'Successful' attempt at terrorizing Muslim community takes mosque controversy 'to whole new level,' mosque spokeswoman says

A fire started Saturday morning at the site of a controversial mosque expansion in a Nashville suburb is being ruled an arson, CBS affiliate WTVF reports.

Angry words and protests have marked the planned expansion of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro for weeks, and several minor acts of vandalism have been reported, but the fire in the early hours of Saturday morning that destroyed a hauler and damaged three other pieces of construction equipment takes the issue "to a whole new level," said the mosque's spokeswoman, Carmie Ayash.

“Everyone in our community no longer feels safe,” Ayash told the Rutherford County Daily News Journal. “To set a fire that could have blown up equipment and, God forbid, spread and caused damage to the neighbors there ... we really feel like this is something that we and the neighbors don’t deserve. When [authorities] called me this morning I started crying.”

Ayash said she believed the point of the arson was to instill fear in Murfreesboro's Muslim community, and the effort "succeeded."

Four pieces of equipment were reportedly doused in gasoline, but only one was lit on fire before the alleged arsonist fled.

"Probably, whoever did it got caught in the middle of the act, got scared and left,” Ayash said.

CBS reports:

Digging had begun at the site, which was planned as a place of worship for the approximately 250 Muslim families in the Murfreesboro area, but no structure had been built yet, according to Saleh Sbenaty, a member of the planning committee and a professor of engineering technology at Middle Tennessee State University.

The center had operated for years out of a small business suite. Planning members said the new building, which was being constructed next to a church, would help accommodate the area's growing Muslim community.

"We unfortunately did not experience hostilities for the 30 years we've been here and have only seen the hostility since approval of the site plan for the new center," said [mosque planning committee member Saleh] Sbenaty.

Ayash initially told the Daily News Journal that the sheriff's department “told us they will be investigating this as a hate crime," but later clarified her remarks to say authorities will be pursuing many possible avenues in the investigation.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has been the site of protests for much of the summer, as anger over a planned Muslim community center not far from the Ground Zero site in New York City spread to other mosque sites around the country.

While protest leaders have said their opposition to the mosque revolves around zoning and traffic issues in the area, many protest attendees were unequivocal in their condemnation of Islam as a whole.

"They are not a religion. They are a political, militaristic group," retiree Bob Shelton told the Associated Press at a protest.

"In Islam, a mosque means 'We have conquered this country,'" another protester told the media. "And where are they? They're in the center of Tennessee. They're going to say, 'We have conquered Tennessee.'"

CBS reports that Saleh Sbenaty, a member of the mosque's planning committee, called the fire a "shock" and said whoever did it "should be punished to the full extent of the law."