Freedom of speech under attack by Islamophobes in Tennessee
by Sheila Musaji, TheAmericanMuslim.com
I’ve noted before that Pamela Geller Does Not Understand Freedom of Speech when she found fault with American Muslims and others for denouncing her hate ads. This she called an attempt to “impose blasphemy restrictions on free speech”. She does not understand that Freedom of speech does not include freedom from condemnation of that speech. She showed this same lack of understanding of freedom of speech when Al Jazeera came to the U.S. In that case Pamela Geller Defended Free Speech By Calling for Censorship. When a number of students at UC Irvine disrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s talk, The Irvine 11: Freedom of Speech and Double Standards – 11 of those students were arrested and stood trial and the MSU on campus was censured for coordinating the protest. Pamela Geller called the MSA suspension for disrupting the ambassador’s talk “a giant stop sign to the Islamic supremacism and jackbootery increasingly found on college campuses. America is waking up to the enemy in our midst.”
Geller and her partner Robert Spencer actively promoted the recent protest in Tennessee. In fact, Geller posted on Twitter “Thousands gather at AFDI free speech demo in Tennessee”. This means she is taking responsibility for this shameful display of bigotry. Unless she believes that the organizers and participants in this protest should be censured or arrested just as those who disrupted Ambassader Oren’s talk were, then she is truly hypocritical when it comes to freedom of speech. This protest was an egregious example of selective freedom of speech.
The background: Last month, Coffee County, Tennessee commissioner Barry West posted a photo on Facebook of a man squinting down the barrel of a gun, with a caption reading, “How to wink at a Muslim.” The Muslim community in Tennessee and across the nation was outraged, and many were frightened by the implications of the photo and caption, especially coming from an elected official. The photo below is a capture of the Facebook page by the Mail Online. There is no way to see this as anything but threatening.
As Elizabeth Plank noted in an article on this incident:
… An endorsement of Islamophobia by an elected official can only make matters worse for a state that is the home of a frightening amount of anti-Muslim violence. “We know that these lead to discrimination and hate crimes in the Muslim community, and we are very wary of that,” said Sabina Mohyuddin. “I am a second-generation American. My children are third generation. We don’t see ourselves as anything but American,” she continued.
Daniel Tutt, an Episcopalian interfaith activist and a research fellow at the nonprofit Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, told USA Today that the best thing Barry West can do is publicly apologize and privately meet with Muslim families living in Coffee Country. “The initial reaction from Muslims will be, ‘This is unfortunate, but we’ve seen a lot of this.’ But it’s not acceptable. If the same thing were done to the Jewish or African-American communities, it would not be tolerated.” …
West ultimately issued a half-hearted apology after first denying that there was an issue and claiming it was only a joke. Look at this photograph and caption, and simply scroll through the article collection below containing many references to previous incidents in Tennessee, and consider whether or not a community that has seen so much hate directed towards it would see this as a joke. In fact, simply change the wording and replace the word “Muslim” with a word descriptive of another community and see what your reaction would be.
The American Muslim Advisory Council decided to host a meeting to allow local Muslims to share with their neighbors about who the Muslim community is, and to talk about American Muslims and public discourse, and they invited a representative of the DOJ and the FBI to attend and talk about what’s considered free speech and what’s illegal hate speech, and where the line is where speech can be prosecuted. The situation in Tennessee was that there was a lot of tension between the Muslim community and their neighbors. There had been a series of anti-Muslim incidents, and an elected official had posted something that the Muslim community believed to have crossed the line between protected speech and hate speech. This is exactly the sort of situation that the DOJ’s community outreach program is designed to address. Bill Killian, U.S., Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee was to speak about the Constitution, the first and fourteenth amendments, and to clarify what constitutes hate speech, and what are the existing legal consequences.
A meeting was arranged and publicized and the Islamophobia network freaked out. They made a number of ludicrous claims and totally misrepresented the meeting.
