Ossama Bahloul, an imam and religious scholar, moved to Tennessee in 2008, when more Muslims were settling there than ever. In a phone conversation recently, he could barely contain his enthusiasm for the state, extolling the “very loving” community and the beauty of the Smoky Mountains.
His sweetness belied much of what he spent our call telling me. Over the past decade, he said, his mosque has repeatedly been vandalized and spray-painted with obscenities like “Fuck Allah.” Raw bacon was left on the mosque’s doorstep, and again on the front door’s handle, a strange but persistent tactic of anti-Muslim bigots. Once, Bahloul said, the security camera caught a group of men attempting to destroy the mosque by arson.
This all began in earnest around 2010, when his thriving community sought to do what had become the most radioactive thing an American Muslim could do post-9/11: build a new mosque.
American Muslims lived with dueling realities in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. They faced surging hate crimes and vast, illegal surveillance from their own government, leading to contemporary surveys that showed the majority viewed the U.S. as hostile to them. At the same time, their communities and civic life expanded at a rapid pace. The American Muslim population is now nearing 4 million, roughly twice the size it was on 9/11. And with that came a need for more mosques.
On 9/11, there were only about 1,200 mosques across the U.S. That would nearly double by 2010, and rise to nearly 3,000 by last year. This clash between the growing Muslim population and a public primed to accept ominous messages about them set up a battle over houses of worship in America. Vandalism and threats against mosques became so commonplace that the ACLU created an interactive map to keep track of them all. Armed protests in front of mosques became an ordinary occurrence. At one point, a church in Phoenix had to hang a banner declaring itself Christian to fend off protestors after anti-Muslim activists mistook its domed building for a mosque.
But the real flashpoint was efforts to expand and open new mosques. One in Basking Ridge, New Jersey was only cleared to expand after five years and no fewer than 39 public hearings. Another in Sterling Heights, Michigan, was also hotly contested, and only allowed to continue after years of litigation. Perhaps most famously of all, the Cordoba House, which many now only recognize as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” became a national political issue when opportunistic politicians likened the project to a “victory mosque” for terrorists. The center was never built, but that battle elevated previously fringe figures and conspiracies about Muslims enough that some have argued it set the stage for the Trump presidency.
In some ways, however, the regional fights that tore local communities apart were the worst battlegrounds.
In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, outside Nashville, Bahloul’s mosque had been first established in 1982. He said there were never any problems between the Muslims who worshiped there and their neighbors—until 2010, when the community outgrew the facility, and raised enough money for a needed upgrade.
For Imam Bahloul, the anger toward him and his community came out of nowhere.
“We applied for the permit, and nothing happened then. The masjid got approval. And after this, we started dealing with this very heavy opposition,” he said. “I thought that the community at large would be excited and happy for us.” Instead, it would grow into one of the worst barrages of threats and violence on an American Muslim community since 9/11.
At first that summer, as Bahloul walked past a crowd of anti-Muslim protesters to get inside the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, he welcomed them. Though protesters held signs like “Keep Tennessee Terror Free” and “Mosque Leaders Support Killing Converts,” Bahloul left the door open. He let the protesters know that the mosque was for anyone, and he was eager to answer their questions.
Bahloul tried to engage with the myths turning his neighbors against him. “I received hundreds of emails a day, and we did reply to each one of them,” he told me. “We did not ignore a single email or invitation or any calls from anyone. We thought people have the right to ask, and we should answer.”
That didn’t last long. “We realized that some people are not seeking answers,” Bahloul said. “They repeat talking points over and over. And when we share with them our answers, they don’t believe the answers, but rather continue to behave like a wall.”
“I was frustrated to be very honest, because I couldn’t understand why,” he said. “We never had any bad history. One might say some Muslims are radical, but the Muslims in this area never did anything wrong. Never.”
The sustained attacks took a toll: “I remember really well a young boy at the age of seven asking me ‘Why do they hate us?’ It was really sad.” Bahloul described one particular instance when a Christian protester shouted toward a child, “You’re going to hellfire!” As a spiritual leader, that disturbed him the most.
The controversy spread. Among those who spoke out against the mosque was the Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. He justified his opposition by suggesting Islam is a “cult” and a “violent political philosophy.” Republican Congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik used her platform to accuse the expansion project of being a militant training facility. The Tennesseans who crowded into public County Commission meetings to argue against Bahloul’s mosque repeated what they heard.
