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CNN PRESENTS

Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door

Aired August 18, 2012 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't say to hate them. I'm just saying we don't need them here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody knows who's trying to kill us and it's like we can't say it.

KEVIN FISHER, MURFREESBORO RESIDENT: Post-9/11 world we should be a little suspicious of any group trying to relocate to this community.

LEMA SBENATY, ISLAMIC CENTER OF MURFREESBORO: They had words "not welcome" there and that's -- that's a very clear sign.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) out of the state.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Someone in the middle of the night doused these engines with gasoline.

IMAM OSSAMA BAHLOUL, MURFREESBORO ISLAMIC CENTER: This is violent.

FISHER: We have filed a lawsuit to stop the building of the mosque.

JOE BRANDON, ATTORNEY: They can claim religion all they want, but it don't mean you will come in here and do this in Rutherford County.

SBENATY: It's my right as an American citizen to have a place of worship.

FISHER: Murfreesboro is kind of a small, big town. It's a beautiful place where a family can live and grow and be a part of a community, a very loving community.

SALLY WALL, MURFREESBORO RESIDENT: We love Murfreesboro, and we love it for the most part the way it is and the way it has been.

SBENATY: It doesn't matter what religion you are, what race you are, whatever. The people here are so welcoming.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, HOST: Talk to the residents of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and they'll tell you the strength of their city lies in its close-knit community and strong religious faith. The city has 104,000 people. More than 140 churches. And one mosque.

For decades, Muslims have lived and prayed alongside their neighbors. But in June 2010, their place in the community was questioned. Exposing a growing fear of Islam in America. Ten years after the attacks of 9/11. FISHER: We are citizens, we have families and we have children in this community and we're trying to look out for our future.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We thank you for your love. We thank you for your joy.

O'BRIEN: Kevin Fisher has lived in Murfreesboro for 20 years. He's a corrections officer and a single father. In May of 2010 Kevin was stunned to discover local officials had approved plans for a 53,000 square foot Islamic center in his hometown.

FISHER: The neighbors were outraged that something of this nature was being basically shoved down our throats so we didn't know anything about it.

O'BRIEN: A month later, the typically sleepy county commission meeting was anything but.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So many people turned up for the public hearing. Authorities wouldn't let them all in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am very happy to see these people here that are really standing up.

O'BRIEN: A few residents complained about the lack of notice of the mosque plan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would respectfully ask for an extended public hearing again.

O'BRIEN: Virtually everyone else spoke out against the threat of Islam.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody knows who's trying to kill us and it's like we can't say it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would encourage the boycott of any contractor associated with the project. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our country was founded through the founding fathers, through the true -- the true God, the Father and Jesus Christ.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry, but they seem to be against everything that I believe in, and so I don't want them necessarily in my neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That concludes our public comment period. Thank you very much.

O'BRIEN: Local officials refused to reconsider their unanimous approval of the plan.

FISHER: We decided to hold a march so that America, the whole world, everybody can see these people didn't get noticed so that's what we did. Ignore their intolerance. We call our county commission to hold the progress (ph) of this mosque. Under Sharia law, there is no freedom of speech.

O'BRIEN: Among those marching against the mosque plan was prominent local resident and real estate developer Sally Wall.

S. WALL: My fourth great-grandmother was the first woman buried in a marked grave in Rutherford County. That's how long we've been here. And I think that has quite a bit to do with how you feel about what happens here in the community.

O'BRIEN: Also marching, Sally's husband, Howard Wall, a local power broker and former Republican county chairman.

HOWARD WALL, MURFREESBORO RESIDENT: I always thought other people marched. You know I didn't have to march, but who am I not to march? I wanted to show my interest in my community and my country.

S. WALL: Here is this enormous building which is going to be occupied by people who are of the same religion that the people are who were fighting in Afghanistan who we have been fighting in Iraq.

H. WALL: Why are they building a mosque that's 5300 square feet? That is a lot of square footage and it's going to be a very expensive thing. Now are 200 families or 200 Muslims, however many they are, how are they going to pay for it? I know when we expanded our church, we're still paying for it.

O'BRIEN: Other residents opposed to the mosque plan included Ronald Todd. For 93 years Todd's family owned the land sold at auction to the Muslims in Murfreesboro. Todd says his grandparents are turning over in their graves because their land is being used for a mosque.

BRIAN TODD, MURFREESBORO RESIDENT: They worshipped another god than one that I worship. I've heard some rumors about a different law they go by, but if I live in Tennessee, I live by Tennessee law and the law of the United States of America.

LOU ANN ZELENIK, LOCAL POLITICIAN: My name is Lou Ann Zelenik. And we're a group of citizens --

O'BRIEN: Several local politicians seized on the issue like Lou Ann Zelenik who ran for Congress in Tennessee.

ZELENIK: We are joining with so many who feel that they're concerned because it is not the Christians, it is not the Jews that flew airplanes into the buildings.

PAT ROBERTSON, TELEVANGELIST: Strange place for a huge mosque.

O'BRIEN: Even televangelist Pat Robertson weighed in on the proposed mosque.

ROBERTSON: You mark my word, if they start bringing thousands and thousands of Muslims into that relatively rural area the next thing you know they're going to be taking over the city council.

O'BRIEN: More suspicions were raised after opponents claimed a member of the mosque had posted this photo of the leaders of Hamas. A U.S.- labeled terrorist group on his MySpace page. He was suspended from the mosque for two months.

FISHER: The post-9/11 world we should be suspicious any of group trying to relocate to this community.

O'BRIEN: But many in Murfreesboro supported the mosque plan. The protest march that June day drew hundreds of people of different faiths rallying in support of religious freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Organize this rally in order to show support for the First Amendment right of Murfreesboro residents to worship the way that they see fit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think we all should be free to practice our religion.

O'BRIEN: Among the mosque supporters, Lema Sbenaty, an 18-year-old Muslim in Murfreesboro.

SBENATY: You can just see there -- like, in their eyes you could see that hate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't say to hate them. I'm just saying we don't need them here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you hear that? Heard that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are some shots fired.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

O'BRIEN: The explosive fight over religion in Murfreesboro was just beginning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Murfreesboro, Tennessee Police Department.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Muslims don't believe it in it, honey. The Muslims --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many Muslims do you know?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everyone out there --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many Muslims do you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was in the military. I've been over there.

(CROSSTALK) SBENATY: The fact that I've lived here for so long and I've never seen this side of anyone before. Sometimes I still wake up and I'm, like, is this really happening?

DIMA SBENATY, MURFREESBORO RESIDENT: To have all of these people come out and openly say that we are against, you know, this religion was very shocking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This mosque that they're trying to build, all it is, is a training center.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't want anybody in there creating something that can be used to attack us.

SALEH SBENATY, MTSU PROFESSOR, MEMBER OF THE ISLAMIC CENTER OF MURFREESBORO: I know they're afraid for their country, but, you know, to label all the Muslims and the Muslim community in Murfreesboro in particular to be terrorists, this is nonsense.

O'BRIEN: Saleh Sbenaty has lived in Murfreesboro for 20 years. It's where he and his wife Fatun (ph) raised their two daughters, Lema and Dima, and their son Salim.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Do you feel not welcome?

S. SBENATY: No. To the contrary actually, this is one of the most beautiful cities in the United States. The people over here are extremely, extremely hospitable and nice.

How do we control --

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Saleh is an engineering professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. He was born in Syria.

D. SBENATY: I'm, like, banking on lab to save my grade in that class.

O'BRIEN: His daughters are students at MTSU. Both were high school valedictorians.

D. SBENATY: There were a few other Muslim students, but not very many at all.

O'BRIEN: The Sbenatys say they've always felt welcomed in Murfreesboro, even after 9/11.

S. SBENATY: Two days afterward, people whom we did not know stopped us and say please, don't be afraid. We are the same. We're going to treat you in the same way.

O'BRIEN: Professor Sbenaty arrived in Middle Tennessee in 1980. Only 10 Muslim families lived in Murfreesboro then. Their mosque was a small one-bedroom apartment.

Today, there are 250 Muslim families living in Murfreesboro. The current mosque is often packed beyond capacity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is really no place for us to pray or eat or do activities with the kids.

S. SBENATY: People are usually praying on the sidewalk and in the parking lot.

BAHLOUL: But do you know it can be assembled if we all do it together.

