By Diane Macedo, ,
Published November 30, 2015
At the end of the first Iraq war, the United States designated Nashville, Tenn., to be a "gateway city" for refugees fleeing their war-torn country, setting the stage for what has become, less than 20 years later, a rapidly growing Muslim population in the Volunteer State.
As the Muslim population grows and their communities spread throughout the state, religious leaders say their places of worship must do the same, spurring the construction of mosques and the massive Islamic centers that host them in several Tennessee cities, including Murfreesboro, Memphis and Antioch.
But the physical size of these Islamic centers – and the associations and writings of some of the leaders behind them – are raising some concerns nationwide.
Since the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't ask about religious affiliation, it's unknown exactly how many members of any faith live in America or in any specific state -- so placing the number of Muslims currently living in Tennessee can only be based on best estimates.
Trinity College's American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 shows the number of non-Christians in Tennessee grew from 1 percent of the population in 1990 to 3 percent in 2008, but the survey does not specify how many of those non-Christians were Muslims. A June article by WKRN.com said the Muslim population in middle Tennessee had tripled in the past 12 years.
The Commercial Appeal said in a 2008 article that the Greater Memphis area was home to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Muslims, and the Islamic Center of Nashville claims on its website that the number of Muslims in Nashville alone is estimated to be around 20,000. But neither mentions any source for those numbers.
Still, while the number of Muslims in Tennessee remains unclear, everyone agrees that it's rising, and fast. And as the number of worshippers goes up, so does their desire for more and larger places of worship.
But critics say the Muslims who now call Tennessee home are looking to expand their places of worship far beyond their need. What's more, they say, the organizations building the Islamic centers have provided no account for how they received the massive funding their projects require.
Of even greater concern, some critics say, are fears that a radical Islamic agenda may be behind the planning for these large Islamic centers.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro
With a 15-acre plot of land now in its possession, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro aims to create a full-service prayer center complete with not only a mosque, but outdoor sports fields, pavilions and playgrounds, educational facilities, a multi-purpose facility, a gym and a cemetery.
The goal, according to the center's website, is "to improve the practice, knowledge and understanding of Islam among all people and elevate the image of Islam" by providing "correct information from accredited sources about Islam."
But one of the center's board members would also like to expand Islam through a holy war, according to his MySpace page.
Mosaad Rawash was suspended from the center's board last month pending an investigation into allegations that he supports Hamas and radical Islam, after the Investigative Project on Terrorism unveiled controversial comments and photos it said were found on an old version of Rawash's MySpace page.
According to the Investigative Project, a nonprofit research group aimed at investigating Islamic terrorist and extremist groups, the page included an Arabic pledge to join Palestinians in a holy war to reclaim their "right to Jerusalem."
The page is said to have read: "I swear by God Exalted, that I shall remain faithful to the blood of the Martyrs devoted completely to the historical right, rejecting all types of concessions no matter how strong the pressures or great the sacrifices, pledging to God Almighty to help the Palestinian people in their steadfastness and Jihad until they realize the promise of God."
A poem that was on the page reportedly referred to nations being labeled terrorists for simply defending themselves against people killing their families, adding "maybe I'd rather be called as such than die with shame…long live Palestine… Lebanon… Iraq…"
The page also had a picture honoring Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi, the Investigative Project reported.
The MySpace profile has been changed, but the Tennessean newspaper reported seeing the posts last month and that Rawash, when contacted by the paper, said simply that his MySpace page had been inactive for some time.
The postings were removed from the profile that afternoon, the newspaper reported.
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro said on its website that it was made aware of the findings and that "Mr. Rowash is being suspended pending further investigation about these allegations, a proper action will be taken based on the outcome of the investigation."
The center calls itself "a religious, nonpolitical organization [that] does not support any radical views of any kind by any individual or group," but a list of books recently posted on its site shows it supports at least two radical clerics, says Steven Emerson of the Investigative Project.
"It includes titles from Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual mentor to the international Islamist Muslim Brotherhood" and "Harun Yahya (Turkish Islamist pushing for a Khalifa-like state ruled by the Turks)," Emerson told FoxNews.com in an e-mail.
This list no longer appears on the website, but it was located at www.icmtn.org/ListofBooks.pdf, Emerson said.
