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Tennessee Town Grapples With Sept. 11 Legacy

Officials in Rutherford County, Tenn., acquired a giant steel beam from the twin towers for a Sept. 11 memorial.
Officials in Rutherford County, Tenn., acquired a giant steel beam from the twin towers for a Sept. 11 memorial.

In Murfreesboro, Tenn., more than 5,000 people are expected Sunday for the annual Sept. 11 memorial. What started as a small flag ceremony at the Rutherford County's Sheriff's Department 10 years ago is now a major community event.

Murfreesboro has been dealing with another legacy of the attacks, playing out in a controversy over a mosque.

A Local Response To The Trauma

The memorial on Sunday will have a new element: a giant steel beam from tower one of the World Trade Center, the second tower that went down in the attacks. The 1-foot-thick and 15-feet-long beam is warped from fire. Chunks of the building's concrete facade still cling to its rivets.

"It reinforces the fact we should never forget," says Sgt. Jimmy Cassidy. "You have this feeling like you need to do something. Of course, there's nothing we can do down here."

He says that day changed a lot of people in just a few short minutes.

Sept. 11 draws an emotional response here in Tennessee and elsewhere, says Vanderbilt University sociologist Richard Lloyd.

"There still is this idea that New Yorkers have this special ownership on trauma and the war on terror," Lloyd says. "I think 10 years out it's really the same thing as saying that Hawaiians have special ownership of World War II."

Lloyd says in the intervening years, middle Tennessee has sent a lot of its sons and daughters to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

'A Wide Gulf Of Understanding'

Rutherford County has been embroiled in an almost mirror controversy to the one that surfaced in New York City over a proposed mosque near the twin towers site.

"I think it's created a wide gulf of understanding between people of other religious faiths," says Ernest Burgess, the mayor of Rutherford County. "That has created a lot of push back over a number of years that has continued to be aggravating and confounding and confusing everybody as to ... how many people out there are really trying to do something to us."

A year ago on the historic town square in Murfreesboro, hundreds of opponents of a local mosque's plans to build an Islamic community center protested the county's approval of the project.

"Twin towers have we forgotten? I hope not!" the protesters yelled. "Islam is not a religion."

A group of residents sued to stop it, but a judge ruled the Muslim congregation has a right to build a new, bigger place to worship.

Saleh Sbenaty, an American citizen originally from Syria, is on the mosque's planning committee. The congregation now meets in a nondescript office suite in an industrial area.

Its new site is 15 acres in a rural neighborhood south of town. Sbenaty says contractors have been reluctant to bid on the new construction, even though the plans call for a design in keeping with the region.

"It's not like it's going to be completely out of place," he says.

It will have some Islamic elements, including a dome on the top. The congregation is debating whether to have minarets.

The mosque site is beside a Baptist church and close to several subdivisions where American flags fly from front porches. Sbenaty says most of the neighbors have been supportive. Polls show that two-thirds of the county's residents say they don't oppose the mosque's construction.

Still, vocal opposition remains.

Fighting The Islamic Center

Beneath the bell tower of the antebellum Rutherford County courthouse, local Tea Party founder Lou Ann Zelenik says the mosque is a threat.

"When you have Islam, that is more political than religious," she says. "That is something that doesn't work under our Constitution."

Zelenik is the executive director of the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, whose mission includes stopping the growth of radical Islam. The group's chairman and founder, Andy Miller, asks, "Who has been attacking us? It wasn't a bunch of radical Lutherans."

Miller says there's a reason the fight is playing out in Tennessee.

"I think there's an effort being made to target what they view as the buckle of the Bible Belt," Miller says. "If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere."

On a recent Friday, hundreds of men crowded into the old Islamic Center of Murfreesboro for prayer service.

Imam Ossama Bahloul says it's nonsense to think the congregation is a threat.

"We did not do anything," he says. "Nothing, zero."

For 30 years, he says, the Muslim community had no problems here, even in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. Since then, Bahloul says, the attacks have become a political wedge.

"I don't want to underestimate what happened on Sept. 11," he says, "but also I don't want Sept. 11 to dominate us, to take our right away from us."

Mayor Burgess, says that won't happen on his watch.

"You stand on those basic, fundamental principles that are contained in the Constitution and those green books right behind me — the state of Tennessee, the law and the constitution of the state of Tennessee," he says.

Most of the time, he says, it works out.

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