I've seen massive mosques built by Saddam Hussein (remember the "Mother of All Battles" mosque with minarets built in the shape of Scud missiles?), and I've visited the beautiful Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, where 105,000 people can worship at one time. It fronts the Atlantic Ocean, has the world's tallest minaret, and clocks in at over 22 million square feet.
By comparison, the mosque that opened last month in Murfreesboro, Tenn., seems small-scale: The 12,000-square-foot worship center of a planned 52,000-square-foot complex began services on Aug. 10. But Casablanca is a city of over 3 million Muslims, while Murfreesboro - a county seat in middle Tennessee of 108,000 residents - has perhaps 500 Muslims. (The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro reports 200-300 families living in the area but shows only 45 active paying family members in its annual report.) That means 15 times more square feet per Muslim in Murfreesboro than in Morocco. It raises the question: If they've built it, who will come?
According to figures compiled by The Wall Street Journal, the number of U.S. mosques has more than doubled in the last 20 years - from about 900 in 1992 to more than 2,100 today - while the Muslim population, at less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, has grown substantially less - from an estimated 1.5 million in 1990 to about 2.6 million today.
If a mosque has gone up recently near you, you know that as buildings go they are outsized and imposing. It's not surprising that most have been accompanied by controversy. It's surprising how many, in this era of small footprints and "good growth," have found their way past local zoning boards and city councils.
Residents in Murfreesboro did battle against the Islamic Center since its project was announced two years ago, losing only in July when a federal district judge - acting on a motion filed by the federal U.S. attorney on behalf of the Islamic Center - overruled a state court judge. Plaintiffs' attorneys are still scratching their heads: "It's a big question mark in our mind. The federal district court can't be an appellate court for a state court ruling, and that's what they've done," said attorney Tom Smith.
Not surprising, funds to finance the project in a Muslim community so small are coming from outside sources. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National American Islamic Trust (NAIT) are believed to be providing support. Both are unindicted co-conspirators in a 2007 Hamas terrorist funding case involving the Holy Land Foundation.
With support from two of the largest Muslim advocacy groups in the country, also not surprising is that efforts haven't stopped with the Islamic Center's opening. Abdou Katih, vice president of the center, has suggested the county school board become compliant with Sharia, or Islamic, law.
A pamphlet he sent to the board advises school administrators to provide space for Muslim students to pray during the day (and warns that they may not answer a teacher during prayer times). It warns against serving foods containing vanilla extract or Dijon mustard because they contain alcohol. And it encourages school boards to employ "qualified Muslim educators" in the textbook selection process, "particularly for history, social studies, and geography texts."
Statewide, Republican lawmakers last month challenged Gov. Bill Haslam, also a Republican, over the use of an American Muslim Advisory Council to consult with the state's public safety and children's services departments.
Local officials, cowed by sympathetic media coverage and charges of bigotry from Muslim groups, are hoodwinked into believing that these battles are about religious liberty. But they are about religious coercion. Religious liberty is no absolute right, but exists alongside preserving other rights, and the common good. That includes legitimate concerns over local - and national - security. Around the world radical, jihadist teaching against the West, against Christians, and against Jews begins in local mosques. An added hurdle for communities like Murfreesboro: What's said inside the mosque is said in Arabic. Local communities shouldn't shrink from the opportunity these challenges present to reach out to Muslims and learn more about them. But neither should they shrink from asking hard questions and demanding good citizenship of all.