NASHVILLE, Tenn.- The question of religion is playing a major role in one of the most heated congressional primary races in the country.
Republican Lou Ann Zelenik is challenging incumbent republican Diane Black in the sixth congressional district. When asked if she believed if Islam was a real religion, Zelenick said she believed it to be mostly political.
“I consider 15 percent of Islam a religion, 85 percent political. It’s a total way of life. The only ones who do not call Islam a religion are the Muslims because it’s not a religion,” said Zelenik.
News Channel 5 Investigative reporter Ben Hall asked Zelenik asked if she felt Islam was a real religion or something else Zelenik was clear.
“I will tell you I don’t agree with everything that they say in the Islamic religion or ideology or whatever you want to call it, but I think it has been established by the Federal government and it’s protected as a religion and that’s what I am going to abide by is the law,” she said.
The entire interview of both candidates, including their take on the negative ads that have been such a big part of this campaign will air on Inside Politics on News Channel 5+ at 7 p.m. on July 27 or at 5 a.m. Sunday, July 29 on News Channel 5.
Just look at the difference between Clergy Beyond Borders and hatemongers such as SIOA’s Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller. One group (guess who) promotes pluralism, respect for our Constitution and freedom while the other one sows divisiveness, hate and thrives off of fear.
An unusual vehicle is stuck in traffic on the highway from Nashville to Murfreesboro, T.N. It may look like an everyday passenger van but a glance inside tells a different story. Two imams, two rabbis and one evangelical pastor sit cheek-by-jowl with boxes of interfaith material blocking the back windows. With the rain pelting against the windows, the pastor and one of the rabbis pull up Facebook, excitedly checking how many friends they have in common. The conversation swings from good-natured teasing to philosophical discussions and disheartening stories of humiliation suffered in a post-9/11 world. This drive is just one of many this group will have taken together by the end of their 15-day Religious Leaders for Reconciliation ride through cities in the American South and Midwest. Their goal is to bring a message of unity and of interfaith understanding to a country they feel is forgetting what that means.
“A rabbi next to an imam, next to an evangelical minister: it sounds strange,” explains Imam Yahya Hendi, founder of Clergy Beyond Borders, the organization sponsoring the ride, and the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University. “But this is the America dream. This is what America makes possible. This could be a joke in Saudi Arabia or maybe in Pakistan. This could never be a joke in the United States of America. This is a dream we need to protect. This is the reality we need to nurture.”
Deep recessions in the United States in the past have resulted in high levels of intolerance of immigrants and other minority groups. “History suggests that the quality of our democracy — more fundamentally, the moral character of American society — would be at risk if we experienced a many-year downturn,” Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman predicted in “Meltdown, a Case Study,” in The Atlantic in 2005.
For the clergy in the van, Friedman’s 2005 predictions are today’s realities. The stresses of the last decade have thrown American racism and prejudice into stark relief. An atmosphere of suspicion and misunderstanding has taken root, poisoning the religious and cultural plurality that many Americans point to with great pride. The motto of the trip is “One Ark, One Humanity,” drawing from the premise that followers of the three Abrahamic faiths share the same ancestor, Noah. In other words, to ignore that bond is to ignore one’s own faith. By talking about each of the religious traditions and better understanding them, the clergy hope to break down barriers between the practitioners of each of the faiths. Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, a ride participant said, “I don’t actually think as a Jew, that I know everything there is to know about God and about religious truth. I love my tradition, I read the text of my tradition, but it’s been my experience with Christians and Muslims that what I’ve learned [from them] enriches me, makes me a better Jew and makes me see things in my own tradition that I didn’t see before.”
The destination today is Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, T.N., the ninth city on the tour. While much of the media and political attention last year was focused on whether to build Park 51, the proposed Muslim cultural center in downtown New York, Murfreesboro was struggling with its own divisive debates over the building of a new mosque. No sooner had the land been secured, some members of the community opposed it. Bringing the matter to court over zoning laws, the case attracted the attention of national conservative groups. Soon, it was no longer about the legality of building the mosque but rather a referendum on American Muslims and on Islam itself. The Los Angeles Times reported that conservative activists were brought into Murfreesboro to say in court that “American Muslims — including those in Murfreesboro — want to impose Shari’a, or Islamic law, on the United States, and that the proposed mosque, gymnasium and swimming pool were part of a ‘stealth jihad.’” Meanwhile, the county’s planning commission argued that Islam was not a religion and therefore not eligible to own land for religious purposes.
The Judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Muslim community but just before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the local Islamic Center received a bomb threat. Thus far, no contractor is willing to take on the project of building the mosque.
In the van, this recent history is well known. There was some anxiety as the group rolled closer to the destination. The event, co-sponsored by the MTSU Muslim Student Association, the Wesley Foundation and the Jewish Student Union, would be open to the public. One of the clergy remarked that earlier in the day while in Nashville, he was told that he would be going to ‘Ground Zero.’ His students at Duke University told him that they looked forward to seeing him if he got back, not when.
The program at MTSU was billed as an interfaith event but Islam and Muslims were firmly at the center of the discussion. Could this panel of clergy bring some words of reconciliation or encouragement to this town torn apart by anger and suspicion? Imam Hendi, with great verve and enthusiasm, tried to impress upon his audience the seriousness with which he takes the American ideals of religious plurality and freedom. “Many years ago,” he thundered to the crowd, “I wanted to live free and I knew only in America can I live free. Only in the pluralistic, diverse America, can I be myself and I want America to continue to be pluralistic, to continue to be diverse. That is why I will continue to live in the United State of America. Not because I want it to be a Muslim America. No! If America wants to become Muslim, let me know so that I can move elsewhere.”
Laughter and applause greeted his words, but skepticism lingered. In this traditionally Christian majority community, some wanted to know if by advocating for religious pluralism, these clergy were really advocating for an amalgamation of the three religions. Absolutely not, was the immediate reply. “I am an exclusivist,” expanded Reverend Steve Martin. “How do I square that then with interfaith dialogue? Calling myself a Christian or claiming a certain faith experience doesn’t mean that I have it all figured out. Although I believe the truth of the faith that I claim is definitive, there’s a lot that I can learn about that faith by interacting with, by loving and caring, and deeply deeply respecting brothers and sisters of other pathways and other faiths. ”
Other questioners spoke more to the political discourse of recent years, demonstrating the influence conservative talking points have had within the community. “Do you believe that Christians should be able to build as many churches as they wish and Jewish people should be allowed to live in Saudi Arabia and build as many synagogues as they wish?” asked one audience member suspiciously. “How do you plan to even begin on the oppression of your [Muslim] women?” asked another.
These provocative questions resulted only in calm answers. I’m so glad you asked that question, responded Imam Hendi. “I stand by you for a Christian to be able to openly and publically worship in churches in Saudi Arabia.” Imam Abdullah Antepli, his colleague on the panel, jumped in, adding that not allowing minorities to pray in Saudi Arabia has no grounding in Islamic practice and is in fact a violation of Islam.
Turning the onus back onto the questioner concerned about Muslim women’s rights, Imam Hendi added some provocation of his own. “I feel so angry when I see women oppressed in some Muslim countries. That happens not because of Islam, but rather despite Islam. Look at the history of the past 20 years in Muslim countries. Turkey had a female president, [as has] Bangladesh and Indonesia. Pakistan had a female prime minister. The American debate, unfortunately, is still if we can have a female president.”
For many others, the themes of unity and of opening oneself up to ones’ neighbors resonated deeply and without rancor. They made it clear that the debate over the mosque not only affected the Muslim community, but the whole community. It was their image and reputations on the line. Laura, a Murfreesboro resident, summed up many of her neighbors’ feelings during the question and answer session. The portrayal of her town in the media over the past year was not a fair representation of her and of the people of Murfreesboro, she said. “There are many of us who support the mosque,” she added. “A number of us have made some efforts in community organizing in order to come together.”
As people lingered in the lobby following the program, the mood was positive. The message the clergy had been trying to impart all evening seemed to have fallen on receptive ears. “I think it was one of the best debates we’ve had, and I’ve been to several of them,” said Jennifer Roberts, another Murfreesboro resident. “In the last year, [this] is all I want to talk about. I started a diversity group where I work and we’re trying to get people just to learn. You don’t have to become. You don’t have to switch. If you know, it’s not as scary.”
Having been awake since 5 AM and arriving back at their hotel in Nashville 18 hours later, it had been a long day for the group. Early the next morning, they would pack up the van again and leave for their next stop: Louisville, K.Y. The schedule was punishing, but they had a mission. “A lot of voices in the name of religion have been dividing us,” said Imam Antepli, who had gotten up at 3:30 AM to join the ride. “We are struggling to turn our differences into richness. It is the core mission of the clergy to make religion a strong force of peace and reconciliation.”
