Tennessee newspaper deals with Mosque issues

American citizens find themselves struggling to come to grips with an argument over religion, especially in terms of Islam. A plan to build a mosque near ground zero ignited a conflict that has reached mosques across the country. Kentuckians are dealing with mosque issues across the  state. But the battles aren’t just in Kentucky. Murfreesboro Tennessee has been in the political spotlight for months because some citizens are protesting plans to build a new mosque on the outskirts of town. The Murfreesboro Daily News-Journal has been covering the issue.

The controversy centers over plans to build a new 52,000 square foot facility in Murfreesboro that will include a Mosque, a pool, a gym and outdoor recreation areas. The group building the Mosque applied for and received all the permits needed to build the mosque. Once that happened, a number of people mounted an opposition to the proposed Mosque site. In the last few weeks, construction materials were vandalized at the mosque site.

“We’ve approached it like any story,” Jimmy Hart, the executive editor at the Daily News-Journal, said. “Our first priority is being accurate and making sure that our reporting is complete, that we’re getting viewpoints from all sides of the issue and that we’re following up. It’s an ongoing story and it’s got many facets to it.”

The story has garnered national attention. The Daily Show, Anderson Cooper 360 and Time Magazine have all been in Tennessee along with other national media as this story heats up.

“We’ve just tried to be fair to all parties in our reporting,” Hart said. “The national attention is, I guess you have to ask someone outside of this community or the state what their viewpoint is. We’re just trying to make sure our reporting is as fair and complete as possible.”

Fair and complete means that the Murfreesboro paper must take into account all aspects of the story. The national media can concentrate on the issues about religion and freedom and possible bigotry. Murfreesboro must pay attention to details, something as  simple as roads.

“ It’s a complex issue in some ways,” Hart said. “There are some concerns about the size of the facilities, the infrastructure, those have been the biggest issues from a standpoint of how can government play a role and sort of addressing the opponents as well as addressing the rights of local Muslims to build this facility.”

Hart has made sure that Murfreesboro has paid attention to one thing, the law.

“We haven’t found that (those who got the permits for the mosque) have done anything illegal,” Hart said. “They’ve had a presence in this community for at least two decades, probably three. A lot of the opposition has come across as very anti-Islam and anti-Muslim and that’s something that we’re very sensitive to.”

The national media presented Tennessee in a bad light. While controversy has swelled over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, the controversy has centered on concerns other than bigotry. Middle Tennessee State University (located in Murfreesboro), professor Kenneth Blake has paid attention to the controversy and points to a story run by NPR.

“New Yorkers are sophisticated enough to cloak their argument in something other than religious bigotry,” Blake said. “They’ve concentrated their argument on sensitivity. The story contrasted that approach to the mosque issue in Tennessee which was characterized as just blatant bigotry.”

Blake conducts a number of polls across Tennessee and has come up with some interesting facts — some that agree with the national media’s portrayal, at least to a point. A year ago, Blake did a poll that concentrated on whether people had heard or told racial jokes about President Barack Obama. A large number of those polled responded yes.

“That was picked up by the national press and the frame was what else would you expect from Tennessee? But this was happening all across the country,” Blake said. “What we were trying to say was that sure we have evidence of this in Tennessee but if you did this poll nationwide you would come up with the same problems.”

Hart believes the story is good for both his paper and for Murfreesboro.

“What’s going on here is a microcosm of a debate that could go on anywhere in America,” Hart said. “We are considered to be the buckle of the Bible belt. This is an issue that’s not going anywhere.

“All of this stuff is part of a cultural dynamic that’s going on in this country. Yeah, we’re in the middle of something that’s going on. A group of Muslims has been living here for quite a while and wants to build a bigger mosque. It’s Muslims exercising their rights in this country. That’s a debate that has to happen.”

Blake follows the story and sees media theory playing out in his hometown.

“I think if we think in terms of agenda setting and framing, from an agenda setting standpoint, the mosque story is very high on the media agenda,” Blake said. “Conflict over mosques were already in the news.

“As far as the frame, the ‘how’ they’re covering it, what’s very much in the frame here is a sort of rights discussion. There’s this idea in the media coverage that whether you like the mosque or not, the reality is that the congregation of this mosque has every right to build it where they want it.”

Blake also sees the paper playing the story straight.

“There has been some inclusion in the frame of arguments from mosque opponents who say the process hasn’t been followed completely, maybe in the letter of the law but not in the spirit of the law,” he said.

With the ninth anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings on Sept. 11, the controversy over the proposed burning of Korans by Pastor Terry Jones, and the numerous Mosque controversies, the nation seems to be struggling to find an answer. The Daily News-Journal and Hart find themselves on the front line covering the struggle.

“We’re a nation of laws,” Hart said. “According to the law, this mosque will be built according to state and federal law. If that’s how it plays out, that’s a good thing.

“At the same time, there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny if this mosque is built. That’s the process that American Muslims are going to be faced with. As their numbers grow, it’s going to happen. You can’t ignore these things. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

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