After being jeered by hundreds of conservative activists this week, Middle Tennessee Muslims say they will keep up their outreach efforts in Coffee County.
“The comments, the rhetoric, the yells, we’ve heard all of those,” says Remziya Suleyman of the American Center for Outreach*. “If it was to scare us off, if it was to push us away in anyway, it actually did the opposite for me.”
The meeting that has now attracted national attention to Muslim relations in Manchester was organized by the U.S. Attorney’s office, which intended to discuss what constitutes a hate crime.
The presentation – at times – turned into a shouting match.
“Go home,” one person yelled at U.S. Attorney Bill Killian. “Serpent.”
Killian has been keeping an eye on Coffee County in recent months after a Facebook post by an elected official went viral. A man is looking down the sights of a shotgun with the caption “how to wink at a Muslim.” Killian didn’t mention the episode specifically but told the overflowing meeting room that someone doesn’t actually have to follow through for it to be a hate crime.
“If someone makes threats of violence, that is not protected speech, and they will be prosecuted,” he said over a chorus of booing.
Killian did not delineate, however, when a threat becomes a crime.
The crowd cheered when Muslim advocate Sabina Mohyuddin brought up a case that was prosecuted as a hate crime. Three men were convicted under federal statutes.
“Shame on you,” she said to the taunts.
Image Problem For Manchester
Ibrahim Hooper with the Council on American-Islamic Relations says the mood felt a bit like people should be carrying “pitchforks and torches.”
“Whenever you have hate crimes being applauded by an audience, you’ve got to wonder what’s happening there,” he says.
But Coffee County Mayor David Pennington rejects that image of his residents.
“We’re not just a bunch of old country hicks out here, sitting on the roadside whittling,” he says.
The people doing most of the shouting were from out of town, Pennington contends.
And indeed, celebrity activists from around the country were stirring up the crowd with bullhorns. Pennington says the vitriol from the locals was mostly directed at the prosecutor.
“I think a lot of people were offended that the U.S. Attorney was coming down here to give us a lecture,” he says.
Several activists in attendance say they feel Islam enjoys special protections from the federal government not shown to Christianity. But there are some who say the tactics from Tuesday were unhelpful.
“We were rude,” says conservative organizer Lee Douglas of Brentwood, who was in the room. He adds that the behavior may have hurt the cause.
*The original story misidentified Suleyman’s affiliation.