MURFREESBORO - Bassma Fathy stood at the edge of a leveled lot where four construction vehicles used to break ground for an Islamic mosque were vandalized and one was set afire early Saturday morning.
Murfreesboro is the only home Fathy has ever known. She said she grew up with curiosity and questions about her Islamic faith, but this is the first time she has seen hatred.
"I think they (the perpetrators) are trying to send a message: Don't support them, don't help them, or you'll suffer the consequences," she said Sunday, referring to owners of the damaged equipment, Ole South Property.
Her father, Essam Fathy, chairman of the mosque's planning committee and a member of the advisory board, said detectives told him this was a "very obvious case of arson."
Federal investigators are not saying that officially, however.
Agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives processed the scene on Veals Road on Saturday with assistance from the Rutherford County sheriff's office. ATF spokesman Eric Kehn said they may be able to release some details later this week.
The fire left Fathy and other members of the local Islamic community on edge, and two events Sunday that could be interpreted as attempts at intimidation got their attention as well.
From the construction site Sunday, Essam Fathy and others heard five to six gunshots as he gave an interview to CNN around 3:15 p.m. County dispatchers received only one call reporting shots fired and said that the sheriff's office is calling it an unconfirmed report.
A short while later, a horn blasted "Dixie" from a vehicle driving by.
Still, the Fathys and others from the mosque are trying to put the weekend's incidents into perspective. Essam Fathy said they've had an outpouring of support from the community.
The suspected arson fire culminated months of sometimes acrimonious debate over plans to build the mosque and followed the recent start of site preparation work.
Islamic families have lived in Murfreesboro more than 30 years without any problems, Essam Fathy said.
Bassma Fathy said she believes strongly that those responsible for the fire represent a small segment of the community. "I've lived here all my life," she said. "People know us. They know what happens here is like at any church. We get together, we pray. We go to each other's graduations. We go to each other's weddings. It's just really surprising that this would happen."
Church is supportive
Neighbors at Grace Baptist Church, adjacent to the 15-acre mosque site, said they were disturbed by the apparent arson.
"I don't think anyone rational would do something like that," said pastor Russell Richardson. "We want to be good neighbors to our neighbors, whoever they are."
Church member Betty Toler said they are supportive of their neighbors.