O'BRIEN: Pushed by the center's imam, Ossama Bahloul, the congregation pooled their money in 2009 to purchase a 15-acre parcel of land on the outskirts of town. It would be land for their new Islamic center.

(On camera): Where would you get the money from?

BAHLOUL: We had a fundraising and we raised $320,000 to buy the land.

O'BRIEN: In one fundraising.

BAHLOUL: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Here in Murfreesboro?

BAHLOUL: Yes, here.

O'BRIEN: When you first walked the land, describe that feeling for me.

S. SBENATY: It's exactly like a homeless who has found the most beautiful home, and it's a long journey. A lot of pain to get there. A lot of effort and then finally you are about to sit down and say, wow, it feels good.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Their vision was to build the new facility in stages. There'd be a school, a gym, a swimming pool, a cemetery and a 10,000-square foot mosque. For the younger generations of Muslims in Murfreesboro the plans represented progress.

(On camera): When you first heard about the new building being built what was your reaction?

SBENATY: We went from a one-bedroom apartment that was divided by a sheet to, you know, having this piece of 15-acre land. I hate to be cliche, but it was a dream come true.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): In November 2009 the congregation put up a sign announcing the future site of the Islamic center. Then it was vandalized. With a simple, but disturbing message, "not welcome."

(On camera): What did you feel like when that sign had "not welcome" for someone who's lived here her whole life pretty much?

SBENATY: It hit hard. You know, they had the words "not welcome" there. And that's -- that's a very clear sign.

S. SBENATY: And we thought it was an individual act. The sign company said we will make you a new sign for free. O'BRIEN (voice-over): A second sign put up at the site was cut in half eight months later. A disturbing preview of the days and months ahead, as fear and suspicion would threaten to derail the mosque project and turn neighbor against neighbor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're asking for those individuals who know who may be responsible for this crime to come forward with any information.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Late August, Ramadan. For Muslims the holiest time of the year. A time of reflection, praying and fasting.

But for the Muslims in Murfreesboro August 2010 was a time of unease. Their plans to build a new house of worship had produced strong opposition. Members of the congregation sought answers from the imam.

BAHLOUL: Some of them were concerned. Some of them were scared. Some of them couldn't understand why. This why, I couldn't provide it for them.

O'BRIEN: Imam Ossama Bahloul came from Egypt to America in 2004 to lead a small mosque in Irving, Texas.

BAHLOUL: I consider myself a Texan without the Texan accent.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Deep in the heart of Texas, Bahloul learned English and learned that in post-9/11 America, freedom of religion didn't mean freedom from suspicion.

BAHLOUL: And I learned that I have to be careful because some people have an idea about Muslims and it is not a good one.

O'BRIEN: It was at the mosque in Texas where Imam Ossama met his future wife Ivy.

IVY BAHLOUL, IMAM OSSAMA BAHLOUL'S WIFE: I was raised Methodist.

O'BRIEN (on camera): You, shortly after 9/11, decided to convert.

I. BAHLOUL: Correct.

O'BRIEN: For many people.

I. BAHLOUL: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Converting to Islam would be last thing they would do.

I. BAHLOUL: Right. Well, I think that anyone that has ever known someone that is Muslim and would hear the things that were being said, it just didn't make sense, so I picked up a book and then I picked up another one, and another one and -- until I read the Quran, and then I contacted the local mosque in my area. I've had a couple of comments because I am an American Muslim. Some people feel like, you know, you're a traitor. How could you become one of them?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This architect built so many mosques around the area.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Despite strong opposition by late summer Imam Ossama and the other leaders of the congregation decided to go forward with the first phase of their project, grading and leveling the land.

BAHLOUL: We did not have any kind of celebration.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Why not? You could have done a big groundbreaking. That's how these things usually go.

BAHLOUL: We don't want to something like aggravate people's feelings.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): The low-key beginning did little to silence opponents who felt their concerns weren't being heard.

FISHER: I think they have a right to expand, but I think that the public has a right to say wait a minute, there are concerns here.

O'BRIEN: Kevin Fisher who had led protest march against the planned Islamic center said traffic was a big concern.