An article by Janet Levy titled The Not-So-Veiled Threat to Non-Muslims in Tennessee contains most of the misrepresentations that were repeated endlessly by the Islamophobia echo chamber.
Levy opened by saying that “Claims that American Muslims are loyal citizens, partners in counterterrorism investigations, part of radicalization prevention efforts, and an integral part of American society for centuries fell flat, especially coming from the host organization that was formed only two years ago in response to anti-shariah legislation in the Volunteer State. A well-informed crowd responded with calls of “taqiyyah” when members of AMAC, a group that bills itself as “a bridge between the Muslim community and law enforcement,” touted Muslim contributions to U.S. society and their dedication to upholding American values. (Taqiyyah doctrine obligates Muslims to deceive infidels as part the required effort or jihad to institute Islamic doctrine or shariah). In actuality, Muslim organizations have specifically instructed Muslims not to cooperate with law enforcement and have demanded that all counterterrorism-training materials be expunged of critical references to Islam and Muslims, as well the training instructors fired or retrained who fail to follow along.”
So, according to Levy, we are to understand that well informed people know that if American Muslims claim to be loyal citizens and an integral part of American society – they are lying (practicing taqiyya) and required to lie by their evil religion.
From there she goes on to make false claims about Muslims being forbidden to befriend non-Muslims, being required to wage jihad to establish a global Islamic government under Sharia, having aspirations to replace the Constitution with shariah, etc. She also claims that no other group in the United States has been the focus of such a degree of attention and outreach, no outreach to Jews or other communities, the DOJ and FBI have not scheduled meetings addressing the concerns of any other group but Muslims.
This is the usual ploy of the Islamophobes. No matter what the particular issue at hand, rather than dealing with facts, they throw in every negative aspersion they can to demonize the religion of Islam, and Muslims in general. It is exhausting to have to constantly respond not only to the particular issue at hand, but to all the bigoted claims added on to prove to their audience that Muslims are somehow unique and dangerous. All of the claims that Levy makes in her despicable tirade have been previously addressed. Here are responses to specific charges made by Levy in this article:
— Qur’an 5:51 Can Muslims Have Non-Muslims as Friends? – The Concept of Wilaya in the Qur’an; — How mainstream Muslims understand the term “jihad”;— Islamic Sharia and Jewish Halakha Arbitration Courts;— The Return of the Caliphate?;— The Taqiyya Libel Against Muslims;— American Muslims must defend the Constitution of the United States;— Muslims are a part of our American heritage;— Historic events and people that shaped the American Muslim community;— Does CAIR tell Muslims not to talk to the FBI?; The False Claim that Muslims have no programs to counter radicalization;— A defense of free speech by American and Canadian Muslims;— Where is the U.S. Government Getting It’s Information on Islam and Muslims? (training scandals);— FCNA Resolution: On Being Faithful Muslims and Loyal Americans
As to all the other constantly repeated claims about Islam and Muslims, the meaning of terms, interpretation of scripture, etc. please see Resources for dealing with Islamophobia and Islamophobesfor responses to these and numerous other claims.
Actually, having representatives of the DOJ, FBI, or other government agencies speak to minority groups about issues of particular concern to various groups, and about civil rights and constitutional issues is not at all unusual. Just last month, Attorney General Eric Holder of the DOJ spoke at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Centennial Summit. In his speech he discussed the history of the fight against anti-Semitism, against discrimination, and for civil rights. The fact that such work remains unfinished, and that challenges and threats still lie before us. “And the path to ensuring equality, opportunity, and justice for all – regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or walk of life – still stretches beyond the horizon.”
In fact, a statement Mr. Holder made to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) applies equally to this meeting in Tennessee (just replace Jewish community with Muslim community):
That’s why gatherings like this one are so critical. By fostering constructive dialogue, by standing firm against discrimination, by monitoring hateful activities, by studying the roots of extremism, by defending the security of Jewish populations around the globe, and by educating policymakers, law enforcement leaders, and members of the public – ADL is proving every day that the changes we seek are possible. You’re showing that the results our citizens deserve are not beyond our reach. And you’re strengthening the ability of our nation’s Justice Department to advance these vital efforts.
