Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why I'm Both Ashamed and Proud to Call Myself a Tennessean

I was born and raised here, Tennessee has always been and always will be home. I even chose a college within my state's borders to attend when it came time to complete my higher education. And if for some reason I do move away I will request that I be buried back in my home state. I know how southerns may come across as slack-jawed, twangy hill folk fiercely clutching to our Bibles, but we're just like everyone else. All we want is to drink our sweet tea on our front porch on a hot summer day while listening to a bit of Johnny Cash (or maybe that's just me).

I live in the Bible-Belt where there's a church within walking distance from every home (well, I may be exaggerating but you get the point). As a non-Christian I am in the religious minority, and I'm OK with that since most people assume I'm Christian anyway (the Chi-Rho tattoo on my right forearm confuses people all the more after I tell them I'm not one of them anymore). Since Christianity is the religion of the masses here I understand how Tennesseans can feel threatened by an outside group, like Muslims, especially when their knowledge of The Other is based on violent images shown on the news. I'd be afraid too if that's all I knew about them, and at one point I was afraid of Muslims. What changed for me was that I took the initiative to learn about them. Now, it's true that because of my openness and my developing sense of reason that, in the eyes of my neighboring Christians, I have lost my faith. But what I've gained in exchange for breaking my tribal ties is an immense love and respect for my fellow man, a love without conditions, exceptions, or fences.

What breaks my heart is when my fellow Tennesseans allow their fears to overcome their ability to love. I'm referring to the proposed bill which would make following Shariah law a felony, punishable by 15 years in jail. Tennessee is not the only state on an anti-Shariah kick, but since this has hit home the issue has caught my attention. Of course this comes on the heels of last summers wave of anti-Islamic fervor which took root in my old stomping grounds, Murfreesboro, TN, over the building of a new mosque. Fear is truly the mind killer since most of the protesters of the proposed mosque refused to take anytime to consider that their longtime Muslim neighbors (the Murfreesboro Muslim community has been there for close to 30 years) simply needed a larger facility to accommodate their growth over the years. Christian communities expand all the time here in the south but when a minority group begins to expand to the point of becoming visible some Christian communities feel threatened. If Christians communities want a competing religious community to fear it should be their neighboring denomination. And with the decline of the housing market also affecting churches, denominations should be in fierce competition for a flock to fill their coffers.

The mosque protesters tried everything from labeling the Murfreesboro Muslim community as terrorists to claiming that Islam is not a religion but a political movement out to destroy the U.S. To counter the anti-mosque protesters a group formed and grew to not only embrace our Muslim neighbors but support their right to build their mosque and worship freely. The fight over the mosque last summer happened a few weeks after I graduated from MTSU and I unfortunately could not attend any of the rallies. I supported them in any way I could by clarifying the subject with friends and family and by also attempting (a very feeble attempt at that) to contact and bring together the religious communities of my local area to support their Muslim neighbors. What does make me proud to call myself a Tennessean is that even though the loudest residents caught the national media's attention, the silent majority believe that Muslims should also have the same rights to build their house of worship. To be honest I did not believe that my fellow Tennesseans would be as tolerant as they turned out to be last summer and for that I hope they will receive my humble apologies. I was so fixated on the intolerant, Bible thumpin' Southerner stereotype that I too fell victim to pigeonholing my neighbor. I'm glad they proved me wrong then, and I hope they prove me wrong over this ridiculous bill.


Don said...

I learned about Islam in college as a history major, but only from a limited few books and professors. It was not until the mid 80's that I had several Muslim students in my World History classes (after teaching for almost 20 years. I learned much from them and grew to see that they are much like us. I went to the school library to see if they had a Koran. My good friend, the librarian, told me that they did but it had NEVER been checked out, not one single time. She told me that they were removing some books to make space for others and I could have the copy of the Koran. I took it and read it. I learned even more. I am thankful that as a conservative evangelical back then, I still appreciated what I learned. Thanks for sharing with us.

Sammy said...

What I find so infuriating about those anti-Islamic protesters who went crazy over mosques being built in Murfreesboro, lower Manhattan, where ever, is that they tend to be extremely patriotic. They are constantly screaming about THEIR Constitutional right and how the government, the Democrats, the atheists, etc, are taking them away. However, they have no qualms throwing a fit when Muslims implement their Constitutional rights. Heck, some of them even attempted to get the government to stop the mosques being built, in direct violation of the 1st amendment. Have you ever seen a group of Muslims protesting the construction of a new Christian church here in the US?

Many of the protesters tend to be conservative Christians as well. Did they just skip the chapter in the Bible where Jesus said "love your neighbor as you love yourself"?

Doug B said...

I read about that bill. Oh, well. I guess the sponsors think they are doing the Lord's work. It doesn't surprise me that those who think posting the Ten Commandments on government property is a good idea would take the First Commandment seriously. Of course that leads to intolerance of other religions. How could it do otherwise?

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