FISHER: By their own admission they're going to draw people from all over the county. Then you're going to put a whole lot of new drivers in the back roads of Tennessee.

O'BRIEN: Concerns were also raised about the cemetery on the site. Already one elderly Muslim had been buried there.

FISHER: You have well water out there. You have people who are going to be drawing off the same source. So according to their tradition they don't bury with a casket. They don't bury with a vault.

O'BRIEN (on camera): So you're telling me, a casket protecting the body is going to change the quality of the water versus a body that's not in a casket?

FISHER: It could. Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: So how much of this is also, you just don't want a mosque in that neighborhood?

FISHER: Not one person that I know of or friends of mine or people that have read anything, have ever said they don't have a right to worship. They have a right to worship however they see fit.

SBENATY: I feel like what they're doing is kind of taking things and throwing them at the wall and seeing what sticks. And it hasn't really stuck very well, but I think they're still trying.

O'BRIEN: Does it feel like people are in a war with Islam? BAHLOUL: Yes. There's no doubt.

O'BRIEN: Do you feel like people here are in a war with Islam?

BAHLOUL: Some of them yes. There's no doubt also. I'm very comfortable to say this.

O'BRIEN: So you save some of the messages?

BAHLOUL: Yes, I did.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): There were disturbing voice mails.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tuesday, 6:27 a.m. Osama is (EXPLETIVE DELETED). He's like the rest of you queer bitches. Get the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) out of the state.

O'BRIEN (on camera): So what did you think when you heard that the first time?

BAHLOUL: I couldn't believe that I heard this, and -- and I -- I was shocked, I would say yes. Yes. And I don't like the term go back home. We are American. I guess this is our home, and everyone has to realize this.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): In late August, construction was barely under way when members of the mosque received a call from the police. A fire in the middle of the night had damaged equipment at the site.

S. SBENATY: And I looked at this site and the tears started to come down, you know? It's -- why? You know, what did we do?

O'BRIEN: Leaders of the congregation came to assess the damage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a natural growth to our community. We are growing.

O'BRIEN: Suddenly our interview was interrupted by the sound of gunfire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are some shots fired.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Yes. Do you hear that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Murfreesboro, Tennessee Police Department.

O'BRIEN: Fear had replaced concern.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't like standing here. I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're scared?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what they're trying to do. It's a terrorist act.

S. SBENATY: I heard very loud shots coming from this way. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Hang on. We're going to go up there and check for you.

S. SBENATY: Yes. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It could very well be hunters. It could very well be. But we're going to check it out. We've got plenty of guys in the area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we'll make sure that we document at least your concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you've got something to show that we're looking into it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're grateful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I appreciate it.

BAHLOUL: This is sad. The whole issue is sad. Let's hope it's a hunter and it's not something that was done intentionally because I know this community. It's a good community. So people can't -- don't have to be scared like this in America. This is America. What is this? People can disagree with each other kindly, but violence like this is nonsense. This is violent.

For children to be scared in the mosque, it's bad. For all the people to be worried about their safety, this is sad. This is sad. This is too much. Enough, I guess. Enough. Enough. Enough.

O'BRIEN: Days after the suspicious fire, Imam Ossama addressed his congregation.

BAHLOUL: I believe those people opposing this project, they do not understand the consequence of what they are doing. They are damaging the kids. While they are damaging the image of this country.

O'BRIEN: Protests, vandalism and now a suspicious fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go.

O'BRIEN: Yet the fight over the planned Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was just beginning.

BRANDON: What we're saying to the court is they can claim religion all they want, but it don't mean you're going to come in here and do this in Rutherford County.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a $20,000 reward being offered for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of person or persons responsible for committing arson on August 28th --

O'BRIEN: A suspicious fire had damaged equipment at the construction site of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Days later the FBI confirmed the Muslim community's worst fears. It was arson.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Somebody knows something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We must speak up for the freedom and the liberty of every person.

O'BRIEN: While many in the community gathered to condemn the arson, some opponents had a different take.

S. WALL: It didn't make sense to me.

O'BRIEN: Influential real estate developer Sally Wall had her doubts.

(On camera): So you think it was faked?

