Are Muslims making a bold statement by building a 52,000-square-foot Islamic Community Center in the town known as the "buckle of the Bible Belt?" If so, what is that statement and how should the people of Murfreesboro, Tenn., deal with it?
What would you do if a plan for a large Islamic campus featuring a mosque, an imam educated in Egypt, an education area, a soccer field, a tennis court, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, and a cemetery came to your community? Would you be enthusiastic, angry, ambivalent, scared about the potential establishment of a separate community governed by Sharia law or the decline of property values? What would you expect your pastor to do? Your local newspapers? Your political leaders? It sounds like a case study for a graduate school program in sociology or religion. For the residents of Murfreesboro, however, this is real life.
I was in Murfreesboro last week. Its newspapers were filled with letters to the editor taking sides on this very hot topic. The paper serving the community's 100,000 residents, The Daily News Journal, ran letters mostly in favor of the mosque and criticizing those concerned about its establishment. Two of the people drawing much of the editorial page's ire are a local pastor and Lou Ann Zelenik, who is running as a Republican for the U.S. Congress. Zelenik calls the project an "Islamic training center." The weekly paper, The Reader, published articles cautioning its readers about radical Islam and the influence of Sharia law.
Citizens are protesting too. Residents recently spoke against the community center at a Rutherford County Commission meeting after the project had been approved in a process that may not have followed the standards for public notice. On Wednesday there will be a march opposing the center followed by a rally of supporters in the public square.
Murfreesboro is a community in turmoil today. If the Rutherford County Commission allows the project to go forward, how then should the town's Christians respond?
First, recall Christ's commandment to love our neighbors. Also, recognize that there are several moderate Muslims who are doing good work to promote a peaceful interpretation of the Koran consistent with democratic life. Radwan Masmoudi of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy is perhaps the leading light of this movement. He wrote, "The reformation of Islam will require freedom and democracy, and right now, the only place where we have them is in the West." A conversation with Masmoudi may be a positive step forward. A thoughtful Christian scholar on this matter is Regent University's Joseph Kickasola, who teaches that there is a culture clash taking place within Islam, with moderates caught between radical secularists and radical Islamists. Moreover, it may be salutary to learn Muslim cultural customs in order to enhance Christian-Muslim dialogue. Remember, the apostle Paul was able to gain an audience among the Greeks because he took time understand their society and address them within their cultural comfort zone. Acquiring an understanding of the local imam's education at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo as well as his graduate school theses may shed light on his beliefs and intentions.
Whether or not it was intended, Muslims are making a bold statement in Murfreesboro. Christians can make a bold statement too by learning about their Muslim neighbors and their goals, by seeking to engage them in dialogue, and by loving them and showing them the peace that Christ offers. This Bible Belt town could one day serve as a template for Christian-Muslim relations in America.