The Southern United States and the Midwest have been ravaged by violent forces of nature in the past few weeks; massive flooding has threatened to erase whole communities from Tennessee to Alabama, and over the past few days behemoth-like tornadoes, whipping in fury and frenzy swallowed and spit out whole towns.
The cataclysmic events of the Rapture predicted by Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping may not have come to pass but these tragedies have altered lives forever, and our thoughts and prayers should be with those affected. I encourage everyone to contribute in whatever way they can to relief and support efforts in those regions.
“Heartland USA” as this region is otherwise known is too often ignored, some forget that beyond the confines of our large urban cities there is a whole other America that is rural, conservative and vibrant.
It is here that another force has taken hold and is setting up the perfect storm of intolerance, bigotry, racism, xenophobia and hatred.
This force is a product of the wedding of Islamophobia across the Atlantic, between right-leaning populist politicians and Christian and Israeli/Jewish Zionists that has led to a feverous increase in anti-Democracy and anti-Muslim activity.
This is the real monster that should worry us, not some eight-headed dragon beast that might emerge from the sea and usher in the Second Coming of Christ.
Extremism on our Shores
On May 12, 2011 in Madison, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, Geert Wilders readily accepted an invitation from the Tennessee Freedom Coalition to speak at Cornerstone Church, a mega church with regular attendance exceeding 3,900 weekly. LW received exclusive video from Rob, a fan of LoonWatch who attended the event and taped the speeches of Wilders, Lou Ann Zelenik and Andy Miller. He was so upset by what he saw that he immediately sent us the footage he captured.
Wilders speech was a diatribe against Islam and Muslims in which all the familiar talking points were rehashed but with a little extra venom, undoubtedly playing to the sentiments of the crowd.
LW Exclusive: Shocking Video of Geert Wilders Hate Speech on US Soil Part 1:
Geert Wilders: “Its Islam Stupid (raucous applause). We must stop the Islamization of our countries, more Islam means less freedom”…”And now, now Europe is looking slowly but gradually like Arabia”…”It was the land of our fathers, it is our land now, it is our values, our values are based on Christianity, Judaism and Humanism and not Islam, it is that simple (applause)”…”and I have a message for all those people who want to rob us from our freedoms, and my message is stay in your own country (loud applause)”…”we are not going to allow Islam to steal our country from us (applause)”…”if Jerusalem falls, Athens, Rome, Amsterdam and Nashville will fall therefore my point is we all are Israel (applause)”…”the only place where Christians are safe in the Middle East is that beautiful country called Israel (loud applause)”…”Make no mistake, please make no mistake, Islam is also coming to America, in fact Islam already is in America. America is facing a stealth jihad, the Islamic attempt to introduce Sharia’ law bit by bit”…”what we need my friends, what we need to turn the tide is a spirit of resistance, what we need I repeat it again is a spirit of resistance”…”we must repeat it over and over again, especially to our children, our Western values and culture based on Christianity and Judaism is better and superior to the Islamic culture (applause), and leaders who talk about immigration without mentioning Islam are blind (applause)”…”we must stop the immigration from non-Western countries and we must forbid the construction of new hate palaces called mosques (applause)”…”the press calls it an Arab spring, I call it unfortunately an Arab winter (applause), Islam and freedom, Islam and democracy are incompatible (applause)”…”the so called Prophet Muhammad was a terrorist worse than Bin Laden ever was (applause)”…”neutrality my friends, neutrality in the face of evil is evil itself (applause).”
Why is a mega-church, an institution that professes to follow the teachings of Christ hosting such a hate-mongerer in the heartland of the USA? What is the Tennessee Freedom Coalition and why is it paying an extremist foreign politician who undermines “freedom” to speak at a Church? What are the ramifications for the rest of the West, the USA in particular when such an extremist is given a platform to incite hate?
This mega-church is a bit like a franchise corporation. It has two locations: one in Bowling Green, Kentucky and the other in Madison, Tennessee. It is led by Senior Pastor Maury Davis,
Pastor Maury Davis was arrested at age eighteen for the crime of first-degree murder. Following his trial and conviction, he served eight and one-half years in the Texas Department of Corrections. During his incarceration, Pastor Davis found his Savior in Jesus Christ and led a revival among his fellow prisoners.
