Posted: Monday, September 6, 2010 9:06 pm
By LINDSAY MELVIN
The Commercial Appeal
MEMPHIS (AP) — When pastor Steve Stone initially heard of the mosque and Islamic center being erected on the sprawling land adjacent his church, his stomach tightened.
Then he raised a 6-foot sign reading, “Welcome to the Neighborhood.”
The issue for Stone and the 550-person Heartsong Church in Cordova came down to one question:
“What would Jesus do if He were us? He would welcome the neighbor,” Stone said.
The Memphis Islamic Center, a nonprofit organization formed three years ago, is two weeks from breaking ground on the first phase of a multimillion-dollar complex.
While plans for Islamic centers across the country and just miles away have triggered vitriolic responses and divided communities, here in Memphis it’s been a peaceful process.
On a 31-acre stretch at Humphrey Road and Houston Levee, Memphis Islamic Center leaders plan to build a massive gathering place during the next several years. It will include a mosque, youth center, day care center, indoor gym, sports fields, medical clinic and retirement home.
While the 4,000-square-foot worship hall is being completed, Heartsong has opened its doors to its neighbors throughout the monthlong observance of Ramadan.
Under a gigantic cross constructed of salvaged wood, nearly 200 area Muslims have been gathering each night to pray.
“I think it’s helped break down a lot of barriers in both congregations,” said Islamic center board member Danish Siddiqui.
Yet, only a four-hour drive east of Memphis, Murfreesboro saw intense protests, with billboards going up to try to block plans for a similar Murfreesboro Islamic Center.
Even televangelist Pat Robertson weighed in against it.
Elsewhere in Middle Tennessee, plans for a Brentwood mosque were defeated in May after residents mounted a campaign raising suspicion over mosque leaders having ties to terrorism.
The most publicized of the debates has been the furor over an Islamic center proposed near ground zero in New York.
“I’ve got fear and ignorance in me, too,” said Stone, referring to his and some of his congregants’ early apprehension toward the Memphis center.
But as members of the Christian congregation take the opportunity to sit in on Ramadan prayers and meet people at the nightly gatherings, much of that mystery and fear has dissipated.
“People in Memphis appreciate faith, even if it’s not their faith,” said Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, the Islamic center’s scholar in residence and a Rhodes College professor.
The peaceful tone in the Bluff City has been refreshing for Qadhi, 35, who recently moved to Memphis from Connecticut, where early this month his Bridgeport mosque was descended on by angry protestors yelling slurs at families as they arrived for evening prayer.
“We’re living in a climate of Islamophobia,” he said.
The Memphis project hasn’t been entirely free of criticism. Bloggers and religious publications have speculated that the Memphis group is receiving funding from Saudi Arabia, which the local Islamic board says is completely false.
“If the community can’t put it together, it’s not worth it,” said Siddiqui, a Germantown resident.
Other accusations have been lobbed at Shaykh Qadhi for anti-Semitic comments made a decade ago.
“I made a very major mistake,” said Qadhi, adding that he has spent years apologizing for the statements he made as a young student discounting the importance of the Holocaust.
The Islamic scholar’s track record since has been one of promoting peace.
He recently returned from a trip to Auschwitz concentration camp, where he joined other Islamic and Jewish leaders to draw awareness to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
“I’ve learned one of my biggest lessons since that time. We have to separate our theology from politics,” he said.
The overarching fear being voiced in protests going on across the country is that Islamic centers will become hubs for teaching extremism.
But Islamic center board members say it’s to the contrary.
Islamic community centers help form solid Muslim-American identities and keep young kids and adults from feeling marginalized, they said.
Without a place to call home, young Muslims are more likely to seek more radical interpretation of the Quran online, says Arsalan Shirwany, a board member and father of three.
When it is finished, the new facility will be a center for the whole community, and a place for interfaith cooperation, Shirwany said.
“This is what we need to fight extremism,” he said.
Published in The Messenger 9.6.10