According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, al-Qaradawi is a prominent Sunni scholar who as recently as last year called the Holocaust "divine punishment" for Jews; encouraged Muslims to put Jews "in their place" as Hitler had done; and publicly prayed that one day Allah would give him the opportunity to die as a martyr while shooting "Allah's enemies, the Jews."
In September 2004, al-Qaradawi signed a communiqué with 93 other clerics, saying that fighting U.S. and British troops in Iraq "is a Shariah duty incumbent upon anyone belonging to the Muslim nation, within and outside Iraq, who is capable of carrying it out," and issued a fatwa permitting the abduction and murder of American civilians in Iraq in order to pressure the American military into withdrawing its forces, the Institute said on its website.
Another author on the list, Harun Yahya, also known as Adnan Oktar, reportedly spent 19 months in jail in Turkey for inflammatory anti-Semitic statements in his book "Judaism and Freemasonry" and was sentenced, again in Turkey, to three years in prison in 2008 for creating an illegal organization for personal gain, along with 17 other members of his organization the Bilim Araştırma Vakfı or "Science Research Foundation."
These issues have divided Murfreesboro residents, who last month scheduled a protest and counter-protest surrounding plans for the new Islamic center.
The Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom, the group that organized the counter-protest, says critics are discriminating against Muslims due to their religion.
"We, as tolerant and loving community members, come together to defend the right of any member of our community to worship and express his, her, or their faith no matter the religion," the group's Facebook page says. "We will not stand idly by while Muslim people in our community are represented falsely and assaulted on a psychological level."
Jerry Gordon, a member of the board of Former Muslims United, a group dedicated to raising awareness of "the threat from authoritative Shariah to the religious freedom and safety of former Muslims," says the fears are not about religion, they are about Shariah and political Islam.
"The first question you have to pose is: Is Islam a religion, or is it a political doctrine with a religious veneer? ...And there’s a group of people who, after much reading and scholarship, believe it’s the latter, " Gordon told FoxNews.com.
"The people in the community who opposed this are energized by the concern that perhaps what we're building here… is essentially a regional training center for something," he added. "…And the question that's really being posed for which there is no useful information just yet is where are the funds coming from?"
The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro did not respond to a request for comment from FoxNews.com; on its website, it says it took three months to raise the $320,000 needed to purchase the land for the new center, over 95 percent of which it says was raised locally in middle Tennessee.
The center also accepts donations in three locations on its website, one of which is dedicated solely to the "New Project."
The Memphis Islamic Center
The Memphis Islamic Center is gearing up to create "a multipurpose Islamic Center to serve the needs of Muslims in the Memphis area and beyond," according to its website.
But critics wonder exactly what that means, especially given the center's newest hire: Sheikh Yasir Qadhi.
Qadhi, the dean of academic affairs at the AlMaghrib Institute, a weekend seminary where instructors travel to teach advanced Islamic studies, made headlines in 2001 with a speech in which he referred to the Holocaust as "false propaganda" and pointed to Jewish people's "crooked nose and blond hair" as evidence that they "are not a Semitic people."
In 2006, Qadhi admitted to being on a terror watch list, saying he had no idea why. His name has since been removed.
Three years later, Qadhi was again thrust into the spotlight when it was discovered that his institute's list of alumni included accused "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and reportedly includes convicted terrorist Daniel Maldonado, also known as Daniel Aljughaifi.
Aljughaifi's public profile is still available on the AlMaghrib Institute website.
Qadhi, who acknowledged last year that Abdulmutallab had attended AlMaghrib seminars, did not reply to messages left for him at the institute. He himself studied under terrorist Imam Ali al-Timimi, who was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of encouraging some of his followers, soon after the 9/11 attacks, to join the violent jihad against Americans in Afghanistan, and who offered them a recommendation on a terror camp where they could get training and instructions. Al-Timimi also famously celebrated the crash of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, saying "his heart felt certain good omens" and "Muslims were overjoyed because of the adversity that befell their greatest enemy," according to the indictment.
In a letter issued in defense of his former teacher, Qadhi said Timimi "played an instrumental role in shaping and directing me to take the path that has led me to where I am today."
That path has apparently led Qadhi to the Memphis Islamic Center, where he will be preaching regularly as its resident scholar, according to the center's website.
Pastor Steve Stone of the Heartsong Church, located across the street from the Memphis Islamic Center, says the church has seen no signs of radicalism from its new neighbor.
"They’ve attended functions here and we have attended functions over there," Stone told FoxNews.com. "We're fond of them, and they of us."