Can anyone imagine what would happen if say Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf had a rap sheet similar to Pastor Davis? Pamela Geller would be doing back flips through Manhattan.
Aside from boasting about its large attendance, the Church also has a Starbucks-esque Coffee shop and other amenities for the Faith-full shopper. It successfully marries capitalism and religion and also adds an ultra-extra helping of Nationalism.
When nearing the Church, the first thing one notices is the strikingly gargantuan American flag in front of the Church:
Inside the Church the backdrop is red, white and blue and the colors surround a white modern looking Cross that reminds one more of the lapel pin worn by Captain Kirk on Star Trek than a cross. I guess they really want you to know they are patriots.
The Church’s philosophy is based on a literal belief in the Bible. They are certainly evangelical and reaffirm the theology of the “millennial reign of Christ,” i.e. the Rapture or the-floating-into-the-sky version of the End Times.
They believe that the Bible, “both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:21).”
The Tennessee Freedom Coalition, led by Lou Ann Zelenik and Andy Miller is a right-wing organization that can be considered a part of the Tea Party Movement, the base of the GOP. The addition of the TFC to the long list of GOP organizations can be considered one more dark stain in the history of the Tennessee GOP. It was not long ago that their members were making racist remarks about the president:
On top of the racism, homophobia isn’t far behind, the Republican governor of Tennessee has until June 1st to consider an “anti-Gay bill that would prohibit the passage of anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT individuals.”
Tennessee also happens to be the state where we have seen a rise in hate against Muslims (in fact it is quickly becoming the center of anti-Muslim hate). Courts have been considering whether Islam is a religion, lawmakers are likely to pass a “Ban Sharia’ law” bill inspired by a documented racist and extremist Zionist named David Yerushalmi. It is scene to the Murfreesboro mosque struggle which made headlines this past summer. A year ago Pamela Geller was a headline speaker for the Tennessee Tea Party convention, talk about insane.
For its part the Tennessee Freedom Coalition was passing out this pamphlet at the Church:
How do you promote tolerance by “fighting” a religion? What they really mean to say in light of Wilders speech is, “Promote Religious Tolerance by Working to Stop the Growth of Islam,” which is like saying “promote tolerance by being intolerant.” Obviously this puts Muslims, you know, those who practice Islam in quite the bind.
LW Exclusive: Shocking Video of Geert Wilders Hate Speech on US Soil Part 2:
This is not the first time Geert Wilders has spoken at the pulpit, previously he spoke at Synagogues and at Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller’s SIOA 9/11 hate rally. However his presence amongst 3,000 admiring followers on US soil is not only reprehensible, it is a development that bodes ill for all of us.
It will only increase the radicalization of the anti-Muslim movement which seeks at its fundamental level to curtail freedom of religion and expression, first the rights of Muslims (soft target) and then anyone else they disagree with.
A word must also be said about Wilders obsessive citation of Israel. It is a country which he boasts about visiting over “forty times” and which he cites as a paragon of virtue, freedom, liberty, justice and light. He cites the security of Israel as one of the reasons that the West must fight Islam.
Lets forget the war crimes, human rights violations and apartheid policies in Israel for a second and really look at the hate that is emerging in its name. Individuals and organizations with deep connections to Israel, both network-wise and theologically are calling for the destruction of Islam which they regard as evil incarnate.
Aubrey Chernick (one of the leading funders of Islamophobia), Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Geert Wilders, David Horowitz, Brigitte Gabriel, Allen West, the BNP, EDL, SIOE, SIOA, BPE, JDL, large numbers of Christian and Jewish Zionists and others believe that as long as you are fervently pro-Israel you can be as anti-Islam/Muslim as you want without suffering any consequences. Such a position at the end of the day only harms Jewish moral interests, and this much has been expressed by brave voices such as Not in Our Name, Jews without Borders, Muzzlewatch, Richard Silverstein, Max Blumenthal, our very own loonwatcher Gefilte, Glenn Greenwald and others.
The spectacle of a racist, anti-Muslim Dutch politician arriving on our shores to warn us about Islam is quite ironic, but what is most disturbing is the reception he received from a large audience of Americans. It may seem far-fetched now but one day Geert Wilders or someone like him (Allen West?) may move on from addressing thousands of Church goers to addressing Congress–the question is will he receive as many applauses as Benjamin Netanyahu?