August 10th, 2012
10:56 AM ET

Tennessee mosque opens after 2 years of controversy

Editor's note: CNN's Soledad O'Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over a mosque in the heart of the Bible Belt. "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" airs on CNN at 8 ET/PT Sunday night.

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN)–Saleh Sbenaty was asked more than once Friday how he slept the night before. He didn't.

How could he when a longtime dream was about to be fulfilled?

Friday afternoon, Sbenaty and other Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, entered a brand new mosque, Tennessee, and fell in prayer to their knees.

They'd waited more than two years for the opening of their new Islamic center, delayed by legal wrangling and anti-Muslim sentiment that surfaced through protests, arson and vandalism.

Friday, Sbenaty, a mosque board member, struggled for words that adequately captured his excitement. So did his daughter, Lema.

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"Oh my goodness it's gorgeous. It's gorgeous," she said entering the prayer room for the first time Friday.

It was sanctuary.

She bowed her head to the red carpet in prayer pose, tears filling her eyes, her voice quivering.

"We've come such a long way from where we were to where we are now," she told CNN. "And I mean this is the fruits of our labor. It's emotional because we never thought we'd be here this fast. It's absolutely overwhelming."

Others streamed in at 1 p.m. for afternoon prayers.

A sign says the maximum capacity is 636. Saleh Sbenaty expected between 400 and 500 on the first day.

No more were they crammed into one room of a small building. They took off their shoes and placed them in rows and rows of racks and entered the prayer room. Among them were non-Muslim visitors who came to show their support. One wore a T-shirt sporting a slogan saying as much.

Saleh Sbenaty sat among the men on the front row as the imam began the prayers by recalling all that has happened. He reminded his congregation that no challenge in life was too great to overcome.

Not once in the long and stressful process to build the center had Sbenaty given up hope, though sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel seemed woefully dim.

"We never had doubt," he said. "We are citizens of this great country. We are believers of the constitution."

The 12,000 square-foot center next to Grace Baptist Church on Veals Road is still not fully furnished and is lacking an audio system. But it was important, Sbenaty said, to have Friday prayers inside the new facility during Ramadan, Islam's holy month, which ends August 19.

The center plans a grand opening in a few weeks when everything is in place.

Murfreesboro's Muslims had outgrown their older and much smaller space tucked away from a road in the southwest part of town. In 2009, they purchased 15 acres of land for a new Islamic center a few miles to the east. Construction began the following year.

The plans were to eventually grow the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to 52,000 square feet and will include the mosque, school, gym and a swimming pool.

But from the start, the new center divided this small city 35 miles southeast of Nashville that has 104,000 people, more than 140 churches and one mosque.

Opponents of the mosque protested, citing zoning concerns and worries about radical Islam.

Proponents cried religious intolerance.

Early on, Kevin Fisher, who led the protests, said opponents are going to contest "every brick that's laid."

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey didn't mince words, either.

"You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it," he said during his failed run for governor.

A fire at the construction site destroyed an earth mover and damaged three other vehicles. Authorities determined it was arson.

A sign announcing the new center was vandalized. The message said: "Not welcome."

Some residents filed a lawsuit to stop the new mosque. Later, a local judge stopped the permitting process. Then, a federal judge stepped in and ordered the construction to continue.

The Muslim community in Murfreesboro was in shock. Some had lived in the area for 30 years. Their kids were born there, raised there.

"The last two years were exceptional, as the sentiment of anti-Islam and anti-Muslim in this country was growing," Sbenaty said.

But he said that sentiment was not shared by the majority of people in Murfreesboro.

The excitement about Friday's prayers was palpable in the Muslim community - after being under the microscope for so long.

And there was a collective sigh of relief, although Sbenaty said security concerns remain high after everything they have been through and after a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, was burned to the ground earlier this week.

"Yes, we are very concerned because we have been also the subject of vandalism, arson, bomb threats, intimidation, bullying," Sbenaty said. "You call it. Every single act of intimidation, you know, was actually inflicted upon us."

Lema Sbenaty said she had heard about plans to build a mosque since she was a little girl. She hoped that now that it was finally open, the house of worship could serve as a place to heal.

"Certainly there are lot of issues to be dealt with in our community," she said. "Perhaps we can start to build bridges."

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And yet another member of the Muslim community, Essam Fathy, said he was proud to be living in America.

"Of course, you question your beliefs, you question your faith when the opposition becomes so vocal," he said. "No matter what happened, God had his way."

