Mosque riles politicians in Tennessee

Plans for Muslim center a major campaign issue in two big races

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Rep. Zach Wamp, a Republican, are also seeking the gubernatorial nomination. According to the most recent poll in the race, a Mason-Dixon survey of 400 likely voters taken July 19-21, Mr. Haslam has 36 percent support, to Mr. Wamp’s 25 percent and Mr. Ramsey’s 20 percent. All three men led Democrat Mike McWherter in hypothetical November matchups.

David Smith, a spokesman for Mr. Haslam, said, “The mayor’s faith is very important to him, and he respects the right of others to practice their faith, so long as they are respectful of the communities in which they live and the laws of the land.”

Mr. Wamp could not be reached for comment.

Opposition to the Islamic center in Murfreesboro is one of the “mosque wars” now raging across the country, perhaps the most controversial involving plans to build a mosque just blocks from the World Trade Center site in New York City. The plan, which cleared a major hurdle Tuesday with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, has been criticized by such national political figures as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

But fights over mosques are not new to Tennessee. Plans to build an Islamic center in Brentwood were dismissed in May in the face of widespread local criticism.

Richard McGregor, an associate professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, said he understands both sides of the argument but that many Americans have a limited view of Islam.

“The average person in the United States and in the South, who might not be subject to a whole lot of diversity, tends to skew and color their impression of the Islamic world,” he said. “As an observer, I can certainly see on one end the freedom of religion. On the other hand, some may talk about zoning but not far below the surface, they believe that America is at war and [Muslims] should be seen as traitors.”

The Muslim community is also “fighting extremism” and is just as worried about terrorism as anyone else. Most of those who oppose the mosque “don’t understand this battle that is going on when in fact, [Muslims] are fighting to then nail to preserve their own communities,” he said.

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