The conflict in Murfreesboro, TN over whether or not to allow that town's Muslim community to build a new mosque is much more than a test of our nation's commitment to our Bill of Rights. How this matter is resolved could end up defining the very soul and future of America.
There was, from the beginning, a dualism that shaped our national character. We were, after all, a people who fought a revolution inspired by high-minded freedoms. And yet the republic we formed was born with the original sins of ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples and slavery.
This conflict between our two personalities has shaped our history. There were those who saw America as a self-confident, welcoming, and inclusive nation and those who surrendered to fear, intolerance and hate, denying to newcomers the rights they demanded for themselves. On the one side, there was the promise of the Lady in the Harbor, and on the other, an ugly nativism striking out at immigrants or slamming doors in their faces. The Irish, Southern Europeans, Jews and Asians were, for a time, scorned, locked out, held with suspicion and excluded. In each instance, to date, despite the hardships endured by many, the vision of America as open and free has won the day.
Yet again, we are facing another of these existential challenges the outcome of which will define who we are and how we will be in the world. The American Muslim community which has been with us for more than a century, has only recently come of age. Paralleling their emergence, has been a wave of intolerance and hate directed at the community and its institutions. Mosques have been vandalized, individual Muslims have been victims of violence and some Republican political leaders have latched on to targeting Islam as a way to mobilize their political base. In every instance the assault on Muslims has been marked by the assumption of collective guilt and a gross caricaturing of Islam.
Last summer, the national media focused on two higher profile displays of this intolerance: the protests against "Park 51" (the proposed Islamic Community Center in southern Manhattan) and the attention-seeking Florida preacher who, for days, threatened to burn a Qur'an. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, in the middle of America, in Murfreesboro, TN, a town that prided itself as "welcoming" and a "family" was striking out against its own Muslim citizens.
"Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door" is the profoundly disturbing documentary (appearing on CNN, Sunday, March 27 at 8:00) that tells the story of Murfreesboro's war with itself. Produced by Soledad O'Brien, "Unwelcome" is both low key and forceful. O'Brien lets the story tell itself and lets both protagonists and antagonists speak for themselves. She doesn't editorialize or dominate - she facilitates (what a journalist ought to do). And the story that unfolds is gripping and unfinished.
Murfreesboro has not yet decided which face of America's personality will define its future - nor, tragically, has the country as a whole. With Congress holding hearings that target Muslims, and Republicans using fear of Islam as a wedge issue for electoral gain, this battle is far from over. For that reason alone "Unwelcome" should be seen, and, after watching, viewers should decide which face of America they choose for themselves and their children.
Follow James Zogby on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AAIUSA