S. WALL: Honestly, I do, and of course, I might be wrong.

O'BRIEN: To what end? Why would someone fake their own --

S. WALL: I don't know. Now -- now here's one of those they say things, I'm told that they do that everywhere they go to make people think everybody's against us. Now I'm not saying I think that is true. It could be.

FISHER: I think it was premature and automatically assumed that it was a hate crime, but I'll tell you this, I disagree with -- I disagree with violence. When you start having to rely on intimidating people to get your point across, I think you lose all your validity.

Testing, one, two, three.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): For months, Kevin Fisher and other opponent had tried everything to halt the construction of the 53,000 square foot Islamic center.

FISHER: Hey, how are you doing?

We went through every conceivable means to assure that our rights were upheld. The meetings of the commission, we went to petitions, we went through speaking with our representatives, our mayor.

O'BRIEN: Armed with his bullhorn, Fisher attended another commission meeting in September, once again to press local officials to halt construction of the mosque.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm full out here so you can try upstairs.

FISHER: OK. He's the one that told me I couldn't go in and speak.

O'BRIEN: The meeting was so crowded he couldn't get in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Next on our list.

O'BRIEN: Lema Sbenaty, a member of the Muslim community, did get to speak.

SBENATY: So, you see, I'm actually not very different from any of you or your kids or your grandkids, except for one thing. I was born and raised as a patriotic American Muslim. On September 11th, 2001, my religion was hijacked by extremists.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have nothing to fear, but fear itself.

FISHER: I can't (INAUDIBLE) and listen anymore. That's garbage.

O'BRIEN: Frustrated, Fisher walked out of the commission meeting and made a surprising announcement.

FISHER: We have filed a lawsuit to stop the building of the mosque.

O'BRIEN: Later that night, Lema Sbenaty found herself fate to face with Lou Ann Zelenik, the congressional candidate who had denounced the mosque project.

ZELENIK: And a lot of people stand with me.

O'BRIEN: Zelenik had finished second in the Republican primary.

ZELENIK: But I don't understand why you are not outraged with the rights of children and females under Sharia law. At this time --

(CROSSTALK)

SBENATY: Ma'am. Ma'am, I'm Muslim.

ZELENIK: I think you're wonderful.

SBENATY: Thank you.

ZELENIK: I have Muslims do call me.

SBENATY: And I don't feel oppressed by any of them.

ZELENIK: Well, I'm glad you haven't, but what about others that have?

SBENATY: Who? Who in this county? Who in this county that is a woman has been oppressed by anyone?

ZELENIK: Are you through?

SBENATY: I've never seen any woman in Murfreesboro, Tennessee -- anyone in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that has been oppressed by any man that is a Muslim.

ZELENIK: OK. Would you interview her? I think she's a great interview. She really wants to take over. And I think that -- SBENATY: No, go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

ZELENIK: I think you're really important.

O'BRIEN: True to his word, in late September, Kevin Fisher and three other Murfreesboro residents filed their lawsuit to immediately block the construction of the mosque project.

FISHER: The lawsuit is simply seeking to do an investigation of this group to find out exactly where this group stands and whether it pose any kind of risk to the community.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All those having business before this court, please come forward and you shall be heard.

BRANDON: Judge, we're here today on an issue of a temporary restraining order.

O'BRIEN: The suit claimed local officials failed to give the community adequate notice. There would be a vote on the mosque plan by the county's planning commission.

BRANDON: So we're talking about a 52,000 square-foot facility.

O'BRIEN: Defense Attorney Josh McReary argued that under county law religious facilities are exempt from public hearings.

JOSH MCREARY, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: And when you look at the law, they do not have a valid complaint and they certainly are not entitled to an injunction.

O'BRIEN: But it quickly became clear, plaintiff attorney Joe Brandon was going to argue that the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was not a religious facility because Islam is not a religion.

BRANDON: Mr. Gross, do you believe the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is a religious institution?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do not know enough about the center, I know that Islam is practiced there from talking to the people who go there.

BRANDON: Is Islam a religion?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In my opinion?

BRANDON: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir.

BRANDON: What do you based that on?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have a belief in a deity and afterlife.

