I spent 15 years of my recent adult life in Murfreesboro, TN, lately the subject of national media attention. Recently, a local Muslim congregation received permission from the county planning commission to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque on their own property. Some mostly white, Christian residents have protested the plan on the ugliest possible grounds. They filled a commission meeting to complain and held a march/rally in the town square.
Of course the protesters are full of shit and I’m shamed by it. On a high note, some of my comrades have organized “Middle Tennesseans for Religious Freedom,” which staged a pretty exhilarating counter-protest. (I would say they “won.”)
This post is my response to the episode and to Islamophobia in general.
Kevin is Fishing for a pretext
It seems a Murfreesboro man named Kevin Fisher sparked the drama. He filed a grievance with the state charging that the planning commission failed to properly notify the public that they were considering the plan. His complaint went public and managed to gather steam. He remains the chief organizer and “public face” of the protest.
Fisher’s on-camera statements have been careful to focus on legal-technical matters—zoning issues, how the construction could negatively impact traffic flows, water tables, home values, etc.
But Fisher is no amateur municipal policy wonk. His letter to the Tennessean [newspaper] briefly notes these logistical concerns before reminding readers of the ongoing War on Terror, which he describes, Sam Huntington-style, as a clash of “ideologies.” Unless this is just a nice historical aside, it appears to be his entire case: ‘We are at war with people who are Muslims; therefore, the new center is a “concern.”’ He never gets any more specific than that. The implication is (can only be) that the mosque—just for being a Muslim entity—may be implicated in some kind of “anti-American” terrorist or otherwise dangerous/illegal activity.
I will argue below that this fear is misplaced. But first:
It is unclear how this security concern is supposed to relate to the “technical” side of Fisher’s complaint. Indeed, he makes zero attempt to relate the two sides in terms of substance. (Unless, that is, disrupting the traffic flow or water pressure is itself the dangerous or illegal activity he suspects the Muslims of plotting.)
I am trying to read his point charitably. I suppose he is attempting a kind of “argument from ignorance”: “We just don’t know what these Muslims may be involved in, so we need to investigate.” By itself, this is pretty weak, since we can never be 100% sure about anyone (therefore, we should investigate everyone). But the point is at least consistent. That is, until you note that none of Fisher’s actual, concrete proposals (also in the letter) have anything to do with crime, terrorism, and the like—they are all about those “technical” issues. Demanding traffic and water studies is an odd response to an abiding, mortal fear—especially since Fisher trusts the “suspects” to conduct the studies upon themselves!
A cover story
Fisher’s whole “schizophrenic” approach only makes sense if the legal concerns are just a cover story—a handy tool for waging what is fundamentally an Islamophobic campaign.
This probably won’t be an “a-ha!” moment for people like my counter-protesting comrades, who already suspect duplicity. But if you read Fisher’s words carefully, he all but admits it: In the letter, he describes the commission meeting (in retrospect) as a chance for people to “address concerns…that had been denied through lack of proper due process.” He adds that zoning, etc. “laws were ignored to stifle public outcry.”
Notice: He doesn’t say that the concerns were over lack of due process; nor that the public outcry was over the ignoring of laws. Rather, the ignoring of due process and the law were bad because they preempted a “concern” and “outcry” existing prior to and having fuck-all to do with those technical matters. (Namely, the fact that the project is run by Muslims, for Muslims.)
I don’t know if Fisher, etc. expect the technical protests to actually stop construction. Maybe the goal is simple harassment. His proposals have yet failed to impress the commission, and are so plainly out of whack with the relevant laws that I wonder if he means them seriously. But the protest alone could induce the mosque leaders to voluntarily back down, as happened a few miles away in Antioch, TN, and in Brentwood, a suburb of Nashville.
What is obvious is that Mr. Fisher doesn’t give a shit about water pressure.
[Sidenote: Not long ago, the same commission approved a plan allowing Grace Baptist Church to build across the street from the proposed mosque site; construction has already begun. The circumstances aren’t identical (no two ever are), but most of the logistical issues would apply here as well. Needless to say, neither Fisher nor anyone else has raised a peep over “undue process,” traffic, etc.]
