All of us, as Americans, regardless of our religious beliefs, need to pause and reflect on what is happening in our country. We should also acknowledge that fear and religious intolerance have been a part of our nation's history. What is happening with the attacks on the Muslim community is not unprecedented.
At the Tennessee Human Rights Commission, we stand ready to do our part to facilitate better understanding of the rules and guidelines of nondiscrimination on the basis of religion and national origin. After the controversy over building an Islamic center near ground zero in lower Manhattan, the arson in Murfreesboro to halt the building of a proposed Islamic center, and the publicity about the plan to burn Korans in Gainesville, Florida, on September 11th, 2010, it would be helpful to understand why all of this is happening. Why now?
Why is there so much heated rhetoric, panic, misinformation, and violence?
Why would anyone want to endanger U.S. troops abroad after General David Petraeus stated that burning the Koran could result in harm to our troops?
How can people say they are for religious freedom yet oppose building Islamic centers?
While the Internet has been a great tool for delivering information and encouraging conversations, it can also feature photos and videos that incite violence. It also spreads misinformation. Such is the concern of political and military leaders who see this anti-Muslim rhetoric endangering our national security.
I am proud of the comments Governor Phil Bredesen made recently when he said, "I would ask everybody to remember that this is a country whose deepest origins are in religious freedom. It was founded by people who escaped to it to practice their religions. To ask people to have great respect for anyone's religious preferences and their rights to practice those in the United States ... I think it goes right to the heart of what this country is about."
Despite what happened in Murfreesboro, which brought unwanted national publicity, there is a bright spot in Memphis. Dr. Bashar Shala of the Memphis Islamic Center and Pastor Steve Stone of Heartsong Church were featured on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann on September 8th. The lead story showed how Pastor Stone's church put up a huge sign welcoming the Memphis Islamic Center, which had purchased property near the church. The two congregations talked with one another, got to know one another, and have great respect for each other. They are good neighbors.
This could be happening in Murfreesboro and across the state of Tennessee if those who oppose Islamic centers would talk to their fellow Americans and realize that any suggestion that being Muslim is incompatible with being American is disturbing.
I learned something new recently listening to former Secretary of State Colin Powell talk about the issue of building an Islamic center near ground zero. He stated that there is a prayer room in the Pentagon and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for military personnel and that they have been there since the mid-1950s. He commented that these prayer rooms are for Americans and that wherever the Islamic center is built, it is intended for use by Americans.
For more than 30 years, Muslims in Murfreesboro worshipped quietly in a variety of places. In Middle Tennessee, the Muslim population has grown to almost 25,000 due to Somalis fleeing their homeland, the federal government's decision to resettle Iraqi refugees after the Persian Gulf War, and the large influx of Iraqi Kurds.
Let's talk to one another and dispel the fears and ignorance that have permeated our recent national conversation. We did it after 9/11, and we can do it again.
Patricia Pearce is chair of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission.