“We are truly at the frontline of this,” she said. “It seems Florida and Tennessee are competing, but it seems we are ahead of the game, unfortunately.”
If you can believe it, two Tennessee state legislators, Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Judd Matheny, proposed a bill in the statehouse in 2011 making it illegal to be a Muslim in the state. Not surprisingly, the bill failed. But it was an alarming enough idea – with backing from large circles of Tennessee’s Islamophobic community – to warrant action by Muslims who were coming under increasing persecution in the Volunteer State.
The state was already making national headlines for the wrong reasons. Another bill was passed banning Shariah Law, with broad language in the original form of the bill, which was later tweaked, giving the state’s attorney general powers to prosecute Islamic groups of potential terrorism charges. There are roughly 65,000 Muslims in Tennessee with around 15 mosques, so the impact of the law was powerful enough to scare worshippers.
A mosque in the center of the state, just south of Nashville in town called Murfreesboro with roughly 100,000 people, a traditional town square with a clock tower adorning the county courthouse and an honest-to-goodness Main Street, wanted to move to a new location to accommodate its growing congregation in 2009. The mosque had been there since 1982, existing in harmony within the community alongside various denominational Christian churches. But when the mosque’s administrators bought new property to make the move, things began to get ugly and the bile-spewing vitriol began. The incidents made national headlines, including shows like The Daily Show, along with TIME magazine and CNN, just to name a few.
The incidents were beginning to mount and someone, or some organization, needed to represent Muslims who were being slandered, harassed, bullied – and in the Murfreesboro saga, shots were even fired, including acts of vandalism and in one such instance, vandals set fire to construction equipment. It didn’t help matters, either, that one of the newspapers in Murfreesboro, The Rutherford Reader, was actively publishing anti-Muslim articles and op-ed pieces, some from unpaid writers, all sanctioned by its xenophobic publisher and owner, Pete Doughtie, who physically threatened a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles on camera in 2010. Rutherford County Kroger stores eventually pulled the newspaper from shelves after his paper gained an unsavory reputation.
The new mosque, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, finally opened in August 2012 after a heated legal battle by local residents. In the end, it took a federal judge to end the debate and allow the mosque to be built and opened. But the fight isn’t over yet – more on that in a moment.
Enter the American Center for Outreach, founded in 2011 to bring the Muslim voice “to the political stage with the objective of changing the local political debate” and “to inform, educate and empower Muslims to become engaged in society by providing the assistance they need to become productive citizens,” according to its website. Its director, Remziya Suleyman, has worked feverishly since then not just in Tennessee, but across the U.S., in stamping out the intolerance that was infecting some Tennessee communities and on the statehouse floor.
Suleyman, born in Iraqi Kurdistan, said Tennessee is one of the top states in the country where fear of Muslims is most pervasive, as cited in a recently released report by the Center for American-Islamic Relations called, ‘Legislating Fear: Islamophobia and its Impact in the United States.’
“We are truly at the frontline of this,” Suleyman, 28, told MintPress by phone on Monday. “It seems Florida and Tennessee are competing, but it seems we are ahead of the game, unfortunately.”
She said groups like the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, the Center for the Study of Political Islam, Act for America’s Tennessee chapter and the Tennessee Eagle Forum are just a few of the groups working to promote the fear of Islam in the state. One individual, Andy Miller, who is CEO of Nashville’s Healthmark Ventures, has personally donated more than $100,000 to support Republican candidates who vocally oppose Islam outright, according to the Center for American-Islamic Relations and the Center for Responsive Politics.
Murfreesboro Residents Still Fighting to Close Mosque
Suleyman said, surprisingly, the Murfreesboro situation is still not done, as local residents are not happy the mosque is open. In fact, the case – originally heard by an appeals court in which a federal judge said the mosque had the right to be built – is potentially headed to the U.S. Supreme Court (after the Tennessee Supreme Court declined to hear the case).
“There are still a handful of people that are trying to have the mosque closed down, saying the county never gave proper notification (on the plans to build the mosque),” she said. “Even though the mosque is up and running, these people are still fighting, and it’s basically wasting taxpayer money. What it boils down to is that they are upset at the county for approving the mosque.”
Suleyman said she remains hopeful.
“We’ll know more within the next few weeks if they will hear it,” she said. “I think the appeals court made the right decision. We’re optimistic that the Supreme Court won’t even hear the case – that they’ll let the appeals court decision stand.”
In the meantime, the ACO has a host of other issues to deal. One is a state bill – by many of the same people from Murfreesboro, and the legislators who originally proposed the ban on practicing Islam in Tennessee – to censor education curriculum textbooks, removing references to Muslims entirely.
Another big priority for the ACO is preparing for the 2014 elections and getting out the Muslim vote, which they did a great job of in 2012, according to Suleyman.
And one final issue for Suleyman is her security, which has come under increasing risk as of late. She told MintPress that someone tried to run her off the road near Murfreesboro in 2010, so she has grounds for being concerned.
“I’m a regular target of these blogs and websites,” she said. “There’s been a lot of threatening rhetoric about my safety.”
She said she’s been in regular communication with law enforcement officials regarding her own well being and the ACO’s office.