BRANDON: Now you say an afterlife, is that like when you yell "Allahu Akbar" and blow yourself up in a bunch of people that you get seven virgins, is that the afterlife you're talking about? Where you strap a bomb on your chest, blow up unsuspecting people that didn't know anything about you the day before, and then -- so you get you some virgins. Is that the afterlife that you're calling a religion?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a religion. I do not know if that's what they practice there, sir. Some Muslims believe that. Some I've talked to don't.

BRANDON: Do you believe Allah and God is the same?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your honor, none of this is relevant, your honor.

BRANDON: Do you know what that says?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Allah Akbar.

O'BRIEN: During the hearings several local residents took to the stand to link the mosque project to the threat of radical Islam.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This organization is presenting themselves as a peace-loving organization and in actuality some of their leadership is radical.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think every law-abiding citizen in the United States of America should stand up against Sharia law.

O'BRIEN: Sally Wall was in court almost every day. She helped fund the lawsuit.

WALL: Every time you turn on the TV, every time you pick up the paper, there is a radical Muslim this or terrorist that and you can't really overlook it unless you can't read and can't hear. Look at Europe, and I've traveled quite a bit. They have got a problem that they never dreamed of.

O'BRIEN: In Europe, various political parties have rallied against the spread of radical Islam in their countries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sixty percent want Sharia law in this country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think so.

O'BRIEN: Leading several European governments to pass laws limiting the religious freedom of Muslims. Including a ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland and in France a ban on Islamic face veils.

In the United States, concerns about mosque projects have generated protests from New York to California.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In Islam, a mosque means we have conquered this country.

O'BRIEN: And in middle Tennessee, in the last three years two mosques within 50 miles of Murfreesboro have been targeted by hate including one burned to the ground.

(On camera): There are other problems at other mosques. Why not just not build it?

SBENATY: Because it's my right. It's my right as a human being. It's my right as an American citizen to have a place of worship.

O'BRIEN: Do you understand people's fear? The 9/11 hijackers used religion.

SBENATY: I definitely understand people's fears, but you can't possibly, you know, have this veil that covers everyone under one religion just because of something that a few people committed.

BRANDON: Your honor, this is -- this is a circus, is what this is.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Inside the courtroom, the fight to halt the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro would continue.

BRANDON: Why would we extend to any religion the right to cancel out the Constitution for which we're founded upon?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRANDON: Mr. Jordan, were you employed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a county commissioner.

BRANDON: Can you envision in your wildest dreams how something could be called a religion that promotes the abuse, physical abuse of women.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't call it a religion, but I'm not the one that makes the definition of what is a religion.

O'BRIEN: In a small courtroom in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Islam was on trial.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've been under the impression that Islam is not a religion for thousands of years, whether I agree with it or not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know if it was for Sharia law you wouldn't even be out here right now.

O'BRIEN: A planned construction of a new Islamic center had divided this small city.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They should have the freedom to build a mosque here.

O'BRIEN: Opponents claim the facility would increase traffic, damage water quality and provide a foothold for radical Muslims and Islamic law.

BRANDON: This particular case cries for out for a revocation of the permit.

O'BRIEN: Lema Sbenaty, a Muslim, born and raised in Murfreesboro, attended the hearing. BRANDON: Sharia law supports and dictates the beating and physical abuse of women with a whip. You're to hang a whip in your house and if your wife or your girlfriend does not submit you're to use a whip against her.

O'BRIEN (on camera): When the opposition talks about Sharia law, they talk about it coming here to America.

SBENATY: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Oppressing women, torture, beating. Do they have it wrong?

SBENATY: Yes, they do. A lot of things that our culture have been mistaken for religion. The Quran that I have read has never said torture was OK for anyone or beating women. You know, it was OK. None of this is OK.

S. SBENATY: What Sharia is, is a way of life. You know. I am mandated as a Muslim to pray five times. I am mandated to fast during the month of Ramadan. And I'm mandated if I am able to go to pilgrimage. That's Sharia law for me.

NOAH FELDMAN, HARVARD INTERNATIONAL LAW: Sharia, according to Muslims, is god's word on how you're supposed to live your life.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Noah Feldman is a professor of International Law at Harvard. He's written several books on Islam and Sharia law.

FELDMAN: If you look across the Muslim world you could see a lot of difference in how customs and practices operate among people all of whom believe that they are following the Sharia.