The congregations are so close, in fact, Stone says the church has offered its services to facilitate events being held at the unfinished campus, as well as the construction of the buildings themselves.
"They don't have a source of water ... so they come over and fill these huge water containers 'cause they need it to make cement," Stone said. "We offered them to use our parking lots for events they have over there, we've offered them to use our buildings for events or programs. Our response to them is, we believe, to try to understand them and to love them... they're good people."
As for why others don't do the same, Stone says a lot of it stems from fear of the unknown. And the best way to combat that, he says, is to "get to know them."
"Muslim people are kind of like Christian people, they're all over the board politically, socially, religiously, you know they all take the name Muslim but they're very different kinds of people, and I just would say don't judge a whole faith or a particular expression of it by some people you may have heard about and don't even really know," he said.
The Memphis Islamic Center did not reply to requests for comment on this story.
The center's website has said that it purchased the 31.24 acres of land for the project for $700,000 in July of 2008 with donations and an interest-free personal loan, the Memphis Daily reported.
Islamic Center of Tennessee
The Islamic Center of Tennessee is so anxious to move forward with its plan to convert a movie theater in Antioch into a massive mosque and community center that it has a countdown to its closing date – down to the millisecond -- on the front page of its website.
But not everyone's excited.
Though the center has a contract for the purchase of the building, some Antioch residents have signed a petition asking the property's owners to sell instead to Nashville State Community College, which also submitted a bid on the space.
Petition organizer Karen Johnson told the Nashville City Paper that the move was sparked out of concern that a mosque would inject less business activity into the struggling Antioch area than the school.
But anti-terrorism consultant Patrick Poole says residents should also be concerned about one of the Islamic center's directors, Awadh Binhazim.
Binhazim, a Muslim chaplain at Vanderbilt University and a director at Islamic Center of Tennessee, made headlines in January when he said that as a Muslim, he had no choice but to "go with what Islam teaches," which is that homosexuality "is punishable by death."
Binhazim also is the president of Olive Tree Education, an outreach program that aims "to propagate the message of Islam and dispel any misconceptions," where he's taught alongside Imam Abdulhakim Mohamed, the former imam of the al-Farouq mosque, which was identified in the 9/11 commission report as a major source of funding for Usama Bin Laden and other terrorist organizations.
But Yasser Saleh Arafat, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Tennessee, says Binhazim is a "good man." He says fears of radicalism within the center are spurred by ignorance.
"A lot of people don't really know what Islam is. They generalize the actions of a few over the rest, and this is just not right," Arafat told FoxNews.com. "Muslims do not generalize the actions of Timothy McVeigh and Jim Jones and David Koresh to say, ‘Oh, look, Christianity teaches that.' That's stereotyping, and we choose ourselves to stay away from stereotyping."
He says the community worked hard to raise the $1.55 million it needed to purchase the theater via donations and loans from Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and it has a right to build on it as it sees fit.
"We have as much equal rights as anyone else. We are American citizens, we pay taxes… you have a professor, a doctor, an engineer out of every 10 Muslims in the United States; we are an affluent people and we do have the ability to grow as well," he said.
As for the need for such big facilities, Arafat says, just attend services at a Nashville mosque and it's easy to see why these new centers are necessary.
"The four mosques that we have in Nashville are very small and are very crowded," he said. "If you come on Friday people pray in the street. So we said 'OK, what can we do to make it better? What can we do to accommodate the growth but do it in a way that will attract the youth, and take them away from the hand of extremism and take them away from the hand of gangs and other things?"
The new center, he says, will do just that.
"The place is big," he said. "It could accommodate a lot of activities inside of it. It'll have a mosque, it'll have a library, a movie theatre, lecture halls, it'll have a coffee stand for people to sit down and do their homework, it'll have a gym, it'll have day care… it would completely create an environment for our kids, for our youth, and for our families to come, enjoy and have fun, but at the same time worship as well," he said.
The Islamic Center of Tennessee is schedule to close on the Antioch property on Aug. 9.
The Islamic Center for Murfreesboro says it's working on the outdoor section of its facility, as well as the 10,000-square-foot "multi-use facility" as the "Phase I" of its building plan.
And the Memphis Islamic Center said in May that it had started construction on its new child care facility and prayer center. A June update said the prayer center was 50 percent complete and would hopefully be ready by Ramadan, which begins Aug 11.