The rank and file protesters: Islamophobia without tears
Whatever Fisher thinks, a leader or organizer cannot be equated with whatever thing he is leading or organizing. It remains that the protest is very clearly, openly, driven by Islamophobia. Virtually every public comment and rally sign has been directed toward the Muslim identity of the congregation. As one newspaper observed: “Questions of whether the public was given adequate notice about the proposed mosque…quickly turned into attacks on the Muslim faith during the public comment portion of today’s Rutherford County Commission meeting.”
The following is a sampling of protester quotes, culled from local and national newspapers. (Note: I didn’t have to cherry-pick anything, as nobody at the meeting spoke in the mosque’s defense.)
“Everybody knows they are trying to kill us…Somebody has to stand and take this country back.”
“Experience has taught us that a segment of Muslims are very hostile to anyone who is not Muslim…Their Quran is very explicit about how they should treat infidels.”
“We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam.”
“Islam is a system of justice [i.e., not a religion – ed.] We’ve got people here who remember Sept. 11, 2001. These people are scared.”
“I’m afraid we’ll have a [terrorist] training facility in Rutherford County.”
“We are fighting these people, for crying out loud, and so I don’t necessarily want them in my neighborhood.”
“Our country was founded through the founding fathers [true by definition, duh – ed.]—through the true God, the Father and Jesus Christ.”
(Note also: If anyone still doubts Fisher’s real concern, his own comment at the meeting simply endorsed the comments that preceded his—in a “Hear that? The people have spoken” kind of way. Of course he agrees with that shit.)
Are these fears reasonable?
If the technical concerns are a lie, at least the lie makes sense. But opposing the mosque because you think Islam is dangerous is plain bizarre. In Murfreesboro, the proof is in the pudding. Nobody is proposing to create a brand-new entity. There is already an Islamic center with a de facto mosque; it has been there for 13 fucking years. It is merely moving locations.
All things being equal, isn’t past behavior the surest indicator of future behavior? We can estimate how the new site would function by looking at the old site. I am not giving away any big secret when I note there have been no terrorist plots, nor other evils of Islamic coloration, emerging from the old location. The congregants have been “good neighbors” all this time.
Granted, the new site will be larger, and if you are already inclined to fear Islam, you will be inclined to oppose its “growth.” However, the expansion follows upon real growth that has already occurred; it isn’t clear it will create it. There aren’t hordes of Muslims not practicing simply because the current facility is overextended. The “bigger” congregation is being served now, only with relative difficulty.
Any such argument against relocation, then, is also an argument for shutting down the original site altogether; for it is just as “Muslim” as the new one. (This is the totalitarian place the protestor logic leads us. And Fisher says its about “let[ting] freedom ring.”)
Arguing against Islamophobia in general
Fear of Muslims should be examined apart from the particular conditions of Murfreesboro, TN.
The popular methodology of Islamophobia has two components: (a) citing naughty things (violence, etc.) done by Muslims, and (b) citing naughty passages from the Quran. I will treat these in turn.
We can agree with Fisher that the folks “we” are warring against are Muslim. The problem is that they are many other things as well—theists, mammals, beings with noses, etc. Must we be suspicious of everybody who has any feature in common with someone we are at war with? If not, why this feature—religion—rather than any other?
Just as not all Christians are Phalangist assassins or clinic-bombing militia types, not all Muslims are terrorists, medieval obscurants, etc. Citing the bad ones, even many bad ones, needn’t speak to the rest of the group. (This is a pretty elementary point, but frankly, I’m speaking to a pretty elementary argument.)
Method (b) is somewhat more powerful because it does look to taint Muslims as a group. It goes: ‘Despite their apparent diversity, all Muslims are beholden to the Quran; the naughty statements it contains (injunctions to kill infidels, etc.) are injunctions that hold for all, even the “good” Murfreesboro-type ones. It is their book; therefore, the naughty parts are theirs also.’
