by Drost Kokoye
Shameful Demagoguery at “Public Discourse”
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 hatred 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 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 and the faux-outrage created when an elected official mistook a mop-sink in the state legislature for a “Muslim footbath.” 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 and Mr. West's public office. 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 “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 the 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 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 – they spewed rhetoric that alluded to justifying violence.
After the outdoor protest, waves of people flooded the hall at 6:20pm. All the seats were taken within 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 lobbed at them. Whenever examples of cooperation between the American Muslim community and law enforcement were highlighted, the crowd yelled, “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 that 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 dialogue 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 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.
Drost Kokoye is a recent graduate from Middle Tennessee State University with a liberal arts degree in Political Science. She is currently the Multicultural Organizer with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition where she organizes the immigrant and refugee communities in Middle Tennessee to learn to defend their rights. Drost is a board member with the American Muslim Advisory Council, where she works to further communication lines between the Muslim community and law enforcement agencies. She is also extensively involved with efforts to encourage leadership of Muslim youth with the Muslim Youth Network of Tennessee.