MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - The proposed mega-mosque at Ground Zero has sparked outrage among many Americans. But far from the bright lights of Manhattan, there is another mosque firestorm brewing.
CBN News recently visited one Tennessee town where locals are voicing concerns about their new "neighbor" - a multi-million dollar Islamic center. It's just one of several such projects planned nationwide.
Middle Tennessee is often referred to as the "buckle" of the Bible Belt. For cities and towns there like Murfreesboro -- about 30 miles south of Nashville -- it's still about God and country.
But some residents of Murfreesboro believe that that all-American feel may soon disappear, thanks to plans to build a huge Islamic center in their backyard.
"Within 17 days they had approval to build this mosque, when there are other large congregations here in the community who, some took as much as a year and a half to get the approval to build onto their facilities," said local activist Laurie Cardoza-Moore, who is president of the pro-Israel group, Proclaiming Justice to the Nations.
No Public Debate
Cardoza-Moore told CBN News that Rutherford County commissioners pushed through the mega-mosque with no public debate or input. She said residents were shocked when they learned about the project:
"We were asking our country commissioners, 'Please, before we start and give the approval for a mega mosque, a 52,000-square foot facility for 200 people, can we please look into some of the people affiliated - the donors, who is going to fund this mosque?'"
Many asked why a small Islamic community of only about 250 families needs what would be one of the largest mosque complexes in America.
The imam of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center said the current location in too small, and that his congregation needs to move. Their preferred destination is located a few miles away - 15.2 acres of land that will include a mega-mosque, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, an Islamic school, and living quarters for the imam.
"We've treated every particular religious organization exactly the same way," Rutherford County mayor Ernest Burgess said.
Burgess told CBN News he has no reason to believe the mosque's leaders have "any ill intent."
"We have a Buddhist temple here," he said. "We have a Hindu temple here. I mean, we have, I believe, still based on our constitutional rights, the ability for people to worship the way they want to worship."
Questions on Mosque Leaders
Yet serious concerns have been raised about imam Osama Bahloul and at least one board member of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center. Bahloul is a "distinguished graduate" of al-Azhar University in Egypt, where anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric is commonplace.
He told CBN News off camera that he condemned the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah and that Murfreesboro Muslims were just looking for a quiet place to worship. Yet he declined to appear on camera.
Then there is Islamic Center board member Mosaad Rawash.
Rawash was suspended from the board after pro-jihad slogans were found on his MySpace page. They've since been removed. A mosque spokesman said that Rawash is back on the board after being cleared of any wrongdoing.
Locals also have other concerns--like where the millions of dollars are coming from to pay for the proposed complex
Mosque officials say the money was raised in the community. But local journalist Rebecca Bynum said she isn't convinced.
"In other mosques, like in Boston and other areas where there's been huge mosques built, the funding did come from overseas, principally from Saudi Arabia, rich individuals from countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE," she said.
Murfreesboro is not alone. two more mega-mosques are now being planned for Tennessee--one in Memphis and another the town of Antioch, near Nashville.
"It does seem to be part of a larger strategy to build mosques in rural areas and create Islamic communities--large Islamic communities--in rural areas for some larger purpose," said Bynum, a columnist for the New English Review.
Fighting Christian 'Crusaders'
Cardoza-Moore believes the purpose is clear in middle Tennessee.
"You have Bible book publishers, you have Christian book publishers, you have Christian music headquartered here," she said. "So this is where the Gospel message goes out. And the radical Islamic extremists have stated that they're still fighting the Crusaders--and they see this as the capital of the Crusaders."
Mega-mosques are now in the works from coast to coast. In addition to the three massive Islamic centers in Tennessee, the proposed Ground Zero mosque continues to stir fierce debate.
One mosque plan was recently shot down in nearby Staten Island, New York. But a large mosque is currently in the works in neighboring Brooklyn.
In Sheboygan, Wisc. and Portland, Ore., 2 multi-million mosque projects have been given the green light. Another opened last year outside Boston and a $10 million complex opened in Atlanta in 2008.
Meanwhile, neighbors are protesting planned mosques in Southern California and the Chicago suburbs. And there are now plans to build the first ever Islamic center in northern Kentucky.
"When a large mosque is built, it draws more Muslims to the area," said Bynum.
It's been estimated that as many as 80 percent of American mosques have received funds from Saudi Arabia, where the official state religion is radical Wahhabi Islam.
Intelligence sources tell CBN News that many American mosques have been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood--an Islamist movement that seeks to establish Islamic sharia law worldwide.
We asked Mayor Burgess if he and the Murfreesboro county commission were aware of these points.
"I'm not informed about that, I don't have any evidence," he answered.
"Don't you think you should be informed, though?" CBN News asked.
"As a basic citizen, I should be informed about every issue that I can be," Burgess said. "But I can only enforce this rules and regulations that the state of Tennessee and the United States and Rutherford County have authorized me to enforce."
Taking a Second Look
The County commission is now taking a second look at local residents' concerns about the mosque project, including the environmental impact and traffic flow that would result.
There are also complaints about an unmarked grave that has appeared on the Islamic Center's new property.
"We don't know anything about the body other than it was wrapped--it's not in a casket, it's not embalmed, it's not in a vault," said local activist Kevin Fisher.
Mosque officials told us they know who is buried there, but did not give us a name. Mayor Burgess said. "The burial was legal.
But others say it's further proof that a massive Islamic center is not a good fit in their community.
"I think we will stop this mosque from being built," said Cardoza-Moore.