More than three decades ago, ADL stepped to the forefront of this work – pioneering a model hate crime law that has since inspired similar statutes in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Across the country, you’ve helped guide the implementation and enforcement of these and corresponding federal laws – including right here in Washington.
During the 1990s – when I served as United States Attorney for the District of Columbia – I worked closely with David Friedman to create a Hate Crimes Working Group to build engagement between community leaders, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and the D.C. residents they were sworn to serve. Under my predecessor, Attorney General Janet Reno, this approach was widely replicated across the country. And, on an even larger scale, ADL’s efforts to support and educate law enforcement with innovative training programs – in partnership with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum – have helped to reinforce the values of tolerance and respect for our nation’s diverse population.
To date, more than 80,000 law enforcement officials – including all new FBI agents – have taken part in this training. At every level of today’s Justice Department, my colleagues and I have been proud to work with ADL in broadening the impact of your efforts. We’ve partnered with you to develop cutting-edge resources like the FBI’s new Hate Crime Training Manual. And we’ve been fortunate to stand together in calling for the passage of important legislative tools, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act that has enabled us to take these comprehensive efforts to new heights.
… We can all be proud of the Justice Department’s comprehensive civil rights enforcement efforts – and our ongoing work to bring about long-overdue reforms. We can be encouraged by the results of our close collaboration with ADL – in building new safeguards for vulnerable populations and securing needed changes to help guard against bigotry. Together, we’re upholding the values that have defined this organization over the past century, and the principles that lie at the heart of our justice system.
… We must also continue to move forward in preserving our democratic ideals and ensuring fair treatment for all – even, and especially, in moments of great difficulty.
… In July of last year, the Department filed suit against a Tennessee county for discriminating against local Muslims by refusing to allow a new mosque to open. ADL wrote and filed a brief to aid in this case, on behalf of a broad interfaith coalition. The congregation encountered vandalism, threats of violence, and steep public opposition. But the Department obtained a court order requiring county authorities to stand aside and honor First Amendment rights – and the congregation was permitted to worship in their new facility.
This action, and many others like it, prove the Department’s determination to safeguard the core Constitutional protections that stand at the center of who we are as a nation – and that have always empowered the ADL to bridge divides and promote cooperation over conflict. As Americans, we must not allow any group to be stigmatized or alienated. We must not tolerate acts of hatred. And we must reaffirm every day – through our actions as well as our approach – that justice and public safety are not in tension. They rely upon one another. …
This meeting in Tennessee was exactly the same sort of effort against Islamophobia as previous and continuing efforts against anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry.
Here are just a few examples of such community meetings and presentations by U.S. Attorneys and other DOJ officials to many different minority communities:
— In Ohio “the office hosts meetings open to the broader community to discuss a wide range of topics. In the past year alone, the U.S. Attorney has spoken to community groups about hate crimes, hosted meetings focused on ways to reduce bullying in schools and convened a meeting a local mosque to hear concerns to security restrictions at airports and border crossings, to name a few. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI convene quarterly meetings with community leaders, interested stakeholders and members of Northern Ohio’s minority communities. The office has partnered with The Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio and holds the meeting in important locations in the community, from a Sikh gurdwara to a center of Cleveland’s Vietnamese community. By sharing our collective experiences and stories, we hope to continue to creat understanding and respect between all our various cultures.” [url=http://www.justice.gov/usao/ohn/programs/outreach.html]***[url]
— In California “Scams targeting seniors and the elderly are on the rise in the Internet Age and consumer protection experts advise that education is the most important element of a successful fraud prevention program. With that goal in mind, on November 13, 2012, the Central District of California teamed up with Bet Tzedek Legal Services of Los Angeles to produce a short program to educate local seniors on scams and how to avoid being victimized by fraud. U.S. Attorney André Birotte Jr., Sandy Samuels of Bet Tzedek and Debbie Deem of the L.A. Regional Office of the FBI led an interactive presentation for seniors. The U.S. Attorney’s Office participated in a community meeting in conjunction with the “Stand UP and Speak Out Against Bullying” Campaign. Hosted by the Los Angeles Police Department’s West Valley Division, the Reseda Neighborhood Council and the Reseda Magnet School, the meeting at Reseda H.S. brought together more than 200 students, parents, teachers and other interested parties. ***
— In Alabama, A meeting in Birmingham, Alabama between FBI officials and representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Birmingham-area lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations.
