Overnight in Nashville

The Sunday before Thanksgiving, I visited communities that I only knew from stories in the newspaper: Murfreesboro, recently recognized for the controversy around its new mosque, and nearby Nashville. I came as a stranger, took a journey that included despair and hope, and left inspired by new friends.

Tanenbaum is part of a new coordinated effort to combat anti-Muslim sentiment, or as it is more popularly named, Islamophobia. As part of that effort, I was invited to attend the opening of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center in Tennessee (about 45 minutes from Nashville). There were years when this house of worship seemed like an unattainable vision, with vocal opposition, messages of pure hatred, arson and legal battles.

But when I arrived with my colleagues, none of that was visible. First, there was the simple and pristine Islamic Center with its green dome. In front flew the American flag. And adjacent -- I mean right next to it -- was a Baptist Church. Perhaps because there was considerable land around both buildings, the image of these two holy spaces so close was startling. That's part of the story of the Murfreesboro mosque, but on this day, what struck me is that in America, we are all neighbors.

What I love most about my country is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. To me, it is the foundation of my right to be me -- to say what I think, to believe as I choose, to spend time with those I want to be with. What I love most about the diversity of beliefs in our country is the way all share the Golden Rule. In the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, we celebrated both -- the Golden Rule and the First Amendment.

The speakers for the opening included Christian leaders, local lawyers struggling for the cause, lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, diverse women who stand for justice and leaders of the local Muslim Community. They spoke as friends, as people dedicated to justice for all of us, and as activists who would not let their community succumb to bigotry and hatred. They honored one another and practiced the Golden Rule. They honored justice and made it a lived reality in Murfreesboro.

I cried as several of the speakers spoke, as did those around me. It was hard not to do so. The speakers' emotions were palpable. The speeches recalled how the mosque was once an impossible dream to many in the audience. Members of the Muslim community were overwhelmed with gratitude, as a very mixed crowd of neighbors joined them in celebrating a triumph for the First Amendment.

That was Sunday afternoon. We then returned to Nashville to spend the evening with representatives from the Muslim community in Middle Tennessee, to listen and to hear about their experiences. It was a sobering experience. They were a diverse group: Caucasian Southerners and Southern people of color; educators and student activists; women in traditional dress and not; engineers, professionals with the military; and CPAs and mothers. They told their stories.

As we listened, I thought of the recent Pew Survey documenting the worldwide escalation of restrictions on religious practices and rising social hostilities toward members of minority religions. The study showed that this is not just an issue in places that seem far away like Saudi Arabia, Algeria and China. There is also an escalation in religious restrictions and social hostility right here in the U.S. And the stories I heard made that data real. They are the stories of daily indignities.

There was the beautiful young woman with striking eyes and a sweet smile who wore a hijab. She spoke about being in the park one day with her child and several other women, also identifiably Muslim. While walking, they saw a white man walking his dog, who kept shaking his head when he saw them, going up to different people and pointing at them. She felt concerned, but as someone who had been involved in interfaith exchanges for years, she decided to address the man and try to change the dynamic.

So she went up to him and asked him if he had anything he would like to ask her. His response was unequivocal. "Why the hell are you in my country? Get the _______ out. Pack your bags. You don't look American."

Perhaps she should have given up as those statements were hurled, but she continued to try to engage him. His response? He let his dog loose to attack her. The incident ended with police involvement and the man gesturing as if with a gun. I don't know if he ever learned that the woman wearing the hijab is an American citizen.

We heard about the groups that promote anti-Muslim beliefs -- and one group that came to a local town for an event and had its speeches reprinted in the local newspaper. I heard how local Christian clergy, their congregations and local Jews immediately protested in alliance with their few Muslim neighbors (in that town, there are only about five Muslim families). The alliance published a joint statement in the local paper and many signed it, including one Jewish doctor who knew it could be the end of her medical practice. That's a true ally.

We heard from a young woman dressed in modern clothes, her hair uncovered. "People don't know who I am by looking at me," she noted. And so, she hears things; the things people say about Muslims and Islam when they don't know they are being heard. Her story reminded me of the time I walked down a New York City street and heard a couple of men talking, one complaining about those "Dirty Jews."

There was the nurse who worked at the local hospital for years. One of her colleagues, after five years of working with her, got up the nerve to inquire about something that was on her mind: "Have you ever blown someone up?"

As the nurse recounted this moment, her sadness was unmistakable. She still seemed unable to believe that someone who knew her for years could ask such a thing. "What did she think? That I was putting a bomb under the bed? I'm a nurse to help people."

Those were some of the stories I heard.

The next day brought similar feelings and a powerful sense of pride in our country. We met with local community leaders who are working to stop hatred no matter against whom, and who are fighting the Islamophobes among them.

Again, we met people from many walks of life, Jews, Christians from a range of denominations, long-time civil rights activists, government leaders and representatives from the Human Rights Commission. We talked about what they had done in their community to build understanding (and they've done a lot!), about resources that they might access, and about what could be done next.

As I watched them moving forward, committed to proving that the United States Constitution lives for all of us, I turned to my neighbor and asked, "Can I write about what happened here?"

"Yes," she told me. "The story is what we are doing together." Then she laughed, and put her arm around my shoulder.