This first appeared in Middle East Online.
On June 22, the Justice Department indicted a Texas man for threatening a Tennessee mosque that is currently under construction. According to the indictment, last September, Javier A. Correa left a message on the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's phone allegedly saying: "On Sept. 11, 2011, there's going to be a bomb in the building." This is the latest in a long-pitched battle in that small Tennessee town over the construction of a mosque. Opponents of the mosque worry about radical Islam and Sharia law: "We don't want Shariah law. We don't want a Constitution-free zone in Rutherford County [Tennessee]," said attorney Joe Brandon Jr. on National Public Radio.
Yet, the fight in Murfreesboro is nothing new. Muslim communities across the country have had to deal with angry opponents of the construction of mosques in their communities, including right here in my hometown of Chicago. Some of these fights are over traffic or storm water drainage concerns, but in many cases, there is overt hostility to Islam itself and, of course, wild suspicions of terrorism and impossible accusations of seeking to supplant the US constitution with Sharia. Anyone who looked at the facts about mosques in the United States would wonder why there is so much hostility.
In 2011, researchers conducted a comprehensive study of mosques across America. The second of these reports was released in May, and it showed that mosques are a force for good in the communities in which they reside. Among the survey's findings: 63% of mosques conducted outreach activities in the past year, such as open houses for neighbors; 79% are involved in interfaith activities. Contrary to the perceptions of many, the overwhelming majority (70%) of Friday sermons are conducted in English.
The vast majority (88 percent) of American mosque leaders say domestic abuse should be addressed. A majority of mosque leaders (71 percent) agreed that their mosque is working for social justice, and African American mosques are even more likely (87 percent) to be active in social justice. What's more, mosques compare favorably to other houses of worship in terms of social services. Surveys show that only 26 percent of congregations of other faith traditions are involved in providing some type of health programming as compared to 45 percent of mosques. Only 29 percent of other religious congregations are involved in community organizing activities, while 47 percent of mosques are involved in these types of activities. (The full study can be read here: (http://www.cair.com/Portals/0/pdf/The-American-Mosque-Report-2.pdf)
Of course, the report also showed that mosques have their challenges: Mosques need support and inspiration in establishing and strengthening weekend schools and youth activities, and the number of American-born religious leaders, or Imams, need to be increased. In addition, mosques need to be made more women-friendly. Nevertheless, the facts show that, contrary to being separatist, hostile enclaves dedicated to the destruction of America -- as some are wont to believe -- American mosques are positively contributing to the strength, welfare, and success of our country.
Given their openness, outreach, and community involvement, opposition to mosque construction is all about ignorance: Ignorance about who American Muslims are and what they are about. It is about ignorance of Islam and continuing wrongfully to project the actions of criminals on an entire faith and its adherents.
The cure for this ignorance is engagement. It is my hope and prayer that, in the months and years to come, 100% of mosques hold open houses, and I hope and pray that many, many of its neighbors take advantage of them.
The month of Ramadan is right around the corner (July 20 – August 18), and mosques across the country will be filled with worshipers breaking their fast and praying into the night. Come into the mosque one night and see what Islam is really all about. You will find that your Muslim neighbors will welcome you with open arms. Yes, there may be some criminals that lurk within the American Muslim community, abusing the sanctity of the mosque to further their evil aims – as there may be in nearly all religious and other social institutions. But they do not represent the whole, which is vastly, overwhelmingly comprised of good honest people who are patriotic Americans and love their country. As the Tennessee mosque case shows, there are people hard at work trying to whip up fear and division among us. We, the American people, cannot let them succeed.