But Nashville’s interfaith culture has not always boomed. The rise of interfaith efforts only emerged in the last 15 years, and has flourished even more recently, according to members of the local faith community. It’s a development that has united people of different faith backgrounds and, as a result, helped to repair the damage from religious tension.
Interfaith work’s entrance
Lifelong Nashvillian Rashed Fakhruddin witnessed his father help found the Islamic Center of Nashville in 12 South in 1978. Today, Fakhruddin serves as president of ICN, and his long-term involvement with the mosque allows him to observe the overarching trends that have defined his congregation and others surrounding it.
Fakhruddin tagged the early 2000s as the beginning of interfaith work’s development. He said he saw a rise in the frequency of interfaith opportunities in those years — in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, religious organizations rarely broke boundaries and coordinated. As the opportunities increased, however, the ICN community was also more prepared to represent themselves.
“All of the sudden in the early 2000s, a lot of people started recognizing who we are, where we were,” Fakhruddin said. “We had more people in leadership that were engaged and could take on more interfaith roles. It’s been wonderful.”
To illustrate this growth, Fakhruddin pointed to a rise in exchange visits between houses of worship, in educational events like panel discussions and in multi-faith collaboration on service projects. All of this, he said, began to emerge around 2010.
Community members numbered in the hundreds to gather in support of their Muslim neighbors during a vigil the day after the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro was vandalized.
Numerous members of the crowd held homemade signs with the slogan, “Love thy neighbor,” while other signs had messages such as “Everyone be cool to each other” and “I Stand with my Muslim neighbor.” One family handed out long-stem roses.
“It’s my duty, it’s our duty, to decry senseless acts like these. Silence is not an option,” Abbie Wolf, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Nashville, told the crowd. “There is no place for such despicable and repugnant behavior or beliefs in our community.”
The Interfaith Community of Chattanooga hosted a 50-minute service at the UTC Student Center this afternoon, highlighted by a speech from Mark Siljander.
Siljander, a former U.S. representative and United Nations ambassador, shared his story of coming to learn about the Muslim faith. He said he began his political career as an outspoken proponent of Christianity while at the same time loathing the teachings of Islam.
However, Siljander said, he did not actually know much about the faith until he studied it for himself. He learned that his religion and that of Muslims was not that different, and he hoped to build bridges between the two communities.
He said an earnest attempt to narrow the gap between the two faiths helped solve problems among foreign nations during his political career. He urged those in attendance to use the July 16 shooting last year to form a closer bond between local Christians and Muslims.
“We want to change the world by changing our own lives first,” he said.
The fire department called before dawn. Daoud Abudiab and his 13-year-old daughter were already awake, so they got in the car quickly. From about a mile away, Abudiab saw a plume of black smoke rising above the low skyline and started getting nervous. He thought back to the arguments over whether to mark the Islamic Center of Columbia, Tennessee, the only mosque in the hundred-mile stretch between Nashville and Huntsville, with a large sign or a small, unassuming one. They had opted for a large one.
Abudiab and his daughter could feel the heat of the fire when they stood at the yellow police tape. A black swastika was spray-painted on the mosque’s facade. Flames pushed out from the burst windows and up through the collapsed roof. Abudiab’s wife arrived with the rest of the kids, followed by other congregants and their families.
Abudiab looked at the women and all he saw was headscarves. “Go home,” he pleaded. “Don’t go out. Don’t go to Walmart. Don’t go anywhere.”
The ringleader of the band of white supremacists who burned down the mosque with Molotov cocktails justified the act by saying, “What goes on in that building is illegal according to the Bible.” This was February 2008. The theory of Barack Obama’s crypto-Islamism was faint chatter on the fringes. But in the years after Obama’s election, Tennessee became a key battleground in a national anti-Muslim movement whose influence has culminated, for now, in the presidential campaigns of Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom are being advised by people whose views on Islam were once considered too extreme for mainstream politics.
Some Tennessee lawmakers and parents are in a tizzy because they believe seventh-graders are spending too much time learning about Islam as part of social studies.
A Tennessee lawmaker leading the charge has spewed an all-too common refrain, saying the state’s schools were leaning toward indoctrination because they emphasized learning about Islam more than about Christianity. The lawmaker last week upped the ante and proposed a bill prohibiting Tennessee public school courses from including “religious doctrine” until students are at least in 10th grade. What the lawmaker means by religious doctrine is fuzzy. But she’s a part of a statewide movement of parents and groups taking aim at lessons on Islam. A Christian organization joined the fray by submitting a public records request to every school district in the state asking for curriculum that included Islam.
It would be easy for some people to brush this off as anti-Muslim rhetoric, given previous high-profile controversies in Tennessee like nasty opposition to the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro. But this outcry over instruction about Islam is also brewing in Walton County, Georgia, in a suburban Atlanta school system where some parents objected to simply seeing Islam mentioned in seventh-graders’ homework. And it has happened with variations on the theme in Wellesley, Mass., in suburban Boston; Wichita, Kansas; Tampa, Florida; and Lumberton, Texas. I reported on conflicts in those towns and cities as part of research for a book on schools’ efforts to teach about the world’s religions.
Teaching about religion, and not only Islam, has become an increasingly thorny topic for public schools.
In Wichita, in August 2013, a set of parents and a state lawmaker objected to an elementary school’s bulletin board display because it said, “The Five Pillars of Islam.” Opponents to the bulletin board, set up for fourth-graders studying the spread of Islam, questioned how the school could teach about the five pillars and exclude the sixth, which they claimed was jihad and a Muslim obligation to kill all infidels. Traditionally, Muslims refer to five pillars or five basic obligations of their faith, including daily prayers and fasting on Ramadan. Jihad is not on that list.
The nation’s largest Muslim advocacy organization is calling on Tennesseans to oppose a bill on “religious doctrine” from Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia.The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) believes Butt introduced the bill, one that would prevent teaching of “religious doctrine” in Tennessee schools until at least 10th grade, out of fear and bigotry.
“Islamophobes like Rep. Butt fail to recognize that there is a big difference between teaching students about religion as an important part of world history and promoting particular religious beliefs,” CAIR Government Affairs Manager Robert McCaw said in a prepared statement.
“The education of children in Tennessee should not be delayed because of anti-Muslim bigotry.”
Butt told The Tennessean last week she filed the legislation in an attempt to balance the mentioning of religion and religious indoctrination, and that it wasn’t aimed at any one religion. But her bill comes on the heels of complaints from some parents in several Tennessee counties over references to Islam in middle school curriculum.
“It is interesting that CAIR would comment on my bill since the legislation never even mentions a particular religion, but instead explicitly states that no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over any other. The bill calls for comparative religion to be taught in high school and simply addresses the balance and age-appropriateness of teaching religion in Tennessee public schools,” Butt said in a prepared statement Monday.
Franklin Graham recently made a stir with his 2.1 million fans on Facebook when he posted about the murder of four US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He wrote,
Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in #Chattanoogayesterday including a policeman and another Marine–all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we’ve got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates. Pray for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.
Franklin Graham is the “mouth piece of God” for many Christians throughout the world – a modern day prophet for his millions of fans. But, sadly, Franklin misunderstands the very nature of God.
I share Graham’s concern for the victims of this violent act and pray for their families, but his statement about how Christians should respond to that violence also concerns me. Graham’s understanding of God is contaminated by fear and exclusion that responds to violence with more violence. He believes that Islam is a great threat to America and that we should respond by excluding Muslims from the United States because “they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”
I’m pleased that many Evangelicals have already critiqued Graham’s misunderstanding of Islam, but here I’d like to offer a progressive alternative to his understanding of Christianity.