Free speech and loathing in Tennessee

A US government lecture to locals on tolerance proved to be an official exercise in resentment building.

Jenny Jarvie

Topics Free Speech

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More than a month ago, Barry West, a county commissioner in a rural stretch of middle Tennessee, posted a Facebook image of a man closing one eye as he aimed a shotgun. His caption read: ‘HOW TO WINK AT A MUSLIM.’

Though West eventually took the post down, a screenshot went viral. He apologised, admitting his remarks were ‘dumb as hell’, and even met local Muslims to drink tea. He hardly imagined that a few weeks later a senior official with the Department of Justice would cite his Facebook post as offensive and warn that inflammatory speech against Muslims could constitute a violation of civil rights. In an interview with the local Tullahoma News, William Killian, US attorney for Eastern Tennessee, announced he would come to Coffee County with a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to educate locals on tolerance.

Can government instill open-mindedness with PowerPoint presentations on hate crimes? Improve public discourse by warning that offensive speech might lead to up to 10 years, or life, in prison? A couple of weeks ago, federal officials arrived in Coffee County, a predominantly white, Christian community 60 miles south-east of Nashville, to face a cultural showdown on tolerance and free speech.

The mood was tense as more than 600 people crammed into the Manchester Coffee County Conference Center for ‘Public Discourse in a Diverse Society’, a seminar hosted by the American Muslim Advisory Council of Tennessee. City cops, sheriffs and secret service agents lined the hall. Many in the crowd were local, but some had traveled across the country as news spread through the conservative blogosphere that the Obama administration was seeking to trample First Amendment rights.

People assemble in Manchester Coffee County Conference Center.

Almost as soon as Zak Mohyuddin, a Bangladeshi-born engineer and member of the American Muslim Advisory Council, stepped up to the podium and invited the crowd to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, someone yelled ‘Speak English!’ Members of the crowd swiftly hushed the heckler as Mohyuddin went on to declare the event was ‘about community, not theology’. He introduced himself as an American citizen who had lived in Tennessee since 1975. ‘Gathering like this is a reminder of a simple fact of life’, he said. ‘Nothing stays the same. Change is always happening.’ ‘No, it’s not’, a voice heckled from the crowd.

The seminar soon spiraled into a surreal Monty Pythonesque exchange on diversity, with each side accusing the other of condescension and stereotyping: ‘I invite you to learn about American Muslims, based on objective information and not based on fear of the unfamiliar’ (‘We’re not afraid!’). ‘It is unacceptable to lump American Muslims into a one-dimensional exaggerated stereotype’ (‘That’s you judging us’).

‘You are all entitled to your opinions’, Mohyuddin finally said in exasperation, ‘but I do ask that you look at changing your assumptions’. ‘Ha!’, scoffed a woman in the front row.

The American Muslim Advisory Council, founded two years ago when Tennessee lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban Muslims from following Sharia law, aims to work with law enforcement and government to foster greater understanding of Muslim communities. Appealing to authorities to mediate community relations, however, only seemed to put the audience on the defensive.

The crowd booed for almost a minute when Killian took to the mic, with the words ‘HATE CRIMES’ emblazoned on a large screen behind him. As hecklers called him a serpent and a traitor, and others countered ‘let the man speak’, Killian defined the law on hate crimes, flatly citing federal statutes, FBI statistics, and quoting the penalties for ‘conspiring to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate another person’ on the basis of religion. ‘They’re the ones trying to blow us up’, someone shrieked.

Rather than offer insight into how the current administration understands and interprets these federal codes, Killian went on to quote laws on human trafficking, sex trafficking of children and interference with access to reproductive health care. The crowd became increasingly bewildered. ‘Why are you telling us this?’, a man roared as Killian cited the Fair Lending Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

‘Let me be clear: in this country, hateful speech is allowed’, Killian finally declared, to loud cheers and whoops. ‘It is protected by the freedom-of-speech part of the first amendment. But if someone makes threats of violence, that is not protected speech and they will be prosecuted. Likewise, if someone commits acts of violence under the guise of religious or other speech, they will be prosecuted for their violent acts.’

The crowd booed. ‘Give an example’, a man bellowed. ‘Give us an example of a verbal hate crime.’ Killian did not provide examples. He noted that nearly 12 years after 9/11, after more than 50 prosecutions for hate crimes in the Eastern District of Tennessee, ‘far too many people are still repeating vicious acts against members of the Arab, Muslim, Sikh…’. His message was drowned out by jeers. ‘How about beheading people in the street?’, a man yelled.

Again and again, the exchange descended into a contest of victimhood, with the speakers detailing crimes against Muslims and the hecklers countering with examples of crimes perpetrated by Muslims. One of the ugliest moments came when Sabina Mohyuddin, a college-educated engineer and stay-at-home mom, presented the audience with a slide depicting mosques that had been damaged and vandalised across the state; some cheered and whooped as she declared that in 2007 a mosque had been burned in Columbia, Tennessee.

‘Shame on you’, she rebuked the crowd. Just last week, she noted, someone had stabbed a Muslim woman in California. ‘3,000 died in New York!’, a woman screamed from the back of the room.

Moyhuddin’s attempt to provide a brief history of Muslims in America, explaining Muslims made up 15-20 per cent of the slave population brought from Africa, was thwarted by cries of ‘revisionist history’. ‘Please be quiet’, she bellowed into the mic, which only aggravated the hecklers more. An estimated 53,000 Muslims from 40 nationalities live in Tennessee, Mohyuddin informed the crowd. ‘Why did they come to America?’ ‘Food stamps!’, was one response. ‘Welfare!’, another.

The audience was no more receptive when Mohyuddin, challenging the idea of a clash of civilizations, attempted dark humour: ‘That’s what the extremists, the Muslim terrorists, say… and here the Islamophobes are saying the same thing. I think they should come together for tea! You know… a tea party?’

When the panelists had finished speaking, the chair announced there was time for only two questions. The audience groaned. The seminar, it seemed, had proved itself an exercise in how to build resentment. Between the hecklers’ unruliness and the federal officials’ rigid delivery, many locals said they had learned little about tolerance and remained unclear about how the government negotiated the boundary between free and inflammatory speech.

Ron Meeks, 68, a retired water department supervisor from Hillsboro, said the jeers had been ridiculous. But still, he remained troubled that the US attorney and an FBI agent had come to read the community the law, while taking so few questions. ‘It didn’t feel like tolerance’, he said. ‘They were here to threaten us and put the fear in us.’

John Lytle, 72, a retired arson and bomb investigator from Silver Point, approached Mohyuddin to tell her he was sorry she had endured so many interruptions and gibes. ‘Word came out the US Attorney and the FBI were coming, and it polarised people’, he said. ‘I don’t think I suffered’, Mohyuddin insisted, a little haughtily. ‘I think they proved themselves clearly.’

Unanswered questions litter the speakers’ table.

As the federal officials exited through a backdoor and the crowd streamed through the foyer, they left behind a table strewn with papers. The speakers’ neatly-typed presentations were almost buried under a heap of index cards, all scrawled with unanswered questions.

Jenny Jarvie is an Atlanta-based writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlantic Cities, Poetry Magazine and the Sunday Telegraph.

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Topics Free Speech


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