Affluenza and Islamophobia: A Cocktail Destined to Doom Democracy?
Located about thirty miles from the Nashville metropolitan area, Brentwood is a small, affluent suburb that has rarely entered the national spotlight. Yet that all changed in April 2010, when the congregation of the Islamic Center of Williamson County (ICWC) began making plans to construct a new, more spacious mosque for their community. The ICWC at the time had approximately 40 members, but their website made note of the fact that their congregation had been growing rapidly in recent years, with more people attending prayer services and sending their children to the religious Sunday school program. Additionally, many in the community did not have the time to drive the thirty miles to Nashville to attend daily and weekly services, a trip made all the more difficult by the frequent traffic jams that are part-and-parcel with metropolitan life. Thus, recognizing they had outgrown the rental space they occupied on Carothers Street in Brentwood, the ICWC made plans to construct a 12,000-square foot mosque that could safely accommodate 325 people, and would include a fellowship hall and kitchen to host communal meals (Ragland-Hudgins 2015, Jun 26).
A Torrent of Vitriol
The first step in this construction project was for the ICWC to submit their intent to rezone a 14-acre tract of land on Wilson Pike in order to build their mosque. While their initial submission to the Brentwood City Commission in April 2010 did not cause a stir, coverage from the local press drew mosque opponents into a frenzy, who sent furious virtual messages to the City, crafted Islamophobic blog posts, and used word of mouth to drive the false notion that the mosque was tied to terrorist organizations. A key leader in the organized resistance to the mosque, Matt Bonner, stated, “Not enough people understand the political doctrine of Islam.
The fact is that the mosques are more than just a church. No one can predict what this one will be used for" (Smietana 2010, May 23); Schwartz 2010, Sep 3; Gordon 2010, Aug 1).
Bonner, and many others in the opposition, also cited the rhetoric of Bill French, a former physics professor who now runs the Nashville-based Center for the Study of Political Islam despite not having a background in religion. They stated French’s writings have had a significant impact on their views toward Islam. French uses the pen name Bill Warner, and has attempted to convince the public that Islam is not a religion, but, rather, a dangerous cult (Smietana 2010, May 23).
On April 12, 2010, the Brentwood City Commission voted 6-1 to pass on reading an ordinance that would rezone the 14-acre lot from large-lot residential to service-institution religious (Brentwood Home Page 2010, Dec 29). The ICWC agreed to a series of restrictions on the project, including not using a loudspeaker or floodlights on the property, and the mosque’s modest size was still far smaller than the maximum building capacity allotted for that property. It is important to note that Brentwood law states that for a rezoning to be accepted, a community meeting, a public hearing, and review by the Planning Commission must be conducted (News & Events 2010, April 30; Jilani 2010, May 26).
In a subsequent meeting of the City Commission on May 5, an attorney representing the ICWC pointed out that the construction of the mosque was protected under state and federal laws. However, the ICWC’s use of legal counsel only served to fan the flames and drive animosity, as Bonner stated, “The impression is that they are seeking special treatment. What kind of neighbor is that who comes in threatening lawsuits?” (ibid.)
The opposition also perceived that the mosque community must have had something to hide if they needed a lawyer to represent them. However, the ICWC defended their decision, stating they retained the aid of legal counsel to ensure that the voices of the Muslim families were duly heard. The Muslim community also expressed their confusion at hearing Islamophobic rhetoric from their neighbors and encountering the threat to their civil liberties in a nation that prided itself on upholding the freedom of religion. A Brentwood physician and spokesperson for the ICWC, Jaweed Ansari, stated, “We are trying to build a place where God's name will be glorified, The same God that the Christians and Jews worship… We are a small group of 40 people, and no matter where we want to build, thousands of people can come in opposition. What does that mean? Does that mean that minorities have no right? If they don't want us to have the mosque, does that mean we can't have a mosque?” (ibid.).
Admitting Defeat… for Now
Just days before the second and final vote on the project was to be scheduled, Brentwood’s Planning and Codes Director Jeff Dobson was notified by the ICWC that they intended to withdraw their plans to rezone the 14-acre lot to construct their new 12,000-square foot prayer facility (O’Neil 2010, May 20). The ICWC would have had to agree to seven special restrictions in order to have their project be reviewed by the City Commission, but the last requirement of a $450,000 turn lane made the project untenable for them. The community-driven opposition and barrage of Islamophobic rhetoric also drove the ICWC to pull their project, with Ansari stating, “There comes a time when you have to say, 'We can't do this anymore'” (Smietana 2010, May 23).
While the ICWC did acknowledge that their initial plans were not ideal, as part of the lot was located on a floodplain, and tensions were already at an all-time high due to the historic flood that devastated Nashville earlier that year, they also did not expect it to be a central focus of the opposition’s arguments, as the mosque would have been constructed on only 4 acres of land, away from the floodplains (ibid.).
Eric Rassbach, the director of litigation for the national organization, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, noted that the turn lane requirement was likely a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in that it imposed a significant hardship on a religious group without an avenue for relief, but the ICWC had no plans to file a lawsuit like the neighboring mosque in Murfreesboro eventually did when their initial mosque plans were also unfairly challenged in 2010. Ansari stated that the ICWC hoped to build bridges with their neighbors, rather than contribute to the animosity, stating, “For us, to be good citizens and to have good will is more important.” (ibid.)
Finding A Sanctuary After the Storm
Following the fall-out surrounding their initial construction plans, the ICWC initiated a variety of interfaith programs and offered an array of social services to the greater community. They also returned to praying at their cramped rental space on Carothers Street. But in 2015, the ICWC purchased a 8,400-square foot property on Brentwood’s Mallory Station Road from Richard D. Heydel for $1.525 million. The site used to house aquatic facilities and a swimming pool, which the ICWC plans to fill with concrete to yield an additional 1,500 square feet of space. The repurposed mosque, once the former site of Endeavor Performance, Bluewater Scuba, and Miss Anna’s Swim School, is now a sanctuary for the ICWC community where they can worship safely in nearby Franklin, TN (Ragland-Hudgins 2015, Jun 26). However, it appears that in 2016, mosque opponents tried to start rumors that an Islamic Cultural Center in Michigan were planning to construct another similar center on Wilson County, but this was proven to be false (Brentwood Home Page 2016, Jun 23).