another. Brandon and Bahloul have never spoken. Bahloul says he tried to reach out to the husband of one of the mosque's most vocal critics, Murfreesboro resident Sally Hall, but did not make much headway. And when reached by phone Thursday, Hall was no less angry.
"Of course I knew that eventually it was going to go this way," she said of the ruling, sounding tired, though growing more heated as she spoke. "I know it's about religious freedom, but the Muslims are not like any other religion."
"You know they cut off people's heads," she said.
Hall echoed anxieties voiced at a contentious and much-covered public hearing on the mosque in 2010, during which Murfreesboro residents said they did not believe Islam was a religion, and worried that Sharia law, an Islamic moral code, would come to their small city along with the "abuse of women."
Hall called Thursday's ruling "part of a political agenda" by the Obama administration to "fill up the U.S. with Muslims."
"There aren't many here in Murfreesboro yet," she said, "but honey, they're coming."
Hall and Brandon, the mosque's loudest critics, believe they represent the majority opinion of Murfreesboro's 110,000 person community.
A clerk at the Rutherford County's judicial office, who did not want to give her name, said past media reports weren't fair. "Now you be nice when you write an article about us," she said.