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George Alexander

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CNN Special: "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door"

Posted: 03/28/11 04:54 PM ET

The CNN In America series is some of the best television out there. It frequently takes us into the lives, the hopes and dreams of ordinary, everyday Americans -- African Americans, latinos, gays and now Muslims -- who to date have struggled in gaining full acceptance into the American family. "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door," which debuted last night on the network and which encores on Saturday April 2 at 8:00 p.m., is no exception. Provocative, engaging, and at times disturbing, the special is the kind of necessary television that continues to challenge us to examine who and what we are as a country.

Unwelcome takes us to Murfreesboro, Tenn., a small, close-knit town of 104,000 people. Soledad O'Brien, who, as always, adroitly and commandingly hosts the special, said at a breakfast for bloggers last week that it's the kind of place genuinely loved by its residents. "You won't find nicer people anywhere," is the type of talk you'll hear around town. But as our country's history so vividly shows us, even the nicest, sweetest small town folks can have ideologies and beliefs that can violently clash with America's professed ideals of equality and democracy.

Murfreesboro is no exception.

In the documentary, executive produced by Geraldine Moriba and produced by Jason Samuels, what's at stake is an Islamic center the local Muslims -- made up of about 250 families who've had a presence in the town for 30 years -- want to build. It seems rather simple. The Muslims have legally purchased a parcel of land. It's rightfully theirs, and they have a right to use it as they see legally fit. They want to build a place of worship. As Americans, they want to exercise their religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Yet therein lies the problem.

Led largely by an African-American man named Kevin Fisher, protests begin in an effort to stop the building of the center. The opponents go full stop to halt the Muslim group's plans. Suspicions arise. A lawsuit, mostly funded by Sally Wall, a prominent, well-heeled, white female resident, a woman who unapologetically reeks of pedigree and privilege, ensues. Major questions arise with fundamental questions like, "Is Islam even really a religion?" come forth.

That's only part of it.

Like the positions segregationists promoted during the civil rights movement a generation ago, you hear opponents make claims like, "They want to disrupt our way of life. They want to kill us. They beat their women. They're not like us." These sentiments run like a chorus through the piece. As an Alabama native, I could hear echoes of my parents talking about what it was like for them growing up in the Jim Crow era. "Unwelcome" presents the same script with a different cast.

What was most clear is that many of us as Americans don't really know Muslims. Many of us think we do based solely on a group of radical, hate-filled men who decided to end their lives along with those of thousands of innocent Americans on 9/11. It's a day we shall never forget. That alone is enough to stir the fear of God in many Americans leading us to adopt the most extreme point of view against innocent Muslim people who just want to live the American
Dream like all of us.

What many Americans do know is our fear. Our fear of the unknown. Our fear of difference. Our fear of our own mortality.

Yet the question that lingers is how long will it take we Americans -- some of whom are still understandably grieving from the horrific attacks of 9/11 (no one can justifiably minimize another's pain) -- to free ourselves from the bondages of our lack of understanding about a religion that is thousands of years old?

Why this documentary is particularly important as we move forward in increasingly diverse society is that it forces us to examine our levels of tolerance and acceptance in our democracy. In a country with a constitution that clearly separates church and state. As a Christian, I still must understand that respect for the religion of another is fundamental to this country's founding. Period. It shouldn't be a debate.

What I found most profound was the level of honesty conveyed in "Unwelcome." O'Brien is able to elicit the most direct --- if arguably politically incorrect -- statements out of the mouths of people who feel they are doing the right thing. On the one hand, you could say that the feelings are scary. Some of them are. On the other hand, it's the sort of raw truth that seems most freeing, if by some accounts, downright bigoted. At least you know where these people are coming from. They're not wearing masks. You automatically see how much work needs to be done in the area of religious and ethnic tolerance when it comes to the American family.

But how do we get there when real fear moves through the blood streams of a lot of Americans aided by 24/7 media airwaves that can polarize and demonize any group of people
if you listen to the rhetoric long enough?

While "Unwelcome" doesn't provide the answers, nor do I think that was its goal, it does compel us to think, to not only point fingers at those "ignorant," intolerant people down in Tennessee. But to look at our own lives and our own levels of tolerance for those who don't worship the way we do. Who don't look like us. Or dress like us. Who didn't come to America they way we or our forbears did. What does it mean to be an American in the twenty-first century in increasingly hostile planet?

I recommend "Unwelcome" for anyone who wants to learn more about Muslim Americans and their journey here in our post-9/11 world with its lingering psychic wounds.

Though it probably won't erase hardwired sentiments of xenophobia. It will at least begin a journey of understanding and compassion. I welcome you to check it out.