If African Americans didn’t cringe watching Rep. Peter King’s (R-N.Y.) hearings on “Muslim extremism” in America, they might when they see CNN’s new report, Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door, for which correspondent Soledad O’Brien traveled to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to chronicle the often violent opposition to the building of a 53,000-square-foot mosque-school-community center in the buckle of the Christian Bible Belt.
Despite a judge’s rejection of an injunction against building the center, the protests and vitriol continue based on three notions illuminated by CNN’s report and in court filings: 1) Islam isn’t a religion but rather a vicious alien creed; 2) the U.S. Constitution will be bastardized; and 3) Muslims threaten the American way of life. These arguments, and the footage of folks making them, may seem oddly familiar to black people — Murfreesboro is 50 miles north of Pulaski, where the Ku Klux Klan was born — until CNN profiles the opposition’s leader, Kevin Fisher. A black man.
Soledad O’Brien revealed to The Root her initial shock at the paradox. “Here was an African-American man leading a group that had some people who were either outwardly hateful,” she said, “or — and let’s not mince words here — using issues like ‘traffic’ or ‘water use’ [to oppose the mosque’s construction] as a pretense for hate.”
Local Muslims received racist voice mail messages; construction equipment was torched, signs defaced; and local Muslims — most of whom are native Tennesseans, college students, professionals and housewives — were harassed.
After we previewed the documentary, it’s clear that Kevin Fisher is oblivious to any déjà vu regarding the tactics often directed against his own people, perhaps even by ancestors of the same folks he leads. O’Brien insists that audiences will have to make their own judgment. “When you sit down with Kevin, he comes across as a thoughtful man who’s fighting something he feels was shoved down his community’s throat.”
O’Brien’s personal view on analogies to blacks in the South remain in flux; she says that, as with race, the nation still hasn’t faced the ugliness and wounds of 9/11. “The fear seems closer to what created the Japanese internment camps after Pearl Harbor,” she said, lamenting that perhaps the biggest paradox is that “everyone loves Murfreesboro as a place to prosper and raise children, but when people are whipped up, that can’t be common ground.”
One paradox has been resolved, according to O’Brien. “A court — our system which opponents say outliers threaten — gave everyone a fair hearing and rendered a decision, and that’s a sign of hope.”
Watch Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door March 27 at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.