Islamophobia in middle Tennessee is becoming a real problem. In the past several years, two mosques have been firebombed: one had swastikas drawn on its walls, with “White Power” written on the sides. In 2008 an independent short film about Islamophobia in Shelbyville, TN: Welcome to Shelbyville told the story of a community that struggles with an influx of Islamic immigrants and refugees. One scene ends with a nervous Presbyterian pastor speaking with a tentative Imam. The small living room that houses the two leaders seems to collapse in and expand out in rhythmic breaths – the two men are anxious about what it means to their congregants that they are sitting in the same room, professing respect and difference, but also peace and mutual support.
To many in rural white Christian America, this is the site of deep fear and anger, bewilderment and loss of control.
That this site of inter-religious cooperation is the spark point of deep prejudice and anger for others tells me that our country is strapped by a sense in some that their nation is changing and passing them by and morphing into a nation that is not theirs. America looks, feels, and sounds different than it ought to in their minds. And this causes a deep anxiety. It is bewildering and certainly unsettling.
I saw this last week in Manchester, TN. The American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC) invited U.S. Attorney for Eastern Tennessee, Bill Killian and FBI agent Kenneth Moore to talk about how hate crimes against Muslims violate civil rights. Over 1,000 protestors showed up under the pretense of protecting their constitutional right to free speech and keeping the government off their backs and out of their lives. Islam and Muslims, from what I could gather by listening to the splattering of insults, taunts and jeering, were of second concern to a notion of civic and political “freedom.”
When I pulled up to the Manchester Coffee County Conference center (the same “How to wink at a Muslim” Coffee County), flags abounded, white plastic signs waved in the wind bellowing key words such as “free speech;” “protect the constitution,” and “ ‘Obolish’ communism.” A new rendition of the UK’s WWII adage appeared on t-shirts: “Keep Calm and Eat Pork.” The meeting was at capacity, hundreds of other protesters waited outside barred from entering by scores of police.
The meeting, to no surprise, was a mixed bag. The protestors’ most angry eruption occurred when Killian mentioned U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. For two hours, the crowd badgered the speakers attempting to communicate to the audience about civil rights and hate crimes in America; when AMAC representatives got up to speak about American Muslims, the threats and standing-up-shoutings were directed both at the IRS and at fantastic images of Islam and how all refugees were welfare kings and queens. This sort of hate is uncontrollable, and it is as logical as an angry father at his kid’s sports game. It is as much for the shouter’s egotism as it is for his neighbor’s snide enjoyment.
Hate like this is political, socio-economic and religious in nature. It arises out of a fear stemming from a bewilderment and confusion about the world and one’s role in it. It seems to me that folk who express this sort of hate do not know what they are doing or saying – they can’t, really. To understand the meaning and thus impact of this sort of hate would necessitate an internal change stemming from empathy of the other’s situation. This sort of hate has very little to do with empathy or even attempting to understand the other.
So often, these sorts of emotions arise out of a deep fear that someone is going to take away your community, your livelihood and your sense of self. The crowd’s rambunctiousness was first to assert their worldview. Their second point, it seems to me, was to assert their worldview over and against what they viewed as evil, as other. But there was little effort spent in actually contextualizing or understanding this other – stereotypes are like this: narcissistic, anxious types of things that are by nature unstable. That’s why violence often erupts to instill normalcy based on the stereotypical status quo. It seems to me that whenever power uses drastic force to reify the status quo, the narrative it puts in place is inherently fictitious. And so, this sort of hate is calling for a return to an America that is slowly being exposed as false, oppressive and hateful.
What these protesters at the Manchester event were calling for had less to do with any notion of free speech or some deep meaning of democracy or the Constitution. It has everything to do with a certain hierarchy of social, economic, political and religious power.
When someone shouts that Muslims are threatening their way of life, what they mean is that they feel that Muslims are “encroaching” on their way of life, that their status quo is being agitated.
The foremost challenge for the interfaith movement is a challenge that rarely gets discussed with full honesty in American religious discourse. Issues of racism, sexism, homophobia and classism plague the interfaith community as much as the rest of society. In thinking about interfaith activism, it is important that I ask how I understand social and political power in interfaith meetings. So when we engage others who maintain differing theological claims about how the world ought to be, conflict will surely arise and ways of life will collide. This is why interfaith dialogue is so needed – to engage in exchange and constructive activity between these differing worldviews.
We have to create interfaith encounters in environments that disarm and disable violent discourse. We have to also meet people where they are – and this will inevitably involve the reality of confronting racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia and the like in our own communities. In some theoretical sense, I can understand how this crowd became so angry. Fear and ignorance are powerful enough to make us hate our brothers and sisters. This crowd, then, can be approached with a sort of logical understanding that their anger might be seen as justified, but not right; as comprehensible, but not true.
Manchester, Tennessee is another potent example of how the U.S.A. is not becoming increasingly secular but rather that religion and faith are becoming highly – and in sophisticated ways – integrated into people’s lives. Interfaith activists have a responsibility to understand how this hate has evolved, why it continues to turn out large numbers to such events as Manchester and how to deal with it effectively. To disregard it is to misunderstand faith in America and how we can build a peaceful and just interfaith community.