MURFREESBORO, TENN. — For more than 30 years, the Muslim community in this Nashville suburb has worshipped quietly in a variety of makeshift spaces — a one-bedroom apartment, an office behind a Lube Express — attracting little notice even after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But when the community’s leaders proposed a 52,900-square-foot Islamic center with a school and a swimming pool this year, the vehement backlash from their neighbors caught them by surprise. Opponents crowded county meetings and held a noisy protest in the town square that drew hundreds, some carrying signs such as “Keep Tennessee Terror Free.”
The Murfreesboro mosque is hundreds of miles from New York City and the national furor about whether an Islamic community center should be built near Ground Zero. But the intense feelings driving that debate have surfaced in communities from California to Florida in recent months, raising questions about whether public attitudes toward Muslims have shifted.
In Tennessee, three plans for new Islamic centers in the Nashville area — one of which was ultimately withdrawn — have provoked controversy and outbursts of ugliness. Members of one mosque discovered a delicately rendered Jerusalem cross spray-painted on the side of their building with the words “Muslims go home.”
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro became a hot-button political issue during this month’s primary election, prompting failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey to ask whether Islam was a “cult.”
Another candidate paid for a billboard high above Interstate 24 near Nashville that read: “Defeat Universal Jihad Now.”
Evangelist Pat Robertson weighed in Thursday, wondering on his television program whether a Muslim takeover of America was imminent and whether local officials could be bribed. (The mayor of the county where the Islamic Center is proposed called that idea “ridiculous.”)
The members of the Murfreesboro mosque, who say they have always rejected extremism, have been bewildered by the vitriol.
A Time magazine poll released Thursday found that 43 percent of Americans hold unfavorable views of Muslims, far outpacing the numbers for Mormons (29 percent), Catholics (17 percent), Jews (13 percent) and Protestants (13 percent). Twenty-five percent of those polled said most Muslims in the United States are not patriotic Americans.
Although the overall level of anti-Muslim sentiment hasn’t shifted much since the uproar over the mosque near Ground Zero, the change in tone has been striking, religious scholars and other experts say.
The reasons are myriad: rising fears of homegrown terrorism after the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted Times Square bombing, the rhetoric of the burgeoning “tea party” political movement and increasing unhappiness with President Obama. A growing number of Americans — one in five — believe the president is a Muslim, according to a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a negative reaction to this mosque,” said Richard Lloyd, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University. “Because you can connect it to this global media event in New York, it just reinforces this siege mentality local residents have.”
Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic studies at American University, said a Florida church’s plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of Sept. 11 is emblematic of the country’s new mood.
“Something more is happening,” Ahmed said. “We are becoming aware that the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims is wider than it was after 9/11, and that’s a frightening prospect.”
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