Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Murfreesboro Mosque

The resistance to the expansion of a Islamic community center in Murfreesboro is turning more sinister and has gained more national attention accordingly. During the weekend someone set fire to construction equipment outside the center and fired shots in its vicinity. Last night, members of the community held a candlelight vigil in response, which, too was challenged by anti-mosque protesters.

Mosque opponents have reached a particular critical mass in our culture: Daily Show interviews.

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Skip to about half-way for the Murfreesboro part (although the rest is funny enough to watch, too-- but it's about the NYC controversy). The comments of the anti-mosque leader are obviously disturbing, even just for the simple reason that reveals there are adults out there who don't know what I used to tell my students every semester: you can't trust everything you google. It's easy to laugh at these kinds of folks. At the level of serious commentary, it's also easy to dismiss them a part of an anxiety-ridden majority that is slowly seeing its dominance melt away and is digging in its heels.

I don't think either is particularly useful in getting at the heart of the matter, or in answering the question of "why middle Tennessee?" Having lived in the Volunteer State for a time and having thought about this kind of activity as a historian, here are my impressions.

As a preamble: I spent a weekend in Murfreesboro when UVa played at Middle Tennessee State for some strange reason several football seasons ago (and a game we really should have lost...but anway...). It's not worth a return trip.

With that out of the way, the fire at the mosque was not terrorism: it was vigilantism. By that, I mean it was an example of extra-legal enforcement of the community's cultural norms where the rule of law traditionally failed. The board that approved the expansion would have no constitutional leg to stand on to oppose it, so the arsonists are defending the community through alternative means. This kind of stuff used to happen quite a lot and for a variety of reasons in the early 20th century. The gunfire is terrorism, in that it is designed to cow the Muslim community into submission.

I raise this distinction because how people think about their local community are the most useful way to understand these incidents. This perspective is important because this episode is not as cut-and-dried as reactionary yokels vs. new immigrants with a strange faith. For example, I had assumed myself that Murfreesboro was in Marsha Blackburn's Congressional district. It's not. It's in Al Gore's old district and hasn't had a Republican represent it in Congress since 1983. But it does have lots and lots of churches.

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When I lived in Memphis one of the first things people would ask in a dinner party situation was where I went to church. It was usually the second question, right after where in town we lived, and was only asked if the conversation survived the revelation that we resided in the middle of downtown -- a concept so alien and undesirable to most native Memphians that it usually halted any desire for further interaction. The religion question, of course, was no less awkward because I haven't been a church attendant since middle school. People would often then invite us to attend their church, assuming that we just hadn't found one we liked. While for me that was true in a way, the invitation was a way to be neighborly and not nosy. More than half of Tennesseans are evangelical Christians, and more than 7 out of 10 told the Pew Research Center's survey efforts that religion was "very important" in their lives. What this meant was less about religious dogma and more about community. Church was the center of most people's social lives and most of the lives of the friends I made there. Every year "in church" finished first in the free newspaper's best-of poll for best place for singles to meet.

Memphis at least is a pretty big city with other stuff to do. In Murfreesboro, church is probably all that more central as a social outlet a center of community life. Church membership is also socially isolating. So people who oppose the Muslim community center's expansion understand one part of its desires -- to continue to have the faith community be central to its members' lives. But they have no idea what actually goes on within that community. While they probably have an idea what the Episcopalians down the street are up to, they have to use the google machine to understand anything at all about Islam. Understanding their own church as an insular community with shared beliefs they see the Muslim community in the same way, but believe it subscribes to a single, radical form of Islam that dominates the entire religion.

This kind of scenario is exactly why those of us who rejected the language of a "global war on terror" did so: it leveled differences within an enormously complicated faith tradition and makes the local struggle the equivalent of the worldwide one. People in Murfreesboro think they're fighting jihadis like the Marines in Kandahar. Of course, those not actively resisting mosques see it another way: as a debate between the tolerant and the intolerant. But the protesters in Tennessee or elsewhere do not think they are fighting for intolerance, and elevating the conversation to the level of civil liberties is really a waste of time.

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