As a general matter, the Sharia is what you make of it, and there are plenty of Muslims who interpret the Sharia in a progressive way so that it's equal towards women and progressive towards women.

O'BRIEN: Prominent Murfreesboro resident Sally Wall helped organize the lawsuit. She's convinced Sharia law isn't harmless. During our conversation, she showed me a photo of a woman punished under Taliban rule.

(On camera): And this is the cover of "TIME" magazine.

S. WALL: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: Horribly disfigured.

S. WALL: Right. And she didn't have ears either.

O'BRIEN: You're realistically worried that this could happen here.

S. WALL: Certainly I am. It happened to her.

O'BRIEN: In Afghanistan.

S. WALL: I understand. O'BRIEN: There are large Muslim populations in the United States already.

S. WALL: I know that.

O'BRIEN: I mean New York City we have a big Muslim community.

S. WALL: I know that.

O'BRIEN: There is no Sharia law in New York City.

S. WALL: It is creeping in, though, I believe, and I think it will creep in as there are more Muslims coming here because that's what they're taught. I think they should try to come into the 21st century.

O'BRIEN: Meaning do what?

S. WALL: To assimilate. If you would quit covering you would find this a much easier place to live.

I. BAHLOUL: Obviously, I'm not oppressed. I'm married to the imam in the mosque. If anyone was going to inflict Sharia law or whatever, obviously, it would be my husband. You know we make the decisions here in the house as a family, just as anyone else would do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bye, ma.

I. BAHLOUL: I love you. Happy day at school.

O'BRIEN: Should Americans be worried about Sharia law?

FELDMAN: Our Constitution prohibits explicitly any religious system becoming the established law of our country. So such a thing would be completely unimaginable in our country and rightly so.

BRANDON: Is Sharia a religion?

O'BRIEN (voice-over): During the nine-day hearing to stop the building of the mosque --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are people out there that have all kind of beliefs.

O'BRIEN: -- twenty-three witnesses were called to testify. Not one was a member of the Murfreesboro mosque.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do.

BRANDON: If they practiced Sharia law would it still be your opinion that this is a religion?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know.

O'BRIEN: In October, 2010, in the middle of the hearing, attorneys from the Federal Department of Justice took the uncommon step of delivering a message to the judge in the case. A reminder that according to the U.S. government, Islam is plainly a religion.

BRANDON: We want to be allowed to ask questions. My position is, how do you believe anything if you don't question it? And the issue of whether Islam is a religion has never been decided.

O'BRIEN (on camera): I thought Islam was considered to be one of the three great religions, right?

BRANDON: Can you tell me what you base that on?

O'BRIEN: Scholars have said that. People who study it have said that.

BRANDON: Well, you can find an expert to testify hell's an ice house, too.

They can claim religion all they want, but it don't mean you're going to come in here and do this in Rutherford County.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): The judge's decision would surprise both sides in the fight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: By November 2010, as the first phase of the Murfreesboro mosque continued, five miles away a hearing to halt construction was drawing to a close.

BRANDON: Jihad is when --

O'BRIEN: Throughout the trial, plaintiff attorney Joe Brandon tried to link the Murfreesboro mosque project to jihad and Sharia law.

BRANDON: Does it make you want to look at it with a jaundice eye?

O'BRIEN: Even the county's mayor, a cattle farmer and lifelong Rutherford County resident, and a Christian found himself under attack.

BRANDON: Sharia law says the United States Constitution is based upon ignorance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would not support those things that you just read.

BRANDON: Why did you vote this place in for?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn't approve Sharia law when we approved this site plan.

FISHER: You would think that your elected officials would care more about the needs and concerns of the community than about an entity that we know nothing about.

O'BRIEN: Plaintiff Kevin Fisher was hopeful the judge would stop the project. FISHER: With all my heart and all my soul I believe we're doing the right thing.

O'BRIEN (on camera): You do?

FISHER: I really do.

O'BRIEN: You're 100 percent certain?

FISHER: I pray about it every night.

O'BRIEN: How have the last nine months been?

I. BAHLOUL: Upsetting. Very upsetting.

O'BRIEN: What's the worst thing?

