Murfreesboro, Tennessee: A small town with nearly 200 churches where a single mosque is one mosque too many. Murfreesboro is home to the one of the largest universities in Middle Tennessee where the ROTC building is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. And on the town square there is not one but two plaques dedicated in his honor. Also on the town square you will find, just next to the steps that lead to the County Courthouse, encased in glass and displayed proudly on government property, a copy of the Holy Bible. And when the County Commissioners hold their monthly meeting inside that Courthouse they always begin it with a prayer to Jesus.
Mixing church and state is not a problem here - but building a new mosque, for a peaceful Islamic community that has been here for the past three decades? HIT THE PANIC BUTTON:
- January 17th (MLK Weekend): A wooden sign on a grassy field next to a narrow country road bearing the words "Home of the new site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro" is broken in two.
- June 23rd: A new sign is put on at the site and this time the words "Not Welcome" are spray painted over it.
- June 17th: The County Commission meeting is flooded with 600 local residents making speeches, quoting from the Bible and demanding that the mosque not be built. Speakers lined up to say things like, "Boycott any company who works on construction of the mosque" and "America is a Christian nation". Pastor Allen Jackson of the 10,000 member World Outreach Church calls for anyone under the banner of Islam to be investigated.
- July 14th: An angry mob hits the streets parading signs that read "No Mosque" and angrily waving American flags. Republican Congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik marches with them after basing her entire campaign on the idea that the Muslims in Murfreesboro are actually building an "Islamic Training Camp". The Tennessee Minute Men show up and so do leaders from the Tea Party and many, many members of the World Outreach Church flock to Main Street with fingers pointed at the Muslims.
- August 7th: Kevin Fisher, the man who organized the July march against the mosque holds an "Interfaith Prayer Vigil" on the town square to bring the community together and foster constructive dialogue. However only a dozen or so people show up. The featured and only speaker is the Reverend Walt Merritt who declares in his long sermon that "Jesus in the only way" and then lays face down on the ground and cries out to God to bring a pestilence upon the mosque - if it is his will of course. Fisher declares the Interfaith vigil a success because, in his own words, "Members of every denomination are here".
- August 12th: Once again the County Commissioners meet and this time member of Middle Tennesseans For Religious Freedom are denied the opportunity to speak. The only voices heard are those who oppose the mosque - and they are able to speak for more than the allotted 3 minutes. Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a paid lobbyist who does not even live in the county threatens lawsuits against the commissioners personally, if the mosque gets built, followed by a loud applause. An older man in a business suit steps up to the microphone and reads a prepared statement which says that "the biggest lie the devil ever invented is that the God of Islam is the same as the God of Christianity". The overriding sentiment was that they had no right to build a place of worship in our country at all. Pack it up Muslims and go home. This is America and you are not welcome here.
But that is really only one side of the equation, because in Murfreesboro, Tennessee an equal number of people came out to counter-demonstrate on July 14th. The group "Middle Tennesseans For Religious Freedom" was formed on Facebook and showed up in peaceful protest holding a large sign which read "Murfreesboro Coexist" bearing symbols from every major religion.
And on the anniversary of the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. - the same day that Glenn Beck was holding his "Restoring Honor Rally" in Washington D.C. the Murfreesboro Sherriff announced that an arson had taken place at the construction site of the new Islamic Center. And on that same day members of "Middle Tennesseans For Religious Freedom" quickly organized a candle light vigil for the following Monday where hundreds of residents from Murfreesboro and beyond peacefully assembled and heard speeches from a Catholic priest, a Rabbi and other members of the community. A Pagan Priestess lead the crowd in prayer and the event was concluded with everyone singing "We Shall Overcome".
Days later, I watched as a banquet hall was filled with Muslims and local non-Muslims in a community outreach dinner put on by the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. I saw people of different faiths and different cultures getting along the way that members of a community should.
Murfreesboro, Tennessee is, after all, a welcoming community. People are friendly. All of the things you ever heard about Southern hospitality are true here. People of different races and different political ideologies have always gotten along fine in the two and a half years since I have lived in Murfreesboro - and that includes during the heated 2008 Presidential election season. And when a massive tornado ripped through the center of town, destroying hundreds of homes, people banded together in a way I had never seen before. I saw people opening their homes to the newly homeless, people donating money, giving away food and clothing. I saw what it means to be a member of a community.
I first moved to Murfreesboro about two years ago, after directing my first feature film, "The Bondage". It premiered at the South By South West Film Festival, secured theatrical distribution and then became the subject of an ugly legal battle that left my movie in a perpetual state of purgatory, probably never to be seen by audiences. I felt defeated. After visiting Mufreesboro for a friend's wedding I made a decision to spend some time out here to clear my head and get away from Hollywood, California.
I moved into the historical district off the square. I watched the seasons change (we don't have seasons where I come from) and got to know the people who would become my friends and neighbors.
It was on this past 4th of July that I decided to make a documentary about the backlash against the building of a new Islamic Center here in Mufreesboro, TN. At that time I had no idea that a chilling wave of anti-Islamic hysteria was about to sweep over the country, strengthen the far right and send the civil rights movement several decades backwards all in the matter of just a few short weeks.
The documentary is tentatively titled "Not Welcome" and chronicles events in Murfreesboro concerning the backlash against the Mosque from the 4th of July to 9/11 of 2010. I have interviewed nearly everyone on all sides of this issue here. And along the way I have been threatened repeatedly but I have also made many new friends. I have learned a lot about how my own ridiculous prejudices about the South have distorted my point of view. I have been surprised repeatedly at how often the most unlikely of people can defy their stereotype with acts of kindness, courage and compassion. I have come to know many members of the Islamic community here, known them as friends, broken bread with them and watched as they faced persecution without striking back, without getting consumed with anger, watched as they prayed for those who oppose them, asked for God's mercy on them and trusted that, in the end, whatever happens will be God's will.
As Kevin Fisher states that he and his group will fight the construction of the new Islamic Center down to the very last brick, and as I hear rumors of residents wanting to impeach the mayor for allowing construction and as conservative hate radio jams the airwaves with fear and paranoia about Muslims, I know that this is not over. Not locally, not nationally and not globally.
Along the way I have seen that Murfreesboro is really a microcosm of America. The problem of Islamophobia is not a uniquely Southern problem. It's a mistake when we look at a person only through the lens of what group they belong to and what we think we know about that group. And history has shown us what happens when we start scapegoat a minority group.
We have all inherited an imperfect but incredible Democracy from those who have gone before us. And its maintenance and continued improvement depends on us all. Now is not the time to give in to simple answers and pointing fingers. Now is the time for us look at the root causes of our problems and work together in solving them.
The power elite in this country are using the oldest trick in the book. When you are unable to solve the people's problems, the very problems you have caused by keeping the majority of the wealth for yourself, you simply pit tribe against tribe and hope that they won't figure it all out and storm the castle instead.