He went on to talk about the power of the U.S. constitution. It was the freedoms afforded to people in this country that allowed the mosque to rise.

It was not just words, he said. It was real. As was the domed building where he said his prayers Friday.

CNN's George Howell and John Murgatroyd contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Islam • Mosque

soundoff (657 Responses)
  1. elizabeth smith

    Burning their equipment was an act of terrioism. How could the African American man walk around with a bull horn after all the horror that his race of people suffered by American people. How easy to forget, I guess. Hate is hate. Race and religion should never be a reason to hurt people. Why not show love like Jesus would and then try to recurit the Muslins to Christ. If you don't believe that people should have freedom to worship their religion then you should leave America. Go to a country that treats people the way you are treating the Muslins in your county. Shame on the people in this county that voice crazy stuff like that women who told her story about family founding the county. I bet they are ashamed of her today.

    August 19, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  2. sandra

    I think the people of TN are afraid, based on their observations & experience after 9/11, that muslims will overrun the country with their weird ways of life. They will soon move into positions where they will make decisions (in the court system for eg) and will change the laws of the land, rflecting the Koran. People are angry because from 20 families in TN in 2001 the muslim population has increased to 250,000. They breed like rats; and like rats they will overrun the place with their culture and intolerance. If wearing the scarf is not a law of their religion why do so many women wear it? I have a dear muslim friend who wants to be free of it but have been brain-washed and are afraid of the repercussions. She is so afraid of wearing lipstick. I feel sorry for the next generation throughout the world.

    August 19, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • midwest rail

      As soon as you typed the first two words, you were wrong.

      August 19, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  3. Jeannette Warren

    This is the United States of American and people have a right to practice their religion whatever it is, unless they are breaking the laws of the USA. We were founded on this freedom. How Christians could act as this is so against their teachings by Jesus
    Christ. How dare they try to take an American Citizens Rights! This is like the KKK, and these women you interviewed make me so sad, to say she isn't against freedom of religion and it isn't personal I nearly had to run to the bathroom. We are not Saudi Arabia, or Iran or Iraq, this is the U.S.A. and it will always be open to all religions. Shame on that county, Shame. SMH
    I hope the world doesn't think that we are all as ignorant about people as those on this piece are.

    August 18, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  4. GW

    Religious practices have their limits. (Just ask the Mormons about the early practice of polygamy). Harvard professor Feldman: "Shariah, according to Muslims, is god's word on how you're supposed to live your life...as a general matter, shariah is what you make of it, and there are plenty of Muslims who interpret shariah in a progressive way so that it's equal towards women and progressive towards women." This must mean that there are Muslims who interpret shariah in a so that it's NOT equal towards women. The dominant religion, in most cases, defines the culture. So it is in Islam-dominated countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. where practices that border on mysogyny is common. In the west (USA, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, France, etc.) it is Christianity, where freedom for all religions (even Islam) is guaranteed. Many Muslims want to come to the USA for more freedom; some come to proselytize. Maybe the people in Murphreesboro though are concerned that this mosque will produce radicalized Muslims like Carlos Abdulhakim Muhammad Bledsoe, who attended a mosque in nearby Nashville, then went on a killing spree in Arkansas in the name of Islam. He also admitted to killing a Nashville man as part of a "Jihad operation". People of Murphreesboro cannot and should not interfere with religious practice, but have a right to be on guard.

    August 14, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • GW

      That should be "So it is in Islam-dominated countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. where practices that border on mysogyny ARE common. "

      August 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  5. Jasmin

    As a muslim women living and growing up in a Muslim country it makes me so mad and upset when I see some girls sitting in US and Europe and preach that in Islam and under Sharia Law woman & Men are equal and that women are not forced to do anything they do not want to do. The young girl speaking in this video has never stepped or lived in an Islamic country. And ofcourse she is going to use the usual " It is not written in Quran " speech. Well dear why don't you buy a one way ticket and come and see what struggles Muslim women have to face in countries such as Saudi , Iran , Afghanistan and...
    In Iran we are FORCED to abide by Sharia laws where a women's value are half of that of man in all legal matters. Women are forced to wear Hijab. Women are stonned to death for having an affair while a man is allowed to have 5 wives legally. Girls are married of sometimes by the age of 9 , 10. Women can't leave a country or get a passport unless it is Authorized by a Father, brother, husband, uncle. Women are killed for honor killing. Women get half when it comes to inheritance. Women can't drive cars. In the month of Ramadan we are FORCED to fast . Women are killed for honor reasons. Women can't ask for divorce. Women in Iran are sometimes placed in prisons for not wearing the right scarf of wearing make up. Or what Afghan and Pakistani women are facing daily.
    So my dear Muslim American Teenager do not preach that in Islam women are not oppressed and that they are equal to me. In US you do because of their law not because of your religion. And please as I said do not use the excuse " It is not mentioned in Quran". This excuse is used by many and the reality is very far from the philosophy. As I mentioned why don't you travel to countries such as Iran , Saudi, Afghanistan, Pakistan and see how women are really treated by Sharia.
    By the way I noticed the girl was not wearing a scarf at first but after their built the mosque she started wearing Hijab? So I guess the brain washing at the mosque has already started.

