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Agnostic-turned-Muslim pushes for Tennessee mosque

By Ashley Fantz
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New mosque sparks debate in Tennessee
  • Planned Murfreesboro, Tennessee, mosque has sparked debate, violence
  • Camie Ayash, who converted later in life, is building the mosque with her husband
  • She says she's received threatening voicemail and phone calls
  • Murfreesboro controversy is reflective of similar mosque disputes across the U.S.
  • Islam
  • Tennessee

(CNN) -- Camie Ayash was raised in Brooklyn, the daughter of an agnostic nurse and a New York City cop with a skeptic's approach to religion.

She is the last person one might expect to be pushing to build a mosque in middle Tennessee.

"My dad was always telling me to compare this with that, to read everything I could and find the discrepancies," she said. "He would stay up into the night reading the Old Testament, the King James Bible, the Torah and look up translations of the Quran, pointing out conflicting statements within the same book.

"Question everything, decide with an independent, open mind, and be strong when you do," said Ayash, now 32. "I was always like, 'OK, Dad, fine.' But now get it. I seriously get it."

Earlier this year, she and her husband of 15 years, a Kuwaiti Muslim, announced plans to build an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a city of about 100,000 people 35 miles southeast of Nashville. The city has a burgeoning Middle East refugee community, many from Iraq.

For decades, a single mosque had served Murfreesboro, but its congregation has surpassed 1,000 worshippers. Ayash and her husband, a successful car dealership owner, thought it was time to expand. The new 52,000-square-foot structure would house a mosque, gym, playground, cemetery, walking paths and a meeting center.

Backlash was immediate.

The Islamic center was going to be too vast, some complained, and it would jam traffic on a nearby two-way road. Hostility grew as the summer dragged on. A woman stood at a public meeting and said Muslims were "trying to kill us," The (Nashville) Tennessean newspaper reported. Marchers gathered at the construction site with signs saying "MOSQUE LEADERS SUPPORT KILLING CONVERTS."

Then, in late August, equipment at the site was torched, and federal agents began an arson investigation. A plywood sign announcing the new center was spray-painted "Not welcome." Another sign went up, but a vandal destroyed that, too.

Shortly after the blaze, Ayash and others hoping to build the site were standing at the mosque site. She and others heard gunshots and called the sheriff's department. The Tennessean reported that moments after the shots, a vehicle drove by with its horn blasting "Dixie."

"That was it for me," said Ayash. "That really scared me."

When Ayash came to Murfreesboro more than 10 years ago, she was not a Muslim. She felt no need to convert; her husband had never pressed her.

She always recalled what her father said. Read, seek, ask questions. "It was never an automatic -- get married, believe this religion," she said. "Belief, faith in God is more complicated than that."

She remembers the summer, as hot as this one, that she was at home and picked up the Quran. Nothing big, nothing major. She had read it off and on for years. Except this time, she kept reading.

"I don't want to insult the experience by saying that it was like a light going on, but I did just sit there, digesting it for hours, taking it in, understanding it like it was speaking to me," she said. "I'm not sure I have words to tell you why."

When her husband got home from work, she went to him like an excited child. "I want to convert!" she announced.

"He kind of laughed and asked, 'Camie, are you serious? You don't have to do that,'" she recalled.

A proper conversion ceremony happened. There was no "poof!" to it, just that she felt slightly altered, which is to say, calmer. For years, she wasn't active at the mosque. She didn't cover her hair with the traditional hijab.

Another summer came.

"One day I was sitting on our balcony with another woman, a Muslim who covered her hair with the hijab," she said. "Someone came to visit and looked at her and said, 'Assalamu alaikum.' Then the guy turned to me and said, 'Hey, how you doing?'

"I thought, 'Wait a second!' I'm Muslim. Doesn't that guy know that?"

She began wearing a head scarf, and her practice of Islam deepened.

Another city, another mosque battle

Murfreesboro has become yet another city in America reflecting an apparent visceral mistrust between the nation's increasingly visible Muslim population and those who see all Muslims in the context of radical Islam.

The tension is most visible in New York City, where opponents are fighting the construction of an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero.

But similar battles are going on in California, where a planned mosque in Riverside County prompted heated protests. Among the comments from residents in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, about a planned mosque: "I know they'll say there's the violent or jihad Muslims and there's the peaceful Muslims, [but] to me it doesn't make a difference because their goal is to wipe out Christianity around the world."

And elsewhere in Tennessee, two other proposed Islamic centers have stoked controversy. A Crusaders' cross was spray-painted on the side of a Nashville mosque, accompanied by, "Muslims go home." In Williamson County, plans to build a mosque were recently quashed after residents complained a turn lane into the building would be too costly.

Laurie Cardoza-Moore lives in Williamson County. She is leading opposition to the Murfreesboro mosque with a group called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations whose Web site describes its mission statement: "to educate Christians about their Biblical responsibility to stand with their Jewish brethren and defend the State of Israel."

Ayash said the two have never met, but that she'd be interested in talking to Cardoza-Moore face to face. "I'd love to answer any of her questions and have a civil discussion," said Ayash.

Cardoza-Moore has appeared on CNN and on televangelist Pat Robertson's show, "The 700 Club," arguing that the Murfreesboro mosque is a front for terrorists and an attempt by Muslims to push out Bible and Christian book publishers who do business in the town.

"You have Christian music headquartered here," Cardoza-Moore said on "The 700 Club." "The radical Islamic extremists have stated that they are still fighting the Crusaders, and they see this as the capital of the Crusaders."

Robertson singled out Murfreesboro on his show.

"You mark my word, if they start [to] bring thousands and thousands of Muslims into the relatively rural area, the next thing you know, they're going to be taking over the city council. Then they're going to be having an ordinance that -- that calls for the public prayer five times a day," Robertson has said.

Hearing that is especially difficult for Dr. Essam Fathy, a physical therapist who has lived in Murfreesboro for 30 years. He is on the board of the new mosque.

"There were a lot of Muslims here years ago as there are now, and we have all lived in peace for years," he said. "But something lately has changed in my town. I've never seen aggression like this. It's reached an absurdity that I just don't know how to react to anymore.

"I hear people say things to me, just out and about, rumors about how we're going to build a terrorist training camp, that's what the gym will be used for."

Fathy talks in exasperated tones. "I just want you to understand," he said. "I want everyone to understand that we don't want to argue with anyone. I want Murfreesboro back the way it was, which was actually a very nice place to live."

Ayash recalled wearing her hijab around town, running errands, shopping for groceries.

"Back then, I felt so proud to put it on," she said. "Now I'm afraid. If I wear this, am I a target?"

Ayash said she gets at least one threatening phone call or voicemail a week about the mosque. The Rutherford County Sheriff's Department has stepped up patrols near the mosque.

"What do you do in this situation? I'm a mother, I'm a wife. There are times when I feel defeated, like I should back down just to protect my family," she said.

"My parents think it's sad what's going on.

"If they taught me to look around, to challenge people, ask more questions, I guess I'd ask the people here in Murfreesboro, 'Is this how you treat your neighbors?'"