I’d like to introduce you to a young woman named Sam. Sam grew up in small-town Tennessee. She went to college at Vanderbilt, where she was elected student body president. She then stayed at Vanderbilt for law school, and performed so well that after graduation accepted a clerkship with a prominent federal judge on the 6th Circuit. Sam then went to work for a very large and globally-respected law firm, where she worked on international commercial transactions. But after just a few years, Sam left her $200,000 a year job to join the elite ranks of the young professionals who have been selected as White House Fellows. After that fellowship was up, Sam spent a little time advising the Department of Homeland Security. And this March, Sam returned home to Tennessee as the international director of Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development.
But there is a vocal group of Tennessee Republicans who don’t approve of Sam’s appointment to this normally obscure state position. They believe that, despite Sam’s ridiculous list of achievements and accolades during her young career, that’s she’s unqualified for the job. More than that, they believe that the governor’s appointment of Sam threatens our Constitution and gives terrorists an avenue to infiltrate Tennessee. Because, you see, Sam’s full name is Samar Ali – and yes, she’s a Muslim.
Tennessee’s history of relations with minorities has always been complex and somewhat contradictory. The first abolitionist newspaper in the country started in Jonesborough, TN, around 1820, a full decade before William Lloyd Garrison started The Liberator up in Boston (although the damn Yankees get all the credit in the history books). Tennessee was the last state to join the Confederacy in its War in Defense of White Supremacy and the first to rejoin the Union after the war. And after Appomattox, the post-war governor, William Brownlow, was very aggressive in giving freed slaves the right to vote.
Of course, Pulaski, TN, was also the birthplace of the Klu Klux Klan.
Muslims are to the modern South what Blacks once were: the go-to target of explicit and socially sanctioned prejudice, intimidation, and fearmongering, especially among ARSEs (Angry Racist Southern Evangelicals). Whereas today racism must be justified or concealed by ostensibly race-neutral policies (voter fraud, the war on drugs, etc), anti-Muslim bias needs no justification. The mere fact that a person is a Muslim means that he or she is a double agent, a soldier of jihad, an enforcer of oppressive sharia law. Up until Samar Ali, the most prominent example of this prejudice was the multi-year battle over the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, a city of 100,000 just outside Nashville. That fight has seen claims that Islam is a cult, attempts to connect the mosque to Hamas, sensationalized “are they terrorists or not?” stories by local news broadcasters, testimony from local residents thatMuslims will start beheading people once they seize control of the area, and, in a throwback to the days of KKK,violent threats and acts of arson at the Mosque construction site. Just this Wednesday, a federal judge in Nashvillegranted a temporary injunction against a state court order that would have prevented the Mosque’s congregants from using their new home during Ramadan.
But Samar Ali’s case, because of who she is and who her employer is, demonstrates the full extent of this blind hatred. Ali’s resume and credentials exhibit everything Americans claim to value: hard work, leadership, public service, and success in the business world. Truly, if Ali is not fit to serve her state, none of us are, and if there is any conceivable test of talent or patriotism (Ali spoke against terrorism at a campus rally two days after 9/11!) then Ali must pass with flying colors. But that doesn’t matter, because for a significant segment of Tennessee’s population every Muslim is a terrorist.
And lest you think this is some sort of political stunt to put pressue on Tennessee Democrats, guess again. Governor Bill Haslam is a stereotypical corporatist Republican with a high approval rating and a slew of conservative policies. He likes sticking it to teachers with absurd testing regimes. He might join the rest of the “screw the poors” caucus and opt out of the Medicare expansion. But at least as a businessman Haslam understands the problem with allowing Tennessee to become known as a mecca (heh) for bigots and fearmongers. That’s not the case for the nutjobs in Williamson and Rutherford Counties, whose fire is being stoked by a very different sort of business – the market for anti-Islamic propaganda. (Side note: Conservatives HATE the Nashville Tennessean for calling out their bullshit. Easily my favorite Southern newspaper)
Let me close with one last point: The epicenter of this hate isn’t in some backwoods corner of the South where the yokels live too far from the dentist and too close to their cousins. This travesty is taking place in and around the wealthy suburbs (Williamson is actually one of the 20 wealthiest counties in America) of Nashville, one of the few bastions of white Southern liberalism. Only half an hour outside a progressive, diverse, and thriving city is a hornet’s nest of so-called Christians who spend one day a week praying to their Savior and six days a week embarassing him. Aside from the particular strength of the Evangelical churches in this area, there isn’t much that separates Williamson County or Murfreesboro from the suburbs of Minneapolis or Pittsburgh or Denver. If the rise of the Tea Party has done one good thing for the South, it’s proved that the rest of the country is not immune to the type of racist, fundamentalist, conspiracy-oriented movements that have periodically plagued the region since the end of the War in Defense of White Supremacy. Every politically-sensitive American should view Southern politics as the proverbial canary in the coal mine: we might lose our shit first, but if you don’t pay attention and strengthen your own community’s defenses against hatred and ignorance, the next wave of anti-Islamic sentiment will end up on your doorstep. In fact, when I brought up the case of Ali to some of my colleagues in DC, they were initially confused – they thought I was talking about Huma Abedin. It seems we’ve already reached the point where a comment about the persecution of high-profile American Muslims merits the response, “Which One?”