Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Muslims made unwelcome as times toughen

Muslims made unwelcome as times toughen | The Tennessean |


"Not welcome."

The foot-tall, spray-painted letters appeared in January on a sign announcing the Murfreesboro mosque's new home.

Nobody paid much attention. Muslims and the site's neighbors dismissed it as the work of intolerant people with too much time on their hands.

But by June, that message had gone mainstream. Arsonists burned excavating equipment. Angry protesters marched in the street. Residents sued the county, claiming the mosque would soon become a den of terrorists.

"Not welcome." A volatile mixture lay beneath those two words, one stirred by three issues.

Some native Tennesseans aren't fond of immigrants and the possibility of Christianity losing its grip on Bible Belt culture. Each new terrorist act prompts a swell of fear and hatred toward their new neighbors. And everyone is living in the worst economic times since the Great Depression.

"They feel like in some ways there was a compact made at the founding of the country — between God and America," said Ed Stetzer, president of Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research. "That compact has been broken."

In the 1990s, drawn mostly by good jobs, immigrants flocked to Nashville and other midsize Southern cities instead of the major hubs that used to attract them.

That growth accelerated in the 2000s. From 2000 to 2008, the foreign-born population in the Nashville metropolitan area, which includes Murfreesboro and Franklin, grew from 58,539 to 107,184 — or by 83.1 percent, according to a study by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

That's the fourth-largest percentage jump in the nation.

Still, fewer than 1 percent of Tennesseans identify themselves as Muslim. Among them are about 7,000 Kurds who fled persecution in Iraq and were resettled by the federal government in Middle Tennessee. Others, like many of the leaders of local mosques, came to study at Vanderbilt University or Middle Tennessee State University — the biggest jump in international students at MTSU last year came from Saudi Arabia.