    August 13, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
    • kazemah

      As you keep saying, 'In Iran, in Iran, in Iran'. This is culture, not islam. Do women have to wear hijab? Yes, this is a command from Allah. It's not like they're forcing you to walk around naked. Their enforcing Shari'ah. No man can have more than 4 wives, so again this is culture. If a woman is stoned for adultery (after producing 4 witnesses), then so is the man. He isn't spared. Culture. If a woman has a valid excuse not to fast, then she is excused and can make them up insha Allah. Culture. Stop confusing culture and what your country does with what Islam teaches. Never once does it say in the Qur'an that a woman's reward is less than a man for anything that she does. Also, a woman has rights in the same things as a man. In marriage, in her wealth, in her family.
      Women are not oppressed in Islam. Maybe you should be saying, 'Women are oppressed in my land.' Islam is perfect and beautiful, it's the imperfect people who practice it the wrong way.

      August 14, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jasmin

      Kazmeh, This is not the Iranian/ Culture as pre Islam we were Zorasterian and women and men were equal in that culture and religion. Iran was not this way 30 years ago before we had an Islamic government. No one forced religion on anybody before this government and yet everyone respected religion. Wearing Hijab or practicing any religion is between any human and his god. The problem with man such as your self is that you think because God or religion has asked humans to do such you have the right to force this on other human beings. If I choose not wear Hijab it is between me and my god and not the government or other humans. The more you force religion on people the more they are going to move away from it and this is what is happening with the Iranian youth today. We study history, other religions, politics and we are not longer just naive to blindly follow what another individual in a beard such as Mullah , Imam or Rabbai preaches. God have given as intellegence for a reason and we can no longer follow blindly.

      August 15, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • Jeannette Warren

      I am glad that you are able to see your future, with education comes much enlightenment. I hope that your country would become open to all religions. As it should be for all people. In the United States of America we have many flaws, but we were founded on the freedom of religion. We were founded by Christians who had been prosecuted for their religion, even though they believed that the only way to God was through Jesus Christ, they had the wisdom to know that people should be able to worship in the way they chose. There are many of us who have had to fight for that freedom, normally we don't face death when doing what we feel is needed.

      August 18, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  6. jimmer

    This is great.

    The dumb christian rednecks in TN don't quite know what to do with religious freedom when they finally realize it protects religions other than theirs.

    Dumb sister fvckers.

    August 13, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Jasmin

      If there should be religious freedom how is it that in middle east where I leave no one has the right to practice other religions or set up a church or a temple? Do you think the same muslims who are building a mosque in US would ever allow anyone to build a church or a temple in Saudi Arabia? Ofcourse not because they are Hypocratic who are using freedom given in US to their advantage. I live in Middle east and weather I like it or not I am forced to fast in the month of Ramadan. If we as muslims like to build mosques in Europe and expect others to respect us we should respect others beliefs as well. Do you think that is the case in Islamic countries? Ofcourse not

      August 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • jimmer

      Then move to America you dumfvck.

      I don't expect camel fvckers to understand freedom of religion. Those barbarians in the middle east don't understand freedom of religion because they are culturally retarded by about 1400 years.

      August 14, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Jasmin

      Well Jimmer,

      It is not easy for many Iranians to move to US and Europe as the visa process is very difficult so they have suffer and are forced to live in Iran under theocratic dictators. Sadly other countries think that we the people think like our government which is very far from the truth. Girls and boys get arrested simply for not wearing Islamic clothing and are put in unknow jails and rapped by Islamic militia. Then it makes us sick when we see the same people preach such things in US or Europe.