—- In D.C. U.S. Attorneys, and Police addressed a neighborhood meeting of the Georgetown-Burleith Advisory Neighborhood Commission to discuss urban crime and violence ***. The D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office staff attend approximately sixty community meetings and events a month. These meetings are held by civic associations, local government, and the Metropolitan Police Department. During these meetings, in an effort to improve transparency in the criminal justice system, community prosecutors educate the community about our Office including giving insight on our bond determinations, charging decisions, and sentencing allocutions. We also educate the community about the inter-workings of the criminal justice system. In an effort to formalize this educational component, we have piloted a new program called “Witness for the Prosecution” Over a period of several sessions, this program educates the community about the criminal justice and our Office’s role in the criminal justice system. In the coming year, we should look towards expanding this program to marginalized communities, such as the Muslim, Ethiopian, Hispanic and Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered communities. Moreover, during these community meetings we receive various nuisance abatement complaints. In an effort to address and document these complaints, we have drafted a Nuisance Abatement form which standardized how we receive complaints and disseminate these complaints to the appropriate agency. *** On October 3, 2012, the Civil Rights Division and the Community Relations Service (CRS) of the Department of Justice hosted a Roundtable on Religion-Based Hate Crimes at the Robert F. Kennedy Main Justice Building Conference Center. Representatives from 22 religious and interfaith organizations representing a broad array of religious communities participated in a discussion about data collection and reporting relating to religion-based attacks on individuals and places of worship, and the adequacy of current categories in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Diverse religious groups presented anecdotal and survey evidence about hate crimes against Sikhs and Hindus, as well as against Arab Americans, and recommended that these be added as categories in the Uniform Crime Reports to help better understand religious and ethnicity-based hate crimes. Changes to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports are considered by the Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board, a board made up of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials and subject matter experts. The Board then makes recommendations to the FBI Director. ***
— In Arizona, the Southern Arizona Hate Task Force met with elected officials, the acting U.S. Attorney and members of the FBI in forums designed to inform the public about how they can report allegations of police misconduct, about the elements of a hate crime, and what to do if they have been a victim of a hate crime. They’ve even launched a website designed to provide community members with factual information about hate crimes and links to important local resources. *** U.S. Attorney Burke’s civil rights focus has been instrumental in addressing community conflict by recognizing that some communities, particularly those of color, race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, are at higher risk of discrimination and the possible threat of violence. The office has held community civil rights forums to ensure that people are aware of their civil rights and know whom to contact if they or someone they know is a victim of a hate crime. U.S. Attorney’s Office personnel have also reached out to local law enforcement and provided training on the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, forging partnerships that have facilitated better communication among state, local, and federal agencies. Through the efforts of its Civil Rights Unit and Community Outreach component, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona has held community forums with Latino and African American communities to address issues of immigration and police misconduct. The office has also conducted community forums that target faith-based groups, including interfaith groups, boards of Rabbis, and outreach to Arizona’s Islamic centers. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona also regularly holds forums with sexuality and gender identity-based communities to build trusting relationships with law enforcement. ***
— In Minnesota, in the aftermath of the burning of an Amish barn, CRS worked with Amish leaders and local police to develop an agenda for a town hall style meeting. The town hall meeting provided non-Amish community members with an understanding of the history and background on the Amish way of life in an effort to prevent future misunderstandings, biased-based incidents, and hate crimes. ***
