News / USA

September 11 Changed Life in Tennessee Town

Susan Coyner lives in a rural town in the American south and admits that before September 11, 2001, she hardly knew anything about the faith of Muslims who lived there.

"After 9/11," she says, "I started reading everything I could get my hands on about Islam. Because I was truly curious at what mindset would cause people to be filled with so much hate, that they would want to kill innocent people."

Negative view of America

Across the world in Cairo, Egypt, Essam El-Erian charges that the U.S. military response killed many more people than died on September 11, only to end in defeat.

“Defeated in Afghanistan, yes. They failed to reconstruct a nation. Defeated in Iraq, yes. They failed to build a model of democracy,” says El-Erian, a member of the guidance council of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood.

And despite U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East, the way El-Erian sees it, American-allied dictators "were dismissed by the people, not by the Americans," during the Arab Spring.

The hijacking of aircraft that destroyed New York's Twin Towers and well as part of the Pentagon and crashed one passenger plane on a field in Pennsylvania - killing close to 3,000 people - have profoundly changed America's views of Muslims and its relationship with the Muslim world.

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, has conducted numerous opinion polls in Muslim majority countries. He says negative views of America were reinforced by the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO's airstrikes on Libya, and Washington's support for repressive regimes that used the threat of al-Qaida to suppress dissent. But those views are in tension with an admiration of U.S. democratic values, he adds.

“There's the bad America that doesn't always live up to those values and is seen as being unfriendly to Islam, ready to use military force irrespective of international law and not promoting democracy,” Kull says.

What Muslims around the world are saying

View Muslim Voices in a larger map


In America, September 11 prompted many people to want to know more about the faith the hijackers claimed to be upholding.

As a result of their newfound knowledge of Islam, many Americans make a distinction between the faith and violence committed in its name. But others have come to see Islam as hostile to American values. And that has radically changed life for millions of Muslim citizens in the United States.  

In the past few years, a movement has grown that is aimed at banning Sharia - the Islamic religious law that devout Muslims follow in their personal lives. And increasingly, as Muslim communities have grown, their desire to build mosques and community centers has run up against mounting local opposition.

Mosque controversy

Murfreesboro is about an hour's drive south of Nashville. It's a patriotic place, with American flags fluttering above its leafy streets and a Christian Bible on display in front of the historic courthouse.

Last year, Rutherford County, which includes Murfreesboro, approved an application for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro to build a large new mosque with a dome and minarets on the outskirts of the city. But then a nationwide controversy erupted over plans for a Muslim center near the site of the World Trade Center in New York.

In Murfreesboro, the project became a polarizing issue. The construction site was hit by vandals and arsonists.

The site is still a vast empty plot. The only sign of construction is an unmarked blacktop laid out for a future parking lot. Imam Ossama Bahloul stands in the middle of it and says: "This piece of land is a dream for the Muslim community in Murfreesboro."

He says that in addition to the mosque, the plans call for a multipurpose area, a cemetery and a swimming pool where boys and girls will swim separately. Bahloul says the 1000 families in the community have outgrown their current prayer hall which is located a short drive away in a low-slung brick building between a used car dealership and a drive-through bank.

But during a court hearing this summer over plans for the community center, opponents of the new facility warned  it could become "an arsenal for jihad." They alleged that Muslim leaders here have sympathized with militant groups.

Bahloul dismisses the allegation. Anyone suspected of supporting terrorism would be handed over to law enforcement authorities immediately, he says.

Still, Murfreesboro's Muslims have been taken aback by the strength of opposition to their mosque.

Facing biases

Dima Sbenaty is a counselor for the mosque's summer youth programs. The 21-year-old says American-born Muslim children here are encountering bias for the first time in their lives.

During a soccer game for school age boys and girls, she said: "They'll come and ask me why does my friend call me a terrorist, or why does my mom's friend not let her see her friends?" She says Muslims have lived here for decades without problems, even after the September 11 attacks.

Kevin Fisher is a key plaintiff in the lawsuit against the mosque. In fact it's named after him: Fisher vs. Rutherford County.

Fisher is an African-American who says some of his relatives are Muslims. He insists his opposition to the mosque is not about racism or freedom of worship. He fears it will attract too many Muslims to a city he describes as tolerant and increasingly diverse.

"This is a very loving community," Fisher says. "The question becomes is this going to be something that radically changes this community? You look at Michigan. Dearborn, Michigan. And you say to yourself, I don't want my community to be like that."

Dearborn, Michigan is known nationwide for its large Arab population and many critics of Islam have cast it as a hotbed of radicalism. But not everyone in Murfreesboro shares his worry of it becoming "Dearborn South." In fact, there has also been an outpouring of support for the mosque.

Show of solidarity

At the Blackman United Methodist Church on the other side Murfreesboro, a group of women of different faiths have been praying together in a show of solidarity with local Muslims.

The Reverend Lucinda Nelson says people in Murfreesboro - like in other parts of the American South - like things to stay the way they are.

"They look around, they see the world changing, they see a president who doesn't look like them," she said. "And they are afraid that their way of life, their religion, the way that they believe is going to be swept away somehow."

The election of an African-American president with a Muslim name may have unsettled some people here and in other parts of the country. In fact, as Nelson points out, criticism of Islam became more vociferous after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.

But even opponents of the new Islamic center say that if it hadn't been for the September 11 attacks, it is likely Muslims living here would be left to do as they please, as they had been for decades.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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