      August 14, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • jimmer

      Feel free to point out when anyone in America is arrested for not wearing islamic clothing. The great thing about America, is that we have freedom of religion. That means all religions. The second you start restricting the rights of ANY religion, even islam, you are no different than Iran.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  7. 111Dave111

    Mormon God is a Space Alien, LOL
    Mormons Baptize Dead People, L&LOL
    Mormon Religion, Big Money, Big Bigotry. L&L&LOL
    Mormon man in white underwear, a reference to special Mormon garments. L&L&L&LOL

    August 13, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  8. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    August 13, 2012 at 6:02 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs! '

      August 13, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Jasmin

      Please read some history books and see what bloodsheed has been done for spreading of religion by Christians, Muslims, Jews. And you say that Atheism is not healthy for children? AT least it doesn't kill them or force them

      August 13, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  9. sweetppp

    As a Christian, I've been embarassed by the face of Christianity recently shown in this country. Arrogant, hateful folks who never bother taking the message of the Gospel to people. They've surely turned away many potential converts with their racism and hatred. I can't understand why so many are upset with the mosque. The argument of tying the mosque to the Sep11 is like folks tying the white Christians to the KKK. I wish these Christian were just as Holy when they hear lies about Pres Obama. As an Ohioan, I welcome Islamist everywhere to invade the South! Althought I don't agree with your religion, maybe you can change the face of the ugly, arrogant, hypocritical, hateful, racist South!!

    August 13, 2012 at 2:13 am |
  10. marcello

    Judge made the biggest mistake of his life to let that mosque to be built.and problem is that people will pay heavily for that decision.Islam is the source of problem,Koran is the source problem.They use our freedom of religion ,they sneak in cities under the name of peace and love then they strike hard,though other religions have no rights in their contries.Here is statement from Omar Ahmed chairman of the Board of council on America Islamic Relation :" Islam isn't in America to be equal to any other faith,but to become dominant.The Quran should be the highest authority in America , and Islam the only accepted religion on earth"Does this sounds to you religionf peace ,love and logic?or terrorist thresd for thr future?

    August 12, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
    • J

      Your comments show that you have not actually read the Koran. I have, and there is certainly less violent than the Bible (I am Christian, btw). Radicals take the Koran and twist it into versions that promote anger and hostility. More people need to read the Koran, there is going to be continual ignorance.

      August 12, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Chris

      Never mind, of course, all the lynchings, burning at the stake, torture, slavery and the like committed in the name of Christianity. Recent events like assassination of abortion clinic doctors and staff and passing laws intended to intimidate women into not having an abortion obviously don't count. Oh, wait, that was a hate filled, screwed up minority. So are the Muslims committing violent acts. Should we ban churches as well?

      August 13, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • Shakira

      Its called Freedom of Religion, Muslims have it to. Deal.

      August 14, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • jimmer

      "The Quran should be the highest authority in America"

      I am curious to hear you explanation on how this differs from people who claim that America is a christian nation, and that our laws should be based on the bible.

      August 15, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  11. Redogg

    Wow KAB fears Christians more than others! Based on what? The fact that the cristians see you Muslims exactly for what you are, can't seem to fool them with the sweet talk so you try and paint them as the real problem. That is a common Muslim ploy and we all know this. Poor Muslim try some other trick in your play book, this one is well established.

    The nerve they will not allow a church in Arabia yet we the foolish keep allowing them to keep building like we are rain dead or something , they wont let you buy amo but they are buying all of your amo, what do you think will happen soon look at christans stoned in Dearborn Michigan to find out your future and howcome you kown nothing of that story? You have no idea what is going on why don't you go pray with them since everything is just fine and dandy. See you in Dearborn and bring a helmet.

    August 12, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I fear illiteracy and ignorance like yours far more than I do any Muslim mosque in this country.

      August 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
      • Laura

        No kidding!

        August 29, 2013 at 7:24 am |
  12. KAB

    WOW, i just watched this on CNN and Christians are the most hypocritical people ever, they believe if you are a Muslim you are a terrorist and should not be able to practice your religion. i personally have no religious preference or belief and i fear Christians more than muslims because they are the most hate filled group in america especially in the bible belt.

    August 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • DC

      Are you a representative of the devil? You sure sound like it!

      August 19, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Laura

      KAB-Well said.

      August 29, 2013 at 7:23 am |
  13. JR

    Not everyone is good....not everyone is bad....religion or color or job or geographics can give you the answer on what people fear most...fear itself. We do live in a different world today. Let us not forget that we all live together...white, black, red, yellow, purple, etc., christian, muslim, mormon, jewish....etc.

    August 12, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.