— In Connecticut, Civil rights outreach by US Attorneys of the DOJ included: Visits to two New Haven schools in celebration and recognition of Black History Month. Our presentations to students at Micro Society Magnet School and Hill Central Music Academy began with a discussion of prominent African Americans in recent history and important moments in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. We then engaged the students in a discussion about hate crimes by using the example of a civil rights prosecution handled by this office, asking the students “What would you do?” and “How would you feel?” if you were a victim of or witness to the offensive conduct. We finished with a vibrant discussion about bullying and its consequences. They joined with the FBI’s Atlanta Division to host the nation’s first community conference to discuss implementing and enforcing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. We recognized that members of the community, and particularly those citizens who the new law is primarily designed to protect, may not be knowledgeable about the changes in the law. Moreover, we believed that state and local officers, who are the first responders to incidents that might qualify as hate crimes, needed training not only on the changes to the statute, but also on enhancing their community outreach efforts so that victims are empowered to report violations. Consequently, we convened members of community groups along with hundreds of officers and agents from local, state and federal law enforcement organizations for a day-long event at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Through speakers and panel discussions, participants shared important information about investigating, prosecuting and preventing hate crimes, while also encouraging communications and building trust between law enforcement and these community groups. ***
This meeting, unlike the hundreds of other meetings across the country with various minority groups, did not go smoothly, and was overwhelmed by the followers of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer who had posted appeals to meet in Tennessee for a protest against what they termed an attempt to take away their right to freedom of speech and “impose Sharia blasphemy laws” in the U.S.
Here is what then took place:
Nashville Scene posted the entire 1 hour and 39 minute VIDEO of the event.
Charles Johnson reported Pamela Geller at Tennessee Anti-Muslim Protest: “Without Freedom of Speech We Must Resort to Violence”. He includes a video that Geller posted of her speech to the crowd outside the meeting and he notes that “Geller even hints around about using violence against Muslims, starting at about 4:50 into the video. Geller says: There are no Jews, they’re all leaving Norway. They’re fleeing France, they’re fleeing the UK. Christians can’t wear a cross in the UK. For us, Europe’s a cautionary tale. We are only five to ten years behind Europe. And I will tell you that freedom of speech is a line in the sand because, without freedom of speech peaceful men must resort to violence. [shouting] AND WE DON’T WANT TO! Right, you don’t want to. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)”
Other statements by Geller in the course of her tirade: – The first amendment protects all speech, not just speech that we like – We’re speaking out against the most brutal and oppressive ideology on the planet – Truth is the new hate speech – The justice dept under the Obama admin has become a de facto legal arm of the Muslim Brotherhood – We need an army, the time is now to stand up …
NEWS21 reported Muslim group’s TN forum with feds disrupted by heckling “During the keynote speech given by Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee, audience members continually interrupted, making it difficult to understand what was said. Killian brought a PowerPoint presentation that covered the First and 14th amendments and what constitutes a hate crime, among other things. He read the First Amendment verbatim, between interruptions. … Former “Saturday Night Live” star Victoria Jackson was among the protesters. “The Constitution and Sharia cannot coexist,” she said. “Islam is evil.”
A Times Free Press article U.S. Attorney Bill Killian greeted by hostile crowd at Manchester, Tenn., free speech event included this strange statement: “Some people at the impromptu rally were handing out anti-Islamic literature, other patriotic materials and some Christian materials as several speakers were using a megaphone to work up the crowd. One man’s sign read: “In America, you are free to practice your religion, and I am free to insult it.” I would hope that this was a typo, and that they did not actually mean to say that “anti-Islamic literature” is equivalent to “other patriotic materials”.
