CNN Explores the Unwanted Neighbor Phenomenon

Soledad O'Brien speaks with the imam of the mosque in question.

‘Unwelcome: The Muslim Next Door’, the struggle of a Murfreesboro’s Muslim-American community to exist. 
Murfreesboro, Tenn. has just over 100,000 people, over 140 churches and one mosque.

In June 2010, the Muslim community in Murfreesboro desires to have its own place of worship.  While the Muslim population is growing in the city, the current Islamic center cannot accomodate all the would be worshippers and some of them have no option but to pray on the sidewalk.  The Muslim community got the approval to build a new 53,000-square-foot Islamic center to include a school, a gym, a cemetery and a mosque.

However a part of the residents of Murfreesboro do not like the plans and have fought against the construction.

CNN’s Soledad O’Brien chronicles this dramatic public debate in Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door, which will debuted on CNN in America last Sunday and will be re-aired on Saturday, April 2.

“We were in the middle of covering a story about the Ground Zero Mosque, when the story about the mosque in Tennessee began making headlines. We quickly realize that was a tremendous opportunity to follow this story and really get into the heart of an issue right in the center of our nation to tell an untold story and to dig into both sides in this debate, in this battle.” explained Soledad O’Brien, after the press screening this Thursday at the Time Warner Center, in New York.

The one-hour documentary features, among others, Kevin Fisher, a 45-year-old single parent, who is an outspoken leader against the planned Islamic center and Lama Sbetany, an 18-year-old Muslim student, who defends her right to have a place of worship.

Fisher has organized other town residents, via social media, to gather thousands of signatures, organized large rallies and filed legal injunctions against the expansion of the mosque.

Lama Sbetany, who comes from a Syrian family, fights to break down the stereotypes targeting her entire community.

“I am not actually very different of any of you or your kids or your grand kids expect that I was born and raised as a patriotic American-Muslim, she said in front of an audience attending a Community Council meeting in Murfreesboro, last summer. On 9/11, my religion was hijacked by extremists who falsely claimed to be carrying out the words of God.”

Strongly determined to fight the construction, Fisher puts forward arguments to stop the project, such as the burial in accordance with the Islamic rules in the future cemetery may change the quality of the water in the area.  O’Brien does not hide her skepticism before such arguments.

“Some of the excuses, they (the opponents) had, were water quality issues, the road are very narrow and it would be a terrible think to have people who  were driving in a narrow road in the dark coming out of the Mosque. That was just a range of issues that to me seem to be red herrings and ultimately I really think it was about fear.” O’Brien said.

The documentary highlights a certain level of ignorance about Islam among the opponents of the proposed mosque, according to O'Brien's observations.

“What was most surprising to me was the way in which the conversation would circle around the Sharia law and the First Amendment of the Constitution when people have no idea what they are talking about.”

O’Brien said this documentary illustrates that there is a “fear of other, fear of people who are not like you” and unfortunately, “something 10 years later (after 9/11) has not been resolved.”

“What was really interesting to me was the Muslims who were saying that the most offensive of a large range of unpleasant comments was ‘Go back home!’. That’s the thing that gave them the most offense because they are saying: ‘I am from Murfreesboro, Tenn., what are you talking about?’ “told Soledad O’Brien.

O’Brien says she recognizes that some media can be blamed and have a part of responsibility in this game of fear, but she also points out some political agenda.

“There were clearly politicians who came to Murfreesboro to leverage what’s going on there and make a point there. There is no question that was an opportunity from the politicians’ point of view to get there. “she said.

                                                                Hajer Naili

Hajer Naili is a NewYork based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.