Most controversy in Green Bay revolves around the Packers, so it was a little surprising to see some tension after a group sought approval to develop a mosque in a shuttered bait and tackle shop just down the road from my house.
It probably would not be merited with front-page coverage before the proposed mosque in New York City exploded in national media. Of course, a little aldermen shouting match helped drum up some drama. But Green Bay serves as one example of many around the country where people are watching the specific case in New York City and applying it to their local communities. The debate in NYC includes its 9/11 history, a discussion over what is "sacred ground," and generally a more diverse community, things that don't tend to factor into these local debates.
Like the debate in Green Bay, similar ones are taking place around the country, as Laurie Goodstein wrote for The New York Times (and as Mollie discussed here). Earlier this week, Annie Gowen of the Washington Post filed a lengthy story from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on the vitriol she's seeing.
In Tennessee, three plans for new Islamic centers in the Nashville area--one of which was ultimately withdrawn--have provoked controversy and outbursts of ugliness. Members of one mosque discovered a delicately rendered Jerusalem cross spray-painted on the side of their building with the words "Muslims go home."
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro became a hot-button political issue during this month's primary election, prompting failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey to ask whether Islam was a "cult."
Another candidate paid for a billboard high above Interstate 24 near Nashville that read: "Defeat Universal Jihad Now."
Evangelist Pat Robertson weighed in Thursday, wondering on his television program whether a Muslim takeover of America was imminent and whether local officials could be bribed. (The mayor of the county where the Islamic Center is proposed called that idea "ridiculous.")
This is creating a picture of the oppositions Muslims have faced, which is good, though quoting anonymous spray-painters, politicians, and someone (not in Tennessee) on television won't get to the heart of how the locals really feel. Here, the reporter tries to explain to her Beltway readers what this town looks like.
Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, is a quiet town of 100,000 people, largely white conservative Christians. Residents take pride in the historic town square skirting an antebellum courthouse, the site of a famous Confederate raid during the Civil War. Patriotic banners line the lampposts. On the highway, there's a Sonic drive-in every few miles. Gospel music radio stations are as numerous as those playing country music.
The 250 or so families -- about 1,000 people -- who worship at the existing Islamic Center come from around the globe and include doctors, car salesmen and students from nearby Middle Tennessee State University. Members of the mosque have raised about $600,000 to buy land and prepare the site for a 10,000-square-foot gathering place. Plans for a school, pool and cemetery are expected to take years to complete.
That first paragraph seems so different compared to the second paragraph. If you're reading this in Washington, D.C., the first group seems a bit wacko while the second group seems respectable. If the town is really full of white conservative Christians, it would have been appropriate to quote one of the local Christians ministers, right? What do they think about how a mosque might shape the community? How are they telling their congregants to respond?
Most of the quotes in the piece portray people opposing the mosque, including Kevin Fisher, an African American man who is leading the fight against the mosque.
Fisher said the protest was a "a beautiful example of our democracy at work." But Lema Sbenaty, Saleh's 19-year-old daughter and an MTSU student, didn't see it that way.
"I don't think I've ever experienced anything like that," she said later. "You could see the hatred in their eyes."
On Friday night, Lema and her mother, Fetoun, 47, a preschool teacher, gathered with about 200 others at the existing Islamic Center for iftar, the feasts held during the holy month of Ramadan to break the daily sunrise-to-sunset fasting.
Sbenaty's quotes make it seem as though hatred is the only reason why people might have concerns. The Tennessean posted a story on how the mosque is under FBI radar, and it appears that Fisher's concerns aren't coming out of thin air, as he is portrayed earlier in the story.
Fisher spent his formative years in Buffalo, where a homegrown terrorist cell of Yemeni Americans was uncovered in 2002. Its presence in a place so familiar haunts Fisher to this day, he said. He is well aware that clerics at U.S. mosques have been accused of espousing radical views in the years before and after Sept. 11.
And he pointed out that one of the Murfreesboro mosque's board members was suspended after the discovery of a MySpace page where he had posted Arabic poetry and a photo of the founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas. Leaders of the mosque said their internal investigation showed no wrongdoing, and they are cooperating with federal authorities looking into the matter.
The question the reporter is getting at here is: why are people concerned about the mosque. Then readers can discern whether the evidence allows for concern. Reporters should make extra efforts to look at both sides, why there are efforts to build a mosque and why there might be opposition.
For other reporters considering local coverage, it's worth looking at the religious population in the local community and then finding the major religious leaders. How are religious leaders dealing with Muslim relations? In Murfreesboro, for instance, do the pastors make any mention in the sermons? In a town that hosts some big churches, surely one of those white conservative Christians believes in freedom of religion for everyone.