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Three Chattanoogans describe life in the Bible Belt
Southerners are labeled with a colorful array of stereotypes, many of them negative. Jordan Reeves of the Huffington Post succinctly described the Southern reputation as “a little less intelligent, a little less tolerant, a little less globally minded.”
As I prepared to interview three local Muslims about their beliefs and experiences living in Chattanooga, I wondered how accurate this Southern stigma would prove to be. Or, as I hoped, would Chattanooga, often described one of the most progressive and livable mid-size cities in the US, be a model of another more favorable stereotype—Southern hospitality?
Interviewees are quoted by abbreviated names only to protect their identities. We regret that this is considered necessary.
I met my first interviewee, a young professional of Arab descent born and raised in Chattanooga, with mild apprehension as to what he would reveal. But to my relief, Abdul told me almost immediately that he had experienced very little prejudice, and in fact, knew of few negative occurrences within the local Muslim community. This did not diminish, however, his concern for American Muslims and the discrimination they face, which even if not prevalent locally, certainly exists.
Because Abdul believed his experience within American society was not remarkably different from anyone else’s, our conversation quickly turned philosophical. In his candid, easy way, Abdul described Islam to me as the final part of a three-part religious series—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—or “Christianity 1.2,” as he called it. Islam, he said, is a re-clarified version of Christianity, as was Christianity of Judaism.
Muslims believe in the Old Testament and much of the New, according to Abdul. The greatest difference between Islam and Christianity is their belief in Jesus as a prophet rather than the Son of God. “We have a shared history with Jews and Christians,” Abdul said, “and therefore, respect, communication and relationships are encouraged between these communities.” He said that Islam is a peaceful religion and those who encourage violence are acting contrary to its teaching.
Although extremist groups are a small minority of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide (compared to approximately 2.2 billion Christians), Muslims are almost always portrayed negatively (as extremists and terrorists) in Western media. According to Abdul, many of the things we consider to be alarming about Islam are related more to culture than religion (including the head coverings worn by women).
“There are many different cultures involved in Islam and each culture paints it with a different stroke,” he said, “you can be Muslim the culture or Muslim the faith.”
Regardless of negative portrayals, however, Abdul believes that the overall perception of Islam has gotten better, even after 9/11. “From the bad comes good,” he said.
In a city recently named the most “Bible-minded” city in America, what Abdul seemed to wish to convey most was that “we have more in common than difference.” Abdul’s depiction of Chattanooga (suggesting that the local Muslim community, or at least those whom he knows, have experienced little prejudice) stands in stark contrast to the arson and controversies involved with the building of the Murfreesboro mosque, and the more recent disruption of the Muslim Outreach Forum in Manchester by anti-Muslim hecklers. Perhaps Chattanooga is already privy to this insight. But both of these cities are just over an hour down the road and these occurrences are only two of several anti-Muslim acts in Tennessee.
Sitting beside Yasmeen in a corner of my favorite coffee haunt downtown, I felt acutely aware of people watching us. I had met Abdul here a week before without any such sensitivity to onlookers and eavesdroppers, but then Yasmeen wears her beliefs for all to see. Perhaps it was because my own eyes were drawn to the headscarf she wore that I was aware of other glances. But she either didn’t notice or was too gracious to reveal as much, and soon enough, as she talked about her beliefs and life in Chattanooga, I forgot about all bystanders.
Yasmeen was born in Chattanooga, but moved to Syria with her parents at age nine. She lived there for ten years, returning to Chattanooga for college in 2011. Unlike Abdul, Yasmeen has experienced many incidents of prejudice since moving back here. Initially, it was difficult wearing the hijab, she said, as she felt like people were looking at her negatively. “When I first moved [back] here it really got to me,” she said. “I would go home and cry, but you learn to just block it out. Now when I see people staring, I just smile or wave.”
And staring is mild in comparison to some incidents she’s had—an old man confronting her in a store to tell her she’s going to hell, a fellow student asking her if she’s Muslim and then telling her that all Muslims are terrorists, or two young men passing her in the park and cursing at her to take the hijab off her head. “We are judged by how we look,” she said, “not by what we do or believe necessarily.”
According to Yasmeen, wearing the hijab is a personal choice, and one that is respected within the Muslim community (at least those in which she has participated). For her, the choice to wear the hijab was a decision to embrace her beliefs, regardless of the prejudice that the visibility of her religion brings her.
It is misunderstanding, Yasmeen said, that is the root of this prejudice. “Schools overseas teach about all different cultures and religions,” she said, “so people are more open minded.” This also applies to Muslims. Locally, there’s misunderstanding within the Muslim community towards other communities also, she explained. It is because of a lack of communication that this misunderstanding remains. Most of the Muslim community is open to questioning and dialogue, she said, but does not feel that other communities reciprocate.
Although Yasmeen has experienced (and continues to experience) prejudice, she also believes that understanding and acceptance are greater now than in the past. Ten years ago, her mother, who converted to Islam, was attacked in Red Bank for being Muslim, something that Yasmeen doesn’t fear much today. Still, Chattanooga has a long way to go, she believes.
I met the final interviewee, a professor known as Dr. S by students, in his office. Perhaps it was location or perhaps it was the student in me deferring to the usual student-teacher dynamics that lent a more formal feel to our conversation. But he was no less sincere, and l was impressed, as with Abdul and Yasmeen, at how open and direct he was.
Born and raised in Indonesia, Dr. S moved to the US in 1997 to attend graduate school. In 1999, he moved to the South, where he and his family have lived since. He said that there was certainly a culture change, but he didn’t feel that there was a significant adjustment required in regards to religion. “The communities we’ve lived in have been accepting of a Muslim presence,” he said, and he has experienced little prejudice personally (though his wife, who wears a hijab, is approached more often than he).
In the academic world, Dr. S said, he is judged according to his teaching, not because of race or religion. As he stated, “Our common enemy in any society is ignorance.” Locally, the Muslim community has an “open-door policy” because they recognize the importance of dialogue, he said. “When you don’t understand something, you can feel fear of it.”
Dr. S also addressed the Muslim community. “Our understanding is based on what we have learned, but what others have learned may be different,” he said. In the Qur’an, Muslims are commanded to know their neighbors, he explained, and so the Muslim community has a sense of the necessity of connection to society and to other communities, religious or otherwise. The conflict is “less about religion and more about politics,” Dr. S said, something that greater understanding would help resolve.
Our reputation for intolerance in the South may not be unfounded, but this is not just a Southern issue, and it seems that Chattanooga, if anything, is more tolerant than many places. But is tolerance enough? Should we not welcome diversity?
What Abdul, Yasmeen and Dr. S hope for is greater understanding—the opportunity to express their beliefs for themselves, rather than allowing the media to determine how they are perceived. Their statements reaffirm the belief that everyone deserves this chance, to be assessed according to their personal beliefs rather than those prescribed to them. After all, I’d certainly prefer not to be judged as “less intelligent” or “less tolerant” because I live in the South.
How about you?