Pam Strickland wrote in the Knox News Irony goes over protesters’ heads. She gives a detailed description of events during the meeting including: “… During the outdoor rally, one woman with a bullhorn declared that “Islam does not deserve the protection of the First Amendment.” Others carried anti-Muslim signs. None of the signs spoke of religions other than Islam, but the underlying theme was that Christianity was the preferred religion the First Amendment was written to protect. If that were the case, why would we need the First Amendment? Some would say to protect different Christian denominations. Only that’s not what the First Amendment says. It says religion, and it doesn’t have any exceptions written into it. It protects all religions — period. … ”
An editorial in the Tullahoma News Actions at diversity meeting shameful noted that:
There was no door to stand in front of that kept black students from entering, and there were no police officers arresting black citizens as they attempted to eat at a counter with the words “whites only” emblazoned on the wall above their heads. But little else distinguished Tuesday night’s event at the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center from those hate-filled, racist gatherings of days past.
Organized and sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council, headquartered in Murfreesboro, the event, called “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society,” was billed as an educational opportunity for the public to learn about American Muslims, as well as how the civil rights of all citizens are protected under the United States Constitution.
It was the result of a recent Facebook reposting by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West in which a man is pictured pointing a gun at a camera with words that read, “How to wink at a Muslim.” West has since apologized for the post and removed it, but not before the story about his posting went viral.
While, undoubtedly, some of the nearly 1,000 people who attended the event and preceding anti-Muslim and “free speech” rally were there to listen and learn, the overwhelming majority had another intention in mind – to intimidate, undermine and disrupt the event.
Their stated reason for being there? To protest what bloggers had called the government’s attempts to take away an individual’s First Amendment rights to post whatever he or she chooses on social media sites without repercussion. The real reason, however, became apparent shortly after the presentation began.
Wrapped in American flags and waving Bibles, the protesters shouted, “speak English” at a Muslim man who has been in the United States for three decades. They cheered and clapped at photos of a burned mosque in Columbia, Tenn. They booed at photos of American Muslim soldiers killed while serving their country in the United States military. They accused all Muslims of being terrorists and yelled at them to “go home.” Those who couldn’t get inside for the presentation due to overcrowded conditions called law enforcement officers “communists.” One man, who donned a confederate soldier’s cap, shouted, “Mohammed was a pedophile!”
There is no doubt that the majority of the people in Coffee County are embarrassed and ashamed by the actions of the people gathered at this assembly, and that many, if not the majority, of those in attendance, were from out of town. …
And finally, Hate Comes to Manchester, Tennessee by Drost Kokoye. This is a first-hand account by one of the Muslim attendees/organizers of the “Public Discourse in a Diverse Society” forum, that was disrupted by anti-Islam hate groups in Manchester, TN. Although this incident was widely reported on in various media, many outlets left out the depth of hate that was on display Tuesday evening.
In recent years, there has been an alarming surge in anti-Islam hate group activity in Tennessee, especially in areas such as Rutherford and Coffee Counties. This virulent hate was fully on display Tuesday night at the “Public Discourse in a Diverse Society” forum in Manchester.
Since 2010, our community has seen a concerted effort being made to demonize the religion of Islam and its adherents, with hate groups from all over the nation using our state as a staging ground for spewing negative propaganda. This includes the effort to block the construction of the Murfreesboro Mosque, to the faux-outrage created when an elected official mistook a mop-sink in the state legislature for a “Muslim foot-bath.” Legislators who have fallen under the influence of these groups introduced an “anti-Sharia bill,” which would have made the practice of Islam punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Additionally, we have seen a normalization of increasingly violent rhetoric – such as a Facebook posting by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West, depicting a gun being pointed at Muslims.
Commissioner West’s posting “How to Wink at a Muslim” garnered national attention, due to the overt call to violence against a specific minority group. Local Muslim groups such as the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC) and the American Center for Outreach (ACO) immediately asked West to issue an apology, due to the aggressive nature of the post in addition to Mr. West being a public official. As this story went viral on social media, many key players in the Islamophobia industry latched themselves to the story, criticizing AMAC and ACO for demanding an apology. Much to the chagrin of the anti-Islam groups, Mr. West issued an apology for his irresponsible post the next day.
