Islamophobia in the Heartland
By Wesley Houp
With all the controversy over the proposed mosque at ground-zero in lower Manhattan, one is tempted to ask whose vision of America is closer to the American Experience, particularly as it concerns our views toward religion: the vision of those who preach tolerance and plurality and pin their supportive arguments on the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, or the vision of those who would, in this case, deny Islam even religious status and choose instead to recast the faith as a political ideology, a “cult” that seeks to establish “training centers” across America and impose Shariah or Redda law on every red-blooded, freedom-loving Dick and Jane in the land?
The latter vision is outright cretinism, a foolishly myopic delusion born of ignorance and a decade of war and conservative fear-mongering.
The former vision—the one that appeals to peace and unity as some sort of American tradition—is, sadly, just a myth. While I wholeheartedly advocate such a benevolent and constitutionally-supported vision of religious plurality, our historical precedents instead evince an ugly and violent portrait of religious intolerance extending back to the beginning. More cretinism.
Religion in America: a brief history
From the onset, religion, in America and the “Christian” world over, has been the blunt instrument used for silencing oppositional voices. Prior to the Pilgrims and Puritans, other European Christians slaughtered one another on American soil solely on the basis of Christian brand. In Florida, Spanish Catholics murdered French Huguenots with relish in the late sixteenth century. The Puritans, themselves seeking the freedom to practice their own uptight version of Christianity, established a theocracy that banned papists, banished freethinkers, and hanged, among others, outspoken Quakers in grandly public executions.
In the decades following independence from England, numerous states purposefully ensconced religious discrimination in their constitutions. For example, the bastions of twenty-first century blue statehood, New York and Massachusetts, forbid Catholics from holding public office, enacting laws that bestowed that honor exclusively on “Christians”—the kind that followed reformations of Martin Luther, that is. Even Delaware, the home state of our current Vice President, hinged full civil rights on a pledge of allegiance—to the Trinity (for Christ’s sake)!
The rough and tumble north Philly of 2010 has nothing on the cobble-stoned Philly of the 1840s, when disgruntled protestants rampaged through town, burning homes and churches in an orgy of anti-immigrant and anti-catholic paranoia. The “Bible Riots,” as they’re known today, claimed dozens of innocent lives. And of course we’re all aware of the plight of the Mormons in Illinois and Missouri around this same time.
Overall, the message has been violently clear from the get-go: if you’re not Protestant (at the very least), you’re not as welcome. For most of our history, to say anyone but Protestant Christians is unwelcome has been a gross understatement. In America, as in countries we like to imagine ourselves superior to, religion has been a matter of life and death.
Ground zero, Murfreesboro, TN
What’s most disturbing about the current controversy at ground zero is that it is not just limited to ground zero. The same quandary—to allow American Muslims freedom to exercise their constitutional rights—is popping up across the country, even in the peaceful streets and suburbs of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, my current place of residence. This past July protesters gathered in Murfreesboro’s historic town square to voice their opposition to a proposed mosque and Islamic community center.
With American and, curiously, Israeli flags flying and signs announcing everything from “God Bless America” to “Stop Homegrown Terrorism,” the anti-mosque contingent marched around the courthouse and was greeted by an equal force of counter-protesters, many of whom belonged to a grassroots organization called “Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom” comprised mainly of university students, professors, and, well, other non-Southern Baptists.
As the protesters chanted “USA, USA, USA” and “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” the counter-protesters stood calmly in silence with arms extended and fingers forking out peace signs. In all, police estimated the crowd at about 1,000.
While the protest organizer, Kevin Fisher (a local resident and perennial also-ran political dabbler), bullhorned that the march was not about religious intolerance, bigotry, or xenophobia, the marchers themselves, through their verbal and nonverbal rhetoric, seemed to prove the exact opposite (with many bearing anti-Islamic signs and messages equating the proposed mosque with radical extremism, terrorism, and 9/11). The counter-protesters, for the most part, stuck to their unified theme of religious freedom for all, including Muslims (many of them bearing placards quoting and paraphrasing relevant portions of the First Amendment).
As a lesson in democratic free speech and peaceful assembly, the event was gratifyingly text-book. The scene unfolded without incident or cause for police intervention.
In the months following the peaceful protest, however, the venom that was visceral in the marchers’ slogans took literal shape in deeds. In August, vandals torched excavation machinery at the proposed building site, and when authorities could find no substantive leads to follow, speculation began to center on an old standby—the Ku Klux Klan.
Arson at the mosque
Of course, Fisher and others involved in the opposition were quick to distance themselves from the age-old hate group, reiterating their disapproval over concerns about the impact the mosque would have on the local environment and on public safety, spurious concerns to say the least given that these nascent environmentalists and all-of-a-sudden stalwarts of public welfare had absolutely no problems with the impact of any of the colossal conservative Christian complexes constructed in the last decade (not to mention the cascades of strip-malls and box-stores)—all of which have had adverse impacts on both the environment and public safety.
But at least they’ve found a canard to mask their intolerance, and they’re sticking to it.
The same can’t be said for Lou Ann Zelenik, area business owner and failed 6th district congressional candidate. From the onset, Zelenik has been the most outspoken and high-profile fear-monger. In every speech, interview, and news-release, she has refused even to call the proposed building a “mosque,” preferring “Islamic training center” instead and warning Middle Tennesseans that its construction is intended to “fracture the moral and political foundation” of the region.
While she lost her bid in the Republican primary, Zelenik still actively opposes the mosque. Most recently, she helped form the “Patriot Alliance of Rutherford County,” which has called on the local imam, Ossama Bahloul, to renounce elements of his own religion (you know, non-Christian elements) and promise not to use the proposed center for fundraising. Unbelievable gall.
Religion in Murfreesboro: a brief history
In September, opponents of the mosque filed suit and appeared in Chancery court, requesting an injunction on any further construction at the site. They claimed that the Rutherford County Commission’s approval of the mosque proposal “did not provide adequate public comment and that its members will impose Shariah law on Murfreesboro residents.”
The plaintiffs also contended that “a mosque is not a church” and should not have been given the same zoning privileges enjoyed by churches under local and state law. Rutherford County Regional Planning Director, Doug Demosi maintained that “the county can make no law that gives preferential treatment or unduly burdens the free practice of religion.” For now, the trial is recessed until October 20th.
Given the clarity of local and state laws, as articulated by Demosi, it seems unlikely that the court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs. The majority of Murfreesboro residents, I believe, will be happy to put the episode behind them and regain ownership of their opinions and values from the small-minded, slack-jawed cretins that hijacked them before the national media.
As for the Kevin Fishers, Lou Ann Zeleniks and other would-be defenders of our “Christian” heritage, well…the next time you go out of your way to limit the religious freedoms of fellow Americans, you’d do well to bone-up on even some local history.
Less than a hundred years ago another group of concerned citizens rallied to prevent the expansion of a foreign religion into Middle Tennessee. It was the 1920s. The feared, foreign faith was Catholicism. And the group of concerned “Christian” patriots wore white hoods and robes and had a penchant for burning crosses among other things.