Three times this year, Muslims in Tennessee have announced plans to build new mosques, which are worship centers akin to Christian churches or Jewish temples. And three times, they’ve generated enough controversy to sate a tabloid-news cycle for days.
In Brentwood, organizers withdrew their mosque proposal after a small group spread hysterical rumors about ties to extremist groups and terrorism, making it difficult for the organizers to contemplate a protracted rezoning battle with the city, not to mention actual worship in such a hostile environment.
At a public meeting to discuss plans for a new mosque in Murfreesboro, a confused middle-aged white woman named Karen Harrell actually said in public, for all to hear: “Everybody knows they are trying to kill us. People are really concerned about this. Somebody has to stand up and take this country back.”
And now in Antioch, a group of activists led by school board member Karen Johnson are trying to curb the Islamic Center of Tennessee’s bid to rehab into a mosque the Bell Forge Theater — for which Islamic Center leaders have already contracted and raised, they say, $1.18 million in cash of the $1.55 million asking price — by petitioning the seller to reconsider the contract and allow Nashville State Community College to move in instead.
“I want to make it clear, it’s not an issue about the mosque, because there was another church that also bid on the property,” Johnson told The City Paper last week (the third bidder was an Assembly of God church). “It’s more an issue that we really need to have Nashville Tech in the community.”
But in an email to residents that accompanied the petition, Johnson was more direct: “Even though the owners of Bell Forge Theater, Carmike Theaters, Inc. of Columbus, Georgia have initially signed a contract with the Islamic Center of Tennessee, we hope to convince them that the community would be better served with an educational facility and to allow NSCC another chance to bid on the property,” she wrote.
Or, to translate: If you’d rather not have a mosque in your neighborhood, sign this nuanced petition that requests re-bidding of a property already under contract and we might just be able to work up the right amount of outrage. The petition bore 1,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
This is difficult territory. We have no choice but to take Johnson, a longtime Antioch activist, at her word when she says she believes Nashville State would be better for her neighborhood than a mosque. She probably genuinely thinks that, and she might be right in the end.
But by using a petition to make the point, Johnson and other activists are harnessing the power of people with a pure anti-Islam sentiment, like the prattle of a once-proud brute whose knees have finally given out and whose back has long been bad.
It’s a devious and shrewd political move, and it’s much more palatable to the general population — many of whom likely harbor some low-level fear or misunderstanding about Muslims but would never say so — than blurting out, “They are trying to kill us.”
Perhaps Johnson doesn’t realize, in her exaltations about revitalizing the neighborhood with a community college rather than a major religious institution, that a mosque might have a tremendous economic effect on the neighborhood.
On average, American Muslims are younger and more educated than the rest of the population and, according to a 2007 study by JWT, the country’s largest advertising firm, wield a buying power of about $170 billion. Mainstream companies like Burger King and Walmart have taken note and launched ad campaigns specific to Muslim populations.
The fact that a Christian church also bid on the property offers convenient cover. Johnson and the others have said they’d have the same objection to the church. Of course, they’ve not been given the chance to publicly oppose the building of a Christian church in a city with more than 1 per 1,000 people. I don’t imagine that’s a battle many are eager to wage.
Meanwhile, according to what The City Paper has reported thus far, Johnson and other activists have yet to offer the Islamic Center of Tennessee — which has a signed contract for this property — any compromise in a neighborhood that is, for example, home to an economically depressed shopping mall. The message Muslims have been given by their soon-to-be neighbors is clear: “Go away.”
Coming from a neighborhood seeking its own new beginning, that’s particularly ugly.