Poems · Sociology

Transcending the Anti-Muslim Mobs of Tennessee

A recent event at the Manchester Convention Center in Tennessee has received news headlines. According to the Tennessean:

During the keynote speech given by Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee, audience members continually interrupted, making it difficult to understand what was said. Killian brought a PowerPoint presentation that covered the First and 14th amendments and what constitutes a hate crime, among other things. He read the First Amendment verbatim, between interruptions.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) rightly condemned the discriminatory behavior of the anti-Muslim mob. CAIR reports that

Anti-Muslim slurs heard before or during the event included “Islam is evil.” The U.S. attorney was called a “traitor” and “serpent” for speaking out against hate crimes targeting Muslims. Other hecklers shouted “communist,” “socialist” and “Muslim” at the officials and promoted the manufactured claim that “sharia,” or Islamic principles, is being imposed in America.

The video of the event can be seen here.

None of this surprises me because in 2009, I visited Tennessee and spent time with a small Muslim community in Columbia which recently had their mosque torched by members of a Christian supremacist group. Jonathan Hayden, who was with me during the visit, had this to say in an article for OpenSalon.com

The new mosque in Columbia after the burning.
The new mosque in Columbia after the burning.

In Columbia, Tennessee, about 50 miles due west of Murfreesboro, last year we met Daoud Abudiab, director of the local Islamic Center, and heard the remarkable story of his community.

The community of 55 people had purchased the building and were proud of their adopted home in this idyllic small town. The mosque was the only one within a wide radius at the time and Muslims from other small towns in the area came to worship there. It was the center of all community life.

Abudiab was awakened by a call from the fire department one morning in early 2008. The town’s only mosque was ablaze. Three individuals, from a group called the Christian Identity Movement, had broken in and spray-painted several swastikas and the words “white power, we run the world”. They then torched the mosque with Molotov cocktails.

A small vigil in the town was organized by local Muslims but hardly any non-Muslims one attended. Daoud was disheartened. Since it was rare to hear a condemnation of the attack, Daoud’s children asked him if all Christians hated them. One of his children was mocked in school, called a terrorist and teased mercilessly. The victim of terrorism was himself, accused of being a terrorist.

Yet in the midst of the silence, one man stood up against the tide of anti-Islamic sentiment. Reverend Bill Williamson of the local Presbyterian Church offered money and a key to his church to the Muslim community. He brought Daoud and others from the Muslim community to a room that he had set aside for them to use for meetings and prayers. He even offered to remove any symbols or pictures which might offend.

Presumably, Williamson was drawing his compassion from Christ. Others without that same set of beliefs could look to further into history, to the namesake of the county directly west of Murfreesboro, Franklin. Benjamin Franklin so strongly believed in religious pluralism that he offered financial support to the construction of a large new hall in Philadelphia that would provide a pulpit to members of all faiths, “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Franklin was not alone among the Founding Fathers in welcoming Muslims. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, professed similar beliefs. Adams even placed the Prophet of Islam alongside Confucius and Socrates as one of the world’s great thinkers.

Islam was commonly seen as a violent religion during the founding fathers time as well. But they saw through the distortions and went to the original text. When they did, they saw a religion that they believed would make a great contribution to America and enrich their vision of freedom for all. To the founding fathers, this vision was the very essence of the America they had created.

Most Muslims see the resistance of the mosque developments in Tennessee, Manhattan and Brooklyn as a simple case of Islamophobia. The detractors, for their part, have cited more banal reasons for their opposition. Whatever the mechanics of the conflict, the principals could look to the founding fathers for inspiration and guidance. While they may not always provide easy or lucid answers for the issues we face today, on the freedom of religion and worship, they showed remarkable clarity.

This is a remarkable story. Radical Christians burned the house of worship of their peaceful Muslim American neighbors only to see a beautiful Christian man come to the rescue of the persecuted Muslim American community. Not only was Williamson acting in the true pluralist spirit of the founding fathers, but he was also following the teachings of Jesus Christ. For that he is a hero!

Lastly, here’s the video we made after our trip to Columbia.

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