This reasoning commits a fatal error in assuming that a religion is reducible to a holy text. It is more correct to say: Islam is a holy book plus an interpretive scheme—a scheme embodied in traditions, auxiliary beliefs, and yet other texts, each with yet other interpretive schemes. This scheme is used to tell the faithful what the text means.
Actually, this expanded definition is still too narrow: There is no “Islam” to speak of, nor is there an interpretive scheme. There are only particular variants of Islam, each coupled with one of many competing interpretive schemes. (A religion is like a language: There is no “English,” just particular dialects of English.)
It follows that, if you want to establish the “danger” of an Islamic group, you have to do better than cite the book; you must show that it is actually interpreted and acted upon by members in a dangerous way. So far as the Murfreesboro believers are concerned, quoting passages that appear to endorse killing non-Muslims fails—because these worshipers simply do not interpret these passages as licensing them, in the present day, to kill non-believers. And that is that.
* * *
Some Islamophobes will go on: ‘OK, perhaps there are different interpretations. But the only proper, consistent interpretation is the “naughty” one; all Muslims are in fact commanded to wage jihad against the infidels, no matter what each interpreter may think. The Quran is not merely taken by some people to endorse violence; it “really” endorses it.’ This is supposed to deprive mainstream Muslims of the means to differentiate themselves from radicals like al-Quaeda, etc.
We don’t have to debate what the Quran “really” says to see that the logic of this argument is piss. The most it could mean is: “Mainstream Muslims ought, logically speaking, to be violent, but they are not.” The important point remains that they are not. (Since when can we equate what a person does with what he ought to do? I may as well tell the judge that, since I ought to have obeyed the speed limit, I am not liable for the ticket.) Perhaps these Muslims can be accused of poor reading; but we cannot call them dangerous.
* * *
Finally, an outsider can find just as many ostensibly dangerous passages in the Bible. For example, in Luke 19:27, Christ says: “Those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and kill them in front of me.”
“On its face” (whatever that means), this verse appears to condone murder of “infidels” too. It isn’t much further to say that being “Christlike” means His followers should follow suit. If Muhammad spoke these words, the protesters would be drooling over it.
Christians allege that in context the meaning of this verse is benign. They reserve the right to distance themselves from militia types, etc. by invoking alternate interpretations of the identical text. And they probably have a good point. But it is irrational or worse to deny the same charity to Muslims.
Some “rational” Islamophobes (in the sense of “rational racism”) will say that they are only hedging their bets. They don’t hate anyone, and they aren’t even sure these Muslims are the “bad kind.” They just can’t take that chance.
Let’s test this claim. If a protester is sincerely in this position, we can expect him to behave in a certain way. He would be like a door attendant who has to wand everyone entering the building with a metal detector. The attendant is “investigating” his “suspects”; but this wouldn’t give him a reason to bear animosity toward those he wands. It simply wouldn’t occur to him, right?
But the tenor of the Murfreesboro protest is nothing like this. One marcher was quoted by Channel 5: “Half of [Muslims] will bury a body in their backyard and then drink the water.” Eh? Even if this were true, it has nothing to do with fear of terrorism, much less municipal law. It’s just a mean, egregious, insulting thing to say—nothing we would expect from a marcher merely seeking security. And the majority of the comments and signs are like this.
So: This protest is not the “rational,” disinterested self-defense of the doorperson. It is personal. The protesters aren’t seeking to ensure that their neighbors are the “good Muslims”; they have already presupposed their guilt. This is the only way to explain the persistence of mockery and harassment.
* * *
I direct my final point to the anti-Muslims: Going by numbers provided by our Federal government, the statistical likelihood that your local mosque will prove instrumental in some terrorist activity is far, far less than the chance that your white, nominally Christian neighbor will rob your house or otherwise criminally violate you at some point. So if it is “rational” to bet-hedge the Muslims, it would be all the smarter to protest the guy across the hedge. But you won’t do that—because it’s about something else.
Fuck you with hot sauce.