Tuesday evening, the American Muslim Advisory Council hosted about “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society” in Manchester, TN, as an open forum to discuss the dangerous effects of the rhetoric that was espoused by Mr. West in his post. Those within well-funded Islamophobia Industry – such as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer from the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) saw this as an ideal opportunity to fan the flames of hate in our back yard. And while their so-called protest was done so under the guise of “defending free speech,” the reality is that the public is unaware of the nefarious affiliations of such groups.
Geller and Spencer and their organizations are listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “hate group leaders.” They hold close affiliations with the English Defense League – a Neo-Nazi affiliated group that has employed violent tactics against the Muslim community in the UK. Both Geller and Spencer were cited extensively (174 times between the two) in mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto, which was written shortly before he murdered over 80 people in Norway. To put it plainly, these individuals recognized widely as being extremists – therefore it is highly concerning that so many citizens of Tennessee have bought into their overt message of hate and bigotry.
Groups like the TN Eagle Forum and ACT for America (also listed as nativist and hate groups, respectively) called for thousands of their followers to come to this public forum to “stand up for their first amendment rights” that they claimed AMAC is trying to limit. These groups turned out people from all over Tennessee. Personally, I spoke with folks from Bristol, Sparta, Murfreesboro, Smyrna, and Tullahoma. They showed up in front of the Manchester Coffee County Conference Center hours before the forum. Geller and Spencer joined in around 5:30pm, ensuring the crowd was primed and riled up – including rhetoric that alluded to justifying violence.
After the outdoor protest, waves of people flooded the hall at 6:20pm. All the seats were taken with in the first five minutes so people started to post up along the walls, near the doors, outside the doors, in the lobby, and all the way out to the entrance of the building.
The AMAC program had yet to begin, when Eagle Forum members (who also brought their own American flag) took it upon themselves to stand up and recite the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Everyone else in the room, Eagle Forum member or not, joined them, for one of the most aggressive recitations of the Pledge that I’ve ever heard, followed by a long and loud applause.
At 6:30 pm, Zak Mohyuddin, an AMAC Board Member and long time resident of Coffee County, began the forum with an introduction to who and what AMAC is.
Before he could even get a sentence out, he was interrupted by a comment from the audience, “speak English!”
The panel continued as follows:
Zulfat Suara – AMAC Board Chair
Dorothy Zwayyed – AMAC East Tennessee Coordinator
Sabina Mohyuddin – AMAC Board Member and long time Coffee County resident
Bill Killian – U.S. Attorney DOJ Eastern District of Tennessee
Kenneth L. Moore – special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville Division
Throughout the program, the speakers were plagued with interruptions, jeers and epithets being lobbed at them. Whenever examples of cooperation between the American Muslim community and law enforcement were highlighted, the crowd would yell, “Infiltrators,” Terrorists,” and “go home!
As a representative of the Muslim community who was participating in the forum, the words of hate that I heard spoken on this day are something that I will not forget for a long time.
As I stood up to gather index cards for the Q&A session, a man from the crowd said, “Watch out, she might blow up!” – Which was met by rousing laughter, rather than disgust.
As one of the Muslim speakers from the event finished, another individual exclaimed “FINALLY! Can we burn her at the stake now?” – which was also met by laughter and cheers.
When bullying and discrimination that kids face in schools was brought up, one woman yelled,“Leave our children out of this. They hate you.”
Finally, during a portion of the presentation – a picture of a mosque, which had been destroyed by arson, was shown. Rather than responding with compassion, the hateful attendees responded with applause and cheers.
Although the goal of the forum was to foster dialog and positive engagement – it is clear that Geller, Spencer and the hate groups came to cause divisiveness and hate. It is saddening that some Tennesseans have succumbed to this temptation, as it brings back dark memories from our nation’s past. On a positive note, many in attendees from the community greeted us with goodwill and assured us that the haters do not represent them or the majority of people out there. Though a small gesture, this helped end an otherwise tense night on a positive note. As we move forward from this eye-opening evening – the hope is that Tennesseans will take the lead in denouncing and marginalizing these fringe groups, while fostering an environment of positivity and inclusion.