I. BAHLOUL: The effect I think that it's had on the children in the community.

O'BRIEN: You daughter specifically?

I. BAHLOUL: She's said -- she has some concerned about me wearing a scarf out in public.

O'BRIEN: So what do you tell her when she -- when she says you can wear a scarf?

I. BAHLOUL: That it's OK. That the people don't hate us. You know, that this is -- that there's maybe a few people that are not happy.

O'BRIEN: Do you think people hate you?

I. BAHLOUL: No, I don't think so. I think that people don't understand what Islam is and what Muslims are.

BRANDON: The threat of subverse Sharia.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): After nine days of arguments.

BRANDON: That's hearsay, your honor.

O'BRIEN: The judge, Chancellor Robert Corlew, delivered his decision.

CHANCELLOR ROBERT CORLEW, RUTHERFORD COUNTY: It's our duty at this time to deny the temporary injunctive relief that the plaintiff sought.

O'BRIEN: Joe Brandon had lost. The construction of the future Islamic Center of Murfreesboro would be allowed to continue.

CORLEW: We're not privileged to render decisions in accordance with our own opinions, whims or desires. We must follow the law.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Should you have focused more on there was a lack of transparency, the commissioners did not do their job, more on that and less on -- less talk about Sharia law?

BRANDON: My answer to that is no. We hope to have this case ultimately before the U.S. Supreme Court to make a determination of whether or not Sharia law can co-exist with the U.S. Constitution.

O'BRIEN: Will you try to stop the construction again?

S. WALL: No. We're going to continue with lawsuits.

O'BRIEN: On what grounds?

S. WALL: I'm not sure what the grounds are going to be this time, but we're -- there will be another suit, I believe.

S. SBENATY: I hope it is -- but my gut feeling is telling me no.

O'BRIEN: Why?

S. SBENATY: These people are determined. The construction of the Islamic center is going to continue.

H. WALL: If they build a mosque it's their business and their religion is their business, but when they try to put in Sharia law and usurp my beloved constitution, then that gets on the fighting side of me.

BAHLOUL: If you are saying to me, are you going to give up? No. No. If they are fighting this until the end of it, we will do the same and even more, and we will have something that they don't have. We'll have the constitution on our side.

O'BRIEN (on camera): Have you met the Muslims in Murfreesboro?

S. WALL: Sure. I've known Muslims forever. My sister lived in Saudi Arabia. My brother lived in Iran. Yes, certainly I have.

O'BRIEN: Have you met the ones who are involved in the mosque here?

S. WALL: You know, I have not. They have made no effort to get in touch with me, and I have made no effort to get in touch with them. Younger people think that I am a bigot, and that I am against freedom of religion for the Muslims.

O'BRIEN: Are you?

S. WALL: I'm not a bigot.

O'BRIEN: Are you against freedom of religion for Muslims?

S. WALL: No. I think we're worried about our American way of life. It would be great if the Muslims would try harder to realize that, that it's not something personal against them.

FISHER: I would rather you and I sit here 20 years from now and you interview me and say, you know what? I was wrong. I was completely wrong about them. They've been wonderful and peaceful, but you what? What if I'm right?

O'BRIEN: Look down the road 10 years. How does Murfreesboro look to you?

SBENATY: I mean, it's going look like before this whole thing started. I think it's going to die down eventually. And I'm really hoping that some of our opposition -- I'd invite Kevin Fisher to the mosque whenever it's built and hopefully they'll see that there's really nothing to be afraid of.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): After two years of construction and more legal challenges brought on by the opposition, Justice Friday, the Muslim congregation held its first prayer service in its new mosque.

BAHLOUL: Today we can celebrate the importance of unity.

O'BRIEN: It was a day for celebration and reflection.

SBENATY: In the beginning we thought that, you know, we would never be able to have this because of all the opposition that we face and all the hatred that we face.

O'BRIEN: The new mosque has been built but opponents like Kevin Fisher say the fight to preserve and protect their community is far from over.

SBENATY: I think that certainly there are still a lot of issues to be dealt with with our community, however, I do believe that this building is going to help us with that. And hopefully in the end, you know, those misconceptions and those inconsistencies will kind of fade with time. We're very positive that this is going to do a good thing for our community.