Fire at Proposed Mosque Site in Tennessee Probed

Editor's note:A correction appears at the bottom of this article.

A spokesman for federal arson investigators said Sunday a fire that damaged construction equipment at the site of an Islamic center in suburban Nashville remained under investigation.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesman Eric Kehn said his department was working with the FBI and the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office to determine what happened at the site early Saturday morning.

"At this point, it's still an onging investigation," Kehn said. He declined to characterize the fire, which a spokeswoman for the center said appeared to have been set by someone who doused construction equipment with gasoline then set at least one truck ablaze.

Camie Ayash told the Daily News Journal the fire has frightened Muslims, who have been part of the community for decades.

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"Everyone in our community no longer feels safe," Ayash said. "To set a fire that could have blown up equipment and, God forbid, spread and caused damage to the neighbors there ... When (officials) called me this morning, I started crying."

A sign marking the site of the future Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been vandalized twice in the past several months. But Ayash said the fire "takes it to a whole new level."

The incident marks the latest twist in an increasingly volatile debate surrounding the efforts of the local Muslim community to build a much larger house of worship. The proposed center on 15 acres would include a mosque, a multi-purpose facility, sports facilities, a pavilion and a cemetery, and serve approximately 250 families.

Digging had begun at the site, located directly beside a Baptist church.

Some opposition has come from those expressing concerns about infrastructure impact and traffic, but much has also come from from those implying the mosque would be a haven for terrorists.

Ayash said Islamic Center officials were contacted by the sheriff's department around 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

She said it appeared gasoline had been poured on several pieces of equipment at the site and one vehicle was lit on fire.

"I think they lifted the hood and poured gas into the hood and set it on fire," Ayash said. "The other equipment had gasoline poured on it but was not set on fire."

Authorities working the scene did not specify whether gasoline or some other accelerant was used to start the fire that gutted the engine area of an earth hauler.

Islamic Center officials contacted the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on Saturday, according to Ayash, and sheriff's investigators "told us they will be investigating this as a hate crime."

Ayash later said sheriff's officials "asked her to correct her statement," adding they plan to explore several different motives while investigating the apparent arson.

Rutherford County resident Kevin Fisher, who has led protest efforts against the mosque on the grounds of infrastructure concerns and a lack of transparency in the county's planning approval process, issued a statement Saturday.

"We in this community believe strongly in the rule of law, and choose to settle our disagreements through peaceful deliberations and discussion, not vigilantism. ... We who stand in opposition to this mosque have made our concerns known through proper legal channels and have conducted ourselves with dignity, respect and out of a spirit of love for our community, and we will continue to do so."

Correction, Oct. 4, 2010: A photo that accompanied this article when it was originally published incorrectly identified the Memphis Islamic Center as the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.