CNN has been broadcasting a “news” special titled “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door” recently.
With Soledad O’Brien as reporter, the program recounts the negative response on the part of some citizens to the building of a new Islamic center (mosque) in my town of Murfreesboro, Tenn. I am not a native of Murfreesboro, but I have lived here for 37 years as a matter of choice, not chance.
In commenting on this program, I have to point out that this is not really a news program or a documentary. This is the way that it is done in the national – and sometimes local – media.
Although I am a fan of O’Brien, she and her producers have attempted to distill a very complex event into a “story” with clearly defined protagonists and a predetermined point of view.
Unfortunately, events in Murfreesboro provide all the ingredients – colorful players (on both sides), elevated emotions, demonstrations and courtroom proceedings. In order to provide a cohesive one-hour production, they have simplified the situation so much that it has become almost cartoonish.
Here’s what they missed.
Murfreesboro is a city that has experienced tremendous growth over the past 50 years, primarily due to citizens who have displayed good sense and charity to others.
Although racial issues still come up from time to time, Murfreesboro integrated its schools, city leadership and business community with wisdom and much earlier than many other communities in Tennessee.
Differences between African-Americans and Anglos are articulated and addressed rather than avoided.
In the 1970s, Murfreesboro and Rutherford County provided a sanctuary for many Laotians displaced from their country due to America’s war in Indochina. There is a well-established Buddhist Temple northwest of the city of Murfreesboro. A Laotian was recently elected as a county commissioner. There is a thriving Laotian business community.
With the arrival of a large number of Hispanics, both government and business have been very receptive and provide services in Spanish for these new arrivals. Several churches have established Spanish-speaking services.
Our county is home to one of the first Nissan plants built in the United States. We not only have Japanese business people living in our community, but a number of local people have traveled to Japan for training and to develop business partnerships.
My grandchildren attend schools that include African-Americans, Laotians, Indians, Hispanics and those whose parents come from the Middle East. My neighborhood includes Anglos, African-Americans and Laotians. Our churches have attempted to foster good relationships among all ethnic groups.
Saleh Sbenaty, one of the lay leaders in the Murfreesboro mosque, was a guest in my Sunday school class several years ago to talk about his faith. Local Muslims have even protested some of America’s involvement in the Middle East without provoking violence.
None of these facts was made clear in the CNN special due to a narrow focus and limitations of the format. The truth is that there is a certain segment of individuals with varied motivations who have provoked this confrontation.
If CNN had been willing to address the issue, they would have found that much of this dissension is politically motivated. Some individuals are playing on the fear and lack of knowledge of many citizens in order to pursue a political agenda. A little investigative reporting might have provided a different focus.
These people do not speak for all of the citizens of Murfreesboro or Rutherford County.
There is another segment of the population who has been very supportive of their Muslim neighbors. By and large, these people were ignored in the CNN project.
Rather than going to a northeastern university to find a professor to comment on Islam, CNN could have found any number of scholars at Middle Tennessee State University – a local university with the largest undergraduate enrollment in the state – who would have given an objective interview. The impression was left that such were not available locally.
The largest segment of the population is made up of those who don’t understand what all the fuss is about. They recognize that Muslims like Saleh Sbenaty have been hard-working, responsible members of our community for years.
These citizens recognize that our Constitution guarantees freedom of (and from) worship. They are not afraid of Shariah law.
This part of our community was well represented by most of our elected officials shown in the program. These officials recognized that the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro is no different than the building of a Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic or Pentecostal church.
Most of the people in Murfreesboro and Rutherford County like their community, are civic minded and want to get along with others no matter what their ethnic or religious backgrounds might be. They are Americans.
I wish that CNN would have talked to some of those folks.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. This column appeared previously on his blog.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.