Challenging Islamophobia in Tennessee

July 20, 2010

On July 14, right-wingers organized a march against the planned construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn.--another in a series of examples of anti-Muslim bigotry around the country led by right-wing groups like the Tea Partiers.

In Murfreesboro, a grassroots coalition called Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom (MTRF) quickly formed in response and organized a 500 person-strong counter-protest, outnumbering the bigots and asserting the right of Muslims in Murfreesboro to practice their religion free of demonization, harassment and threats.

Jase Short, a member of Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom and the socialist group Solidarity, talked to Safia Albaiti about the organizing against the right-wing bigots and for religious freedom.

CAN YOU give us some background on this attack on the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and the counter-protest? How did Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom come together?

ON MAY 24, the Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission approved the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's request to build a 52,000-square-foot facility. After a decade of construction, there will be a 10,000-square-foot mosque, a gym, classrooms and a place for the Imam to live.

At the next meeting of the Commission, several hundred members of the World Outreach Church--a mega-church here that is in the midst of constructing its fourth sanctuary, this one alone at 125,000 square feet--filled up City Hall and monopolized all the time allotted for citizens to speak to the commission.

Though World Outreach denies any relationship with the group that came to City Hall, the lead pastor and quite a few associate pastors were on site to speak out against Islam. Officially led by Kevin Fisher, the group proclaimed that their protests were about the size of the facility and concerns over traffic, rather than a religious issue--this despite the speakers who were talking about Islam.

Some 500 people gathered for a hastily organized counter-protest against the attack on Muslims
Some 500 people gathered for a hastily organized counter-protest against the attack on Muslims (Bill Steber |

Also connected here is a Tea Party favorite for Congress, Lou Ann Zelenik, who famously asked, "Is it a church or a training camp?"

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro is currently tucked away in the industrial sector of town and is very small for its 250 families. Thus, it has needed to expand for quite some time. The area it purchased is outside the city limits--unlike the massive World Outreach facility, which regularly shuts down one of our main roads, New Salem Highway--and was already zoned for a church. This would be the first mosque in Murfreesboro--there are over 180 churches here.

After this commission meeting, it came out in the local paper that this group would be leading a march down Main Street. Several members of the Murfreesboro branch of Solidarity got together and created a Facebook page (Middle Tennesseans For Religious Freedom) and invited people via phone, door knocking, social networking sites, etc., to a public meeting.

The first meeting had 25 or so show up to begin organizing a counter-rally. We did not plan the meeting until we had the blessing of the Islamic Center: they told us they would be delighted, but that they would not be able attend in great numbers as there had been death threats via phone, e-mail, written notes, etc. (on top of vandalism that had occurred a few months prior).

THE BIG turnout of counter-protesters on July 14 sounds like it surprised everyone, including organizers. How did you build for this?

WE HAD exactly one week of organizing. After the first meeting, we delegated various tasks and assigned point persons to ensure that the work was done. We acquired phone numbers for phone banking, went door to door, made calls, promoted the protest at local businesses, called potential allies, and went to churches, synagogues and a mosque in Nashville to spread the message.

A second meeting was held a few days before the event, with over 60 people in attendance. The organizers were all young. They weren't all students, though--we have a massive population of non-student youth here, including drop-outs, grads, etc. Both meetings had a good inter-generational mix, with the second one being overwhelming people over 30. By the last couple of days, the entire town and much of Nashville knew of our event.

HAS THE County Commission maintained its decision to grant the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro the right to build the new facility? We also heard that the Murfreesboro mayor came out in support of MTRF and the Islamic Center?

YES, THE Commission has maintained its position. The opposition has gathered 20,000 signatures to present to the Commission at its next meeting on August 12. We assume they will be stacking that meeting if it's open to the public, so we will likely discuss this at the next MTRF meeting.

The mayor remained silent for some time, but once he learned of the counter-protest, he came out in support of the Islamic Center. As of now, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) is going to be conduct trafficing studies. This hasn't been done for World Outreach, nor the Baptist church that is next door to the future site of the Islamic Center.

YOU SAID that threats have been made against the lives of Muslim community leaders in Murfreesboro and their families. How have these been confronted?

THE ISLAMIC Center Board of Directors and their families have been threatened with death on several occasions. They have been talking to the police and sheriff's offices. One of our organizers--a member of the Islamic Center--was told that she would be murdered if she came to the counter-protest, but she came out anyway.

CAN YOU talk about the significance of this struggle in terms of the national fight against Islamophobia? Right now, for example, there's a right-wing frenzy in New York City about the building of an Islamic center, the Cordoba House, near Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan. The right is invoking 9/11, with the same sort of Islamophobic accusations--like Long Island Republican Rep. Peter King, who said, "It's a house of worship, but we are at war with al-Qaeda."

But it sounds like the Murfreesboro struggle has been reshaped by the Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom, which fought on the basis that this was about Islamophobia and Muslim civil rights.

THIS IS part of a broader context of the neoliberal strategy: divide the population with irrational hatreds.

Islamophobia--the conflation of religious, ethnic, cultural and national identities into one "other"--has been part of this neoliberal strategy for several reasons. For one, there is the historical accident of Islam being the religion of most people in the Middle East and Central Asia; for another, there is the historical division between Christianity and Islam, coupled with the Christian traditions of the imperialist powers--here, I'm thinking primarily of the Group of Seven nations.

Whipping up anti-Islamic fervor has been one of the mainstays of the new fascist right in Europe. Here in the U.S., Muslims are much easier targets for right-wing hate than most traditional targets, especially African-Americans and the Latino population, simply because there are so few of them.

Recently in Columbia, Tenn., the Islamic Center there was burned down. A similar struggle occurred in Brentwood, Tenn.--with no counter-protesters--that resulted in a victory for the forces on the right.

We are very happy with our victory, though it isn't quite over yet. But we have definitely challenged them in a way that they didn't expect.

However, the right retains the advantages of massive funding (we have none) and hierarchical organization (we are an entirely grassroots network). We are aware that complacency is a terrible idea in this situation. One tiny victory in a sea of quasi-fascist mobilizations is nothing to be too happy about.

That said, we hope our example proves that we can fight this. If we can fight this in Murfreesboro, Tenn., then it can be fought anywhere in the country. This is the Deep South, after all.

WHAT ARE the next steps that MTRF sees itself taking?

WE HAVE a meeting coming up, so we will be deciding there. I alluded to the next Commission meeting, but we are planning a consciousness-raising campaign as our main effort. Public opinion is affected by social movements--without a strong movement to counter these perceptions, the ruling class' media will set the agenda. We will be holding an interfaith panel, with non-religious folks as well, and then perhaps a speaking tour of community centers, churches, etc.

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