There was also a distinctly Christian effort to block construction. Protests outside the mosque often featured prayers. Televangelist Pat Robertson warned his enormous congregation that Muslims were moving into rural areas for “taking over the city council.” Much of this controversy can be traced directly to Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, a local nonprofit. It was founded by Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a home-schooling mother who was drawn to punditry after she thought her children’s textbooks were both anti-Christian and anti-Semitic. Invited onto CNN for some reason, she accused the leaders of the mosque of “pursuing a radical agenda.” She and her organization were instrumental in astroturfing discontent with the mosque’s planned expansion.
The real challenge to the mosque’s expansion came when Proclaiming Justice crowd-sourced funding for a lawsuit that alleged that the mosque was linked with terrorism and that the planning commission sinisterly rushed the mosque’s expansion permit application. It sought a restraining order against construction, alleging that the mosque would increase “the risk of terrorism generated by proselytizing for Islam.”
Bahloul was caught off guard by the legal challenge. He recalled that at the time he was sure that the religious freedom conscribed in the Constitution would protect them, but now says that was naïve.
“We had a meeting in Nashville, and someone in the meeting said to me, ‘You don’t know what you’re up against,’” he recalled. He had no emergency funds reserved for a legal battle. Eventually, the Becket Fund, a non-profit that specializes in religious freedom battles, offered to represent his mosque pro-bono.
Luke Goodrich was one of the attorneys representing the Islamic Center of Murfreesburo. He’d done many other cases with houses of worship facing land-use-related legal challenges. But this one stood out.
“This case, the Murfreesboro case, seemed to be a particularly transparent and egregious example of anti-Muslim decision making at the local level,” he said.
“Local governments have so much discretion. They can always say ‘Well, your house of worship is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.’ And those types of explanations can easily be used to mask what could be anti-religious or anti-Muslim hostility or anti-immigrant hostility, or what they say in land-use cases, the ‘not in my backyard’ phenomenon,” Goodrich explained. “It’s really easy in the land-use process to mask hostility to houses of worship under discretionary zoning criteria.”
In the Murfreesboro case, there was no such masking. The battle over the mosque in court became a full-on religious inquisition. “Islam is suddenly on trial in a booming Nashville suburb,” the Associated Press reported in a dispatch, describing the puzzling leeway groups were given to call “experts” as witnesses about the Islamic threat to the area. They argued that Islam should not be considered a religion and afforded related protections.
After a six-day trial that was lamented around the world, the bid failed, and the mosque was allowed to go ahead.
Still, more legal challenges would follow. Herman Cain, then a presidential candidate, would go on Fox News and claim the Islamic center was “not a mosque for religious purposes.” There would be a disturbing bomb threat. But the new Islamic Center of Murfreesburo eventually opened in August 2012 during Ramadan. At the time, Bahloul told worshippers, “This day is a day of forgiveness. We want to say that we have nothing bad in our heart against anyone.”
That hasn’t been entirely true of the neighbors. There continued to be hate incidents. When the mosque sought to establish a new cemetery, it was dragged back into court.
Even so, Bahloul told me his hope in America was renewed by the resolution of the conflict, and he refused to condemn the people who fought against the mosque. “We don’t give up principles when we express sympathy,” he said. “Someone asked me if I see myself as winning. I said, ‘No, we won together.’ The America Constitution won.”
“I’m sorry for anyone who went to a tough time over this building, because it’s just a building, after all,” he added.
Local battles over mosques continue, but I wondered if, 20 years after 9/11, we had finally passed the darkest days of these fights. Goodrich, the lawyer, said one way to measure that is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed by Congress in 2000 to enshrine protections for religious minorities in land use cases from discrimination.
“Obviously they didn’t have 9/11 in mind at the time, but in many ways, it was prophetic because it erected these very powerful protections of religious organizations. And those ended up getting fleshed out in the wake of 9/11 in ways that protected not only Muslims, but other faiths across the country,” Goodrich said. Last year, the Department of Justice released a study of its own enforcement of RLUIPA, which found that religious minorities continue to be discriminated against because they are disproportionately required to legally challenge and reverse objections to building houses of worship. A majority of cases in 2020 involved Muslim houses of worship.
But to Goodrich, that means the law is working. “Mainly because of that law, RLUIPA, and the precedence set not only in the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro case, but in other land-use cases across the country, there’s a growing number of precedents that protects houses of worship.”
“Legally, I’m very optimistic,” he told me. “Culturally, I’m not a sociologist, but in some ways, the law is a teacher.”