Coming on the heels of a seemingly endless surge of anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S., CNN picked the most opportune moment to air its special on Muslims, titled “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” with reporter Soledad O’Brien.
After having been glued to the news in the last couple of weeks, following Rep. Peter King’s hearings on Muslim extremism in the United States and the recent display of anti-Muslim bigotry to hit the community of Southern California, I cringed at the title of this documentary.
The commercials, accompanied by what can be described as the soundtrack to a thriller, seemed to employ fear-mongering tactics to get viewers to tune in. Ready for the onslaught of virulent stereotypes that usually accompanies stories about Muslims, I was armed with an arsenal of curses to churn out at the television screen.
However, I was fairly surprised by the way the documentary portrayed American Muslims and specifically, American Muslim women. Muslim women are portrayed as active members of American society and as a multi-dimensional group.
The hour long special documents the heated debate surrounding the building of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Local community members are polarized, prompting a series of hearings against the proposed Islamic center in order to justify withholding constitutional rights of freedom of religion. It is here that viewers witness a series of heartbreaking Islamophobic sentiments fueled by ignorance and bigotry.
In attempt to show how different community members of Murfreesboro, Tennessee have been affected by this controversy, O’Brien interviews a varied group of individuals. Among them were a handful of Muslim women, who are as diverse in their appearances as in their experiences as American Muslim women.
Two of these young women, who are both students at Tennessee State University, are among those interviewed by O’Brien. They say they always felt welcome in their city, even after 9/11.
For years, some 250 Muslim families, who consider the town of Murfreesboro home, have been practicing their faith and worshipping at the local Islamic center, which has now become too small to house the growing congregation. The proposed mosque would include a place for both men and women to pray, a swimming pool and a cemetery. When the Muslim students heard about the new Islamic center one of them says, “It was a dream come true.”
As construction on the land (purchased by donations from mosque-goers) began, the community was shaken by acts of vandalism: the mosque sign was spray painted and building equipment was set on fire. One of the girls says that it was hard to see the words “not welcome” spray painted on the sign.
Another Muslim woman, Ivy, the wife of the mosque Imam, was also interviewed. She is a white woman who was raised Methodist and converted to Islam after 9/11. When asked by O’Brien why she converted, she said that anyone who knew a Muslim would hear the things said about Muslims after 9/11 and say it wasn’t true. So she picked up a Qur’an and started reading it to find out for herself.
In response to the mosque vandalism, Ivy says that the hardest thing for her is hearing her young daughter voice concern about her mother’s safety while wearing hijab outdoors. The tactics of intimidation, she says, have affected the children more than anything. When asked by Soledad if she thinks people hate her she replied, “No, I don’t. I just think they don’t know or understand who we are.”
Perhaps the most moving testimony comes from a 19-year-old woman, Lema Sbenaty, who is a member of the Muslim community of Murfreesboro. As hearings prompted by anti-mosque community members take place, Lema speaks out, saying she was raised as an American Muslim and she is like any other 19-year-old girl in the community.
Upon leaving the courthouse, she is met by a congresswoman who, in attempt to discredit the mosque, says that Shariah law oppresses Muslim women. Lema challenges the woman, but is ultimately ignored. The imam’s wife later reiterates Lema’s statements, saying, “I am not oppressed.” She says that even though she is the imam’s wife, she and her husband make decisions in the home as a family.
Soledad later asks Lema, “Why not just not build it [the mosque]?” Lema responds by saying that it is their right. She says she understands people’s fears but, an entire community of people cannot be condemned for the actions of a few.
Among the local anti-mosque community members who are interviewed, Sally Wall, a prominent Murfreesboro community member does not shy away from telling viewers how she really feels.
In a move so indicative of the pervasiveness of media images of Muslim women on American society, Sally produces the cover of a recent TIME magazine featuring a disfigured Afghan woman. She says that she is worried that this is what will happen to women here if this Islamic center is built.
If the alleged fear over the mistreatment of American Muslim women is the real concern here, I think it would suffice to say that the likes of Sally Wall and other members of the Murfreesboro community pose the real threat to American Muslim women. Their attempt to marginalize Muslim women and cast-type them as a fringe group of Americans, undeserving of their first amendment rights, is symptomatic of a larger problem: racism and Islamophobia is yet to be passé in America.
Editor’s Note: I have changed the title from “CNN Fails (Again) at the Muslim Women Next Door” to better reflect the piece.