A few nights ago (27 March 2011), CNN aired a special called "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door", hosted by Soledad O'Brien. The show was about the ongoing efforts of the citizens of Murfreesboro TN to block construction of a local mosque.
I cringed to hear supposedly educated, well-mannered people spew half-truths--sometimes outright lies--about their own motivations and those of their opponents, whom they reduced to vile, simplistic stereotypes. Rarely have I seen such an embarrassing display of ignorance and bigotry, barely concealed by the thin veneer of faked gentility. This is a community determined to preserve a way of life that the rest of America has moved beyond.
Yes: the Muslims had nothing but contempt for their non-Muslim neighbors.
"Unwelcome" is part of an ongoing effort by popular news/commentary outlets--including NPR--to re-program the American public's attitude about Islam. CNN, unbiased news station that it is, had to weigh in on the crisis of ( largely imaginary) islamophobia sweeping across the US, and what better example than Murfreesboro TN...home to 140 churches and about a million rednecks? Oh, plus some long-suffering, peace-loving Muslims who, for some reason, felt compelled to put down roots in this hotbed of Klan activity.
The station even offers a helpful CNN Educator Guide to the episode, because the people of Murfreesboro should at least be able to provide a Teachable Moment to the high school students of America. Learning objective: Islam is benign and wonderful, and Christians--especially the Bible-thumping variety--are the REAL enemy.
I watched the show, expecting it to be biased but hoping it would at least use some balance. Even I was shocked at the protrayal Murfreesboro as a town full of semi-literate inbred louts right out of central casting for Deliverance II.
Murfreesboro's residents were vilified and mocked throughout the hour, even though they made a number of valid points. Yet the production team went out of its way to find examples of backwoods brutishness. One guy they interviewed wore a seed cap and had, like, two teeth. Really, CNN ? I guess Jed Clampett was busy distilling his next batch of moonshine and so was unavailable.
CNN went for an easy target, because the white Southern male is the last American archetype we are allowed to demonize. Choosing Murfreesboro was a no-brainer for O'Brien and her staff. No matter what those people said, they would be seen as xenophobic paranoiacs rallied around the Stars and Bars and lamenting the end of slavery.
It was almost laughable: when O'Brien interviewed her Muslim contacts, she was almost fawning. She leaned forward, purred sympathetically, and elicited lots of sad stories about vicitimization and subtle bullying. When she spoke to townspeople opposed to the mosque, it was not so much an interveiw as an interrogation. She fired questions at them and sneered at their answers. This wasn't journalism, it was abuse.
Here's the issue in a nutshell:
Murfreesboro residents consider themselves--as most people do, I suppose--warm and welcoming. They already proved that by rolling out the welcome mat for Muslims prior to 9/11, and the same Muslims recalled how their neighbors approached them after the WTC attacks to reassure them that they understood the distinction between Islam and terrorism. The Muslim population in Murfreesboro increased, though, and eventually they outgrew their small mosque. They bought land and broke ground for an expansion: a newer facility that would include a school, community center, and even a cemetery.
At that point, the non-Muslims in the area became concerned. They tried to block construction on the basis of zoning violations, and while some of those issues were probably reasonable, there were underlying worries as well.
Unfortunately, the discussion segued from zoning problems to whether or not sharia law would be imposed on Tennessee...which may well happen, but Murfreesboro probably won't be the epicenter of that. Because the mosque opponents veered off trail, they sacrificed a lot of credibility, and that's why CNN pounced on them. The public was supposed to watch the players in this drama and think, "Ah, scary fundamentalists? Those hillbillies are the scary fundamentalists...not those refined Muslims!"
*Hate messages on the imam's answering machine were played for an aghast Soledad, although most of the recording was censored. One person said, "Mohammad was a (garble garble garble)!" The imam looked sad and said he could not believe he was hearing these statements. But here's what (I bet) the message said: "Mohammad was a pedophile because he was 53 when he married a six year old girl." And that's true. The imam was probably dispmayed that this information was out there, even though anyone who reads the papers knows that child marriages are not uncommon in Muslim societies....even broadly interpretted sharia allows this. So were these "hate messages" or just embarrassing questions that the imam would prefer not to answer honestly?
*One of the more disturbing features of the mosque-under-construction was actually the cemetery. Muslims don't use coffins or vaults--they shroud their dead--and one of the anti-mosque spokesmen mentioned that people were worried about decaying corpses leeching into the water table. O'Brien scoffed at this. Is she an idiot? Until very recently, a leading cause of death was contaminated water. (Actually, it's still a big killer in the developing world.) Long before germ theory was even dreamed of, armies knew that the most effective way of destroying a village's viability was to foul their water source, often by tossing a human corpse or an animal carcass down a well. Yes, some monastic communities still observe simple burials, but those sites are usually remote and inaccessable...not on the same property as a grammar school and playground.
