- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mosques aren’t roiling just New York. Plans to build a Muslim worship center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., have taken a front seat in two major political races that Tennessee voters will decide Thursday.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tenn., intends to build a $5 million mosque on a 15-acre plot it purchased last winter, which has sparked intense debates between candidates in the Republican primaries for governor and one of the state’s U.S. House seats.

Lou Ann Zelenik, who seeks the nomination in the Republican-leaning 6th District, strongly opposes the plans and has garnered national attention for calling it an “Islamic training center” and highlighting its links to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

“Religious toleration is the bedrock of our freedom, but no nation is required to extend toleration to religions that preach against public order and safety,” she said. “The two professional politicians in this race are either completely out of touch with our community or too worried about [political] correctness to care.”

The Rutherford County Planning Department approved the plans in May, despite growing concern among local residents, who worry about having Muslims in their community.

But the two other leading candidates running for the 6th District seat, which covers 15 counties in central Tennessee, have spoken out in favor of the 52,000-square-foot facility, which will include athletic fields and a school.

“I will always follow the wisdom of our forefathers as laid down in the constitution and that means I believe that all Americans must be free to practice their faith as long as it does not threaten other Americans or our national security,” state Sen. Diane Black, who helped push a religious toleration bill in June 2009, said in a statement to The Washington Times.

Republican state Sen. Jim Tracy also supported that bill, leading to criticism from Ms. Zelenik, and has answered questions about the mosque by saying that “the First Amendment is freedom of religion, and that is very clear.”

The 6th District seat, which is being vacated by 13-term Rep. Bart Gordon, a conservative Democrat, is rated by Real Clear Politics as a “likely GOP” win. But at least one Democrat already has made the Republican mosque quarreling an issue.

Ben Leming, one of five Democrats running for the seat, has called Ms. Zelenik’s criticisms of the religious center “antithetical to American values.”

“I support the right of all people of faith in America to practice their religion, no matter what that religion may be,” he said. “Unfortunately, some critics of the Islamic center believe that Muslim-Americans aren’t entitled to this constitutional protection.”

No independent scientific polling in the race has been conducted recently. The Black campaign commissioned a poll in early July showing its candidate in the lead. But Ms. Zelenik was first and Ms. Black third in a customary local straw poll released in mid-July.

The Murfreesboro mosque is also a bone of contention among the candidates running for governor, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who recently said that Islam may not even be a religion, rather a “cult” and more like “a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion.”

“I have taken some heat lately for criticizing that a part of the Muslim religion is not traditionally a religion, and I think most Americans would agree with me,” he told The Times.

“If Muslims are willing to come to our country, live under our Constitution, live under our laws, then we don’t have a problem with that. But to come here and bring their own laws that don’t assimilate into American culture, then I have a problem with that.”

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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