Middle Tennessee has long been a focal point of anti-Muslim activism. Most notably, perhaps, was a Murfreesboro mosque-construction debate that gained national attention in 2009 when opponents dubbed it a “training center” and questioned whether Islam is “actually a religion” or a “cult.” Since then, there have been incidents of vandalism, arson and violent threats against Muslim institutions, along with continuous attempts to implement statewide anti-Shariah laws and other anti-Muslim legislation.
Last week, the region garnered national attention once again after an event designed to build bridges between local Muslims and the broader community put bigotry and intolerance on full display.
The forum was organized by the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC) after a local county commissioner posted a photo on Facebook as a “joke” about shooting Muslims. Commissioner Barry West eventually removed the image and publicly apologized after meeting with AMAC leaders, but his story had already gone viral and, according to organizers, demonstrated the need for public discourse.
Hundreds of people packed the convention hall Tuesday to hear from a U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Tennessee and an FBI special agent responsible for the agency’s Knoxville division. Outside, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer led hundreds more in a protest of the event.
Kenneth Moore, the FBI special agent said, despite Internet reports and rumors, the event’s aim was community outreach, not a free speech debate.
“Our presence here tonight has generated some controversy,” he said. “People think we want to step on and stifle their First Amendment rights. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The indoor audience was interspersed with loud hecklers who sought to cut off speech at every turn, under the guise of protecting it. While organizers expected some opposition, they said they were surprised with the lack of civility they encountered. Audience members interrupted every speaker who approached the lectern. They called for U.S. Attorney Bill Killian’s resignation and told him to “go home.”When AMAC member Sabina Mohyuddin mentioned the high rate of citizenship among American Muslims, someone in the crowd shouted, “Infiltration!”
Prior to the forum, many wondered online why “outsiders” from the Obama administration were coming to do the administration’s “bidding” to protect Muslims. The irony of such sentiments were obviously lost on Geller and Spencer who traveled from New York to take center stage at the demonstration.
Despite the fact that a local organization planned a local event to address a local problem, Spencer took to FrontPage Magazine to question why the event took place in Manchester, Tennessee, rather than a more prominent location.
“One wonders who decided to hold an event like this in small-town Tennessee, rather than some higher-profile area, in the first place… Did they hope to float a trial balloon and see if their anti-free speech initiative would be met with indifference and complacency in Manchester, Tennessee, which might be an indication that it wouldn’t encounter serious resistance in Nashville or Dallas or New York or Washington, either?”
Instead, it seems that Geller and Spencer were the ones who saw Manchester as an easy target and took advantage of the relatively small stage — and historical anti-Muslim stronghold — as an opportunistic attempt to prop up their own broader, bigoted agenda.
And, for the majority of the crowd who did come with genuine interest, the rude disruptions and harassment served as a distraction and discouraged healthy dialogue.
Jeff Allen, a conservative who drove an hour to attend the meeting, told the Tullahoma News that he’d think twice before attending a similar event in the future. He said that the loudest protesters seemed intent on disrupting the meeting and that he and his wife even suspected some of the hecklers were drunk.
“I was embarrassed,” he said. “It was a waste of my time. I went to see what Killian and the FBI agent had to say. To me, it was like a theatrical production, I came to see the actors, not to see the audience.”
Last week’s events show that a vocal few can hinder earnest attempts at public discourse and can act as the real obstacles to free speech. The rhetoric becomes even more inflamed when activists who make a living spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric put their force behind such protests and then leave when it’s time to heal and build communities.
As Allen said, “I understand that people are upset and angry, but this isn’t the way to go about it.”