*The construction site was also conveniently vandalized. An elderly Murfreesboro woman admitted that she thought it COULD have been an inside job by members of the mosque, and O'Brien sneered at her. The woman was visibly shaken and intimidated, but she stood her ground, and her facts were accurate. Other acts of vandalism have been initiated by Muslims trying to illustrate bias, and a mosque in Georgia was torched by a member of the community for precisely this reason. CAIR regularly reports cases of Islamophobia, or islamovandalism, and issues statements galore about "backlash" and "targeting," and you always know it's an inside job when CAIR suddenly shrieks, "No comment!" and drops all references to whatever incident they're upset about. In Murfreesboro, the investigation is "ongoing." Also, during the filming, gunshots were heard in the woods. Gunshots? In rural Tennessee during hunting season? No!
*Who is this imam? The mosque leader says he's originally from Egypt, where he received his religious education, and then moved to Texas. Of course, there could be very moderate, forward-thinking imams coming out of Al-Azhar U, but I doubt it. And Texas is one of the centers of Islamic fundamentalism here in the US, along with Dearborn, MI, and parts of Florida and Ohio. Next: Tennessee?
*The leaders of the Muslim community resisted fiscal transparency. The Murfreesboro residents kept trying to bring this up and were continually shot down. But the mosque plans called for huge amounts of money, which was said to have come from the pockets of this tiny, beleagured community. Typically, mosque expansion is underwritten by Muslim organizations which may or may not have aboveboard intentions. If the groups who financed this project have no political agenda, then why not name them? If, as in so many other cases, fundamentalist Saudi or Egyptian foundations have a hand in this, Murfreesboro should aggressively move to shut down this project. Murfreesboro doesn't need a madrassa in its midst.
*Many of the Muslim women wore hijab. If the imam is as fundamentalist as his credentials suggest, this is no suprise. But as for the "overreacting" Murfreesboro resdients who brought up sharia, we know one thing for sure: at least the Muslims in town are observing it. As they become more integrated with American culture, they will either discard these customs or they will expect them to be acknowledged in the public sector. If the latter--which is probable--the non-sharia Tennessee civil and criminal courts will have to consider sharia regulations. This is happening in communities nationwide. Business and domestic disputes are now involving sharia elements, and criminal justice protocols must now change to accomodate evidence gathering, searching suspects, and detaining people.
*O'Brien allowed Muslims to misquote the Qur'an and she let this go unchallenged. Perhaps this wasn't the forum to debate citations from religious literature. But when a Murfreesboro resident pointed out that the Qur'an allows a husband to beat his wife, a Muslim woman called him a liar and denied that such a passage exists. She's the liar. The Qur'an does have a verse that says this (Sura 4, aya 34)...and it is a verse many Muslim men take seriously--even westernized Muslim men. If the girl had said, "Yes, it's there, but men in this community reject that teaching," or "Yes, but we are moving beyond that..." okay. But don't lie.
Interestingly, O'Brien also didn't spend a lot of time interviewing, except as part of the scenery, Murfreesboro residents who were NOT opposed to the mosque. It seems like the anti-mosque people were in somewhat of a minority, although, had I been there, I would have been among their ranks. It's fishy that CNN was trying to create a story when in fact there probably wasn't much going on, at least not on a national level. There have been a number of anti-mosque initiatives in the Chicago area, and most of these stories never go beyond local news. But I guess Chicagoans don't give as good "local color" as the sons of the South.
I'm sure the more cogent arguments of the mosque opponents were edited out to help O'Brien et al prove their point, but when the issue reached the courts, the pro-mosque contingent looked pretty solid. One argument the anti-mosque lawyer tried to build was that the mosque should not be zoned as a place of worship because Islam is not a religion. Yet Islam DOES fit the basic definition of a religion (belief in a supreme being, codified rituals, morality system, etc.). But Islam is also an all-inclusive lifestyle, and it does not acknowledge a separation of religion and state. If the lawyer had called the imam to the stand and asked him that directly, the courtroom may have received a little more education about Islam and whether a fundamentalist Muslim community would fit into Murfreesboro. The attorney would have been better off following the financial trail or hiring a private eye to look into the imam's background.
And this is getting old: I counted at least 11 butt shots of Muslim men praying. Can we please not have this visual image included in EVERY news story about Muslims? Every time the story went back to the mosque promotors, there they were again, rows of Muslim posteriers on display! Maybe the teetotalling Muslims are confused when Americans toast each other with "Bottoms up!" Whatever, it's time to get a new "typical Muslim" pose.
The people of Murfreesboro vowed to follow their fight to the Supreme Court, if necessary. I doubt they'll win unless they change strategy.
But thanks to CNN's lynch mob, they've clearly lost in the court of public opinion. And that's too bad, because they're not a bunch of pathetic hayseeds like Soledad O'Brien would have us believe. At least we know they have more insight than O'Brien when it comes to Islam.