Not all Tennesseans are Islamophobes!?

From The Associated Press comes shocking news: Apparently, not all Tennesseans are Islamophobes.

You may recall CNN’s recent 9/11 anniversary report that used the Volunteer State as a launching point for making the case that “rising anti-Islamic sentiment in America troubles Muslims.” In case you missed it, I bashed that report here at GetReligion.

One of my complaints was the sensationalistic disregard for ordinary Muslim life in that Bible Belt state:

Through my work with The Christian Chronicle, I am aware of a minister in Nashville who has worked to increase communication and understanding among Christians and Muslims. I know that The Tennessean recently reported on an event at Lipscomb University, a Christian university, aimed at addressing Americans’ misconceptions about Islam. Yet CNN focuses only on the alleged radicals, not on those promoting respect and dialogue among Americans with different religious beliefs.

So imagine my surprise when I came across an AP story this week declaring that — believe it or not — the headline-grabbing uproar over a new mosque in Murfreesboro, south of Nashville, represented the exception, not the rule in Tennessee:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The two-year struggle between the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and a group of residents who have fought a losing battle to keep it from being built paints a distorted picture of Muslim life in Tennessee, where several other mosques have opened in recent years with little or no controversy.

Although there’s likely no single cause for the conflict in Murfreesboro, the reaction of local leaders — both opponents of the mosque and those who stayed silent — may have helped extend and exacerbate it. Meanwhile, the experience of Muslims in Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville and elsewhere in Tennessee shows that what happened in Murfreesboro is not the inevitable consequence of being Muslim in the Bible Belt.

When the Memphis Islamic Center bought land across the street from Heartsong Church, the pastor put up a sign reading, “Welcome to the Neighborhood.” Encouraged by the gesture, Islamic center leaders met with church leaders and soon formed friendships, mosque trustee Danish Siddiqui said.

In 2010, when mosque leaders realized their building would not be completed in time for the holy month of Ramadan, Heartsong stepped in and opened its sanctuary every night to its Muslim neighbors.

Quality journalism challenges misperceptions. This AP story does exactly that by noting that the Murfreesboro controversy “paints a distorted picture of Muslim life in Tennessee.” Not only that, but it also quotes actual Muslims who live in Tennessee, something that CNN neglected to do.

I came across the story on the religion headlines page of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. However, I could not find the story at a few other sites I have bookmarked, such as Yahoo’s religion page. In Googling for the story and searching for it in the LexisNexis archive, it appears to have run just on the Tennessee state wire and not on the national wire. That would mean that the AP did not deem it worthy of wider distribution, which, if true, is a shame.

The question of how much play the piece received aside, however, the writer Travis Loller and AP’s Tennessee bureau deserve kudos for a nice piece of thoughtful reporting.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • MJBubba

    Bob Smietana at the Tennesseean and David Waters at the Commercial Appeal have been keeping Tennessee residents well-informed regarding the Muslims in our midst and the good and the bad ways they have been treated. The letters to the editor at both papers have had flurries of pro and con opinions on Islam globally and locally. We really don’t need AP to tell us here how that issue is playing out. If this wasn’t intended for broader distribution, then it is entirely redundant of what we have already had plenty of in our local papers. Maybe the Chattanooga and Knoxville papers have not covered this topic? (Seems unlikely.) — MJBubba in TN

  • Bob Smietana

    Hey Bobby
    Back in 2010 MTSU did a survey that found that 2/3rd of Tennesseans think that Muslims have the same rights as other American. One third said that Muslims don’t have the same rights.
    That poll sums up why both Travis’s fine AP story and the CNN story were right. In general Tennesseans are accepting of Muslims but in Middle Tn there’s a significant group of people who are hostile towards Muslims.
    Along from the firebombing of the mosque in Columbia TN and the controversy in Murfreesboro there was also vandalism at the Somali mosque in Nashville and a organized opposition to a proposed mosque in Brentwood–the mosque proposal ended up being withdrawn. We’ve had two movies label TN mosques as terrorist training centers — one in Dover and one in Nashville–and the Nashville mosques were accused of being terrorist recruiting centers during congressional hearings. Plus the anti-sharia law that labeled all Muslims as traitors and the anti-sharia conference where a state legislator said all Muslims should be expelled from the military.

    On the other hand. we’ve also got a thriving interfaith group called the Family of Abraham, which drew hundreds of Christians, Muslims and Jews to an event a Lipscomb, a Church of Christ school.

    It’s a complicated story, which is why we need good reporters like Travis at the AP.

    BTW–the Memphis story is a great one– I visited them last year on assignment for Sojourners – http://sojo.net/magazine/2011/09/peace-be-upon-them

  • Taylor

    Back about five years ago when I was a Mormon missionary in Chattanooga one day we happened to be near the local Islamic Center and we were invited to attend their Friday Prayers later that evening. We went and I had a great time and found the event uplifting and interesting. After the event a gentleman approached us and told us to come by any time anybody hassled us, since “we minority religions needs to stick together down here.” I often wondered what provoked that comment.

    Unfortunately too many people, especially reporters, see the “bible belt” as a cultural monolith. In my own experience I saw everything from pastors welcoming dialogue or being openly friendly, to those who violently hostile and threatening. You can’t simply lump everybody together.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Aren’t there theological issues with allowing another faith to worship in a Christian church? Can’t find any links now, but I do recall seeing some debate on that at the time. Would this article be a place to ask a followup question about that?

    • Karen Vaughan

      Ray, that depends on the denomination. As mentioned in the story on Old First Church Brooklyn last week, the Jewish Congregation Beth Elohim met in their sanctuary. And they have met in ours since their ceiling fell in when a large space was needed. I remember from my Old First days that imagery in statuary, stained glass windows or paintings was an issue for Jewish congregations considering renting the church for holidays but as Pastor Meeter mentioned the Calvinist decor made this less of a problem. Also Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun met weekly for a few years in St. Andrews Episcopal after their ceiling was damaged, draping a cloth over the crucifix if memory serves. I believe Roman Catholic churches cannot offer this particular form of hospitality.

      • sari

        Karen,
        I have worshiped on more than one occasion at a Catholic Church made available to a Jewish congregation. During its time as a start-up, my parents’ shul rented the floor of a bank for services (weekday/Shabbos) and education but held Yamim Nora’im services in a Catholic Church. The church’s staff and volunteers graciously made the sanctuary suitable for us by covering all religious iconography.

        More recently, for several years, a local Catholic Church opened its doors to a Reform congregation during the Holy Days, but that ended when the new Bishop was installed in 2010. He terminated the agreement when it was discovered that the Rabbi was active with (or, maybe supported) Planned Parenthood. The paper covered it in great detail.

  • Bob Smietana

    Ray —
    That’s a good question. Heartsong Church doesn’t really have a sanctuary – instead they have a multi purpose room with a concrete floor and a bunch of folding chairs that are set up for Sunday services. The rest of the week it’s used for other programs – so it’s not a really seen as a consecrated space.

  • Karen Vaughan

    Did I miss the link to the article mentioned? It was very far back on the Pew list although I did enjoy some of the other articles.


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