Tennessee’s Muslim community was deeply concerned when a local county commissioner posted an anti-Muslim picture on his Facebook page, which had the viewer looking down the barrel of a shotgun and a caption reading “HOW TO WINK AT A MUSLIM.” Commissioner Barry West later apologized for sharing the picture, but by then his post had gone viral. In response, the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC) organized an outreach forum to educate the community about how to conduct “Public Discourse in a Diverse Society.”
Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Tennessee, and Kenneth Moore, FBI special agent in charge of the Eastern Tennessee District, were two government officials on hand to present on the ways in which freedom of speech can be exercised without spreading fear or stereotypes. Unfortunately, not everyone was prepared to listen, especially protesters organized by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) — a group founded by leading Islamophobe Pamela Geller — and other right-wing groups. In what they called “rallying for free speech,” a crowd of hecklers inside the event attempted to drown out the numerous speakers.
“That’s not even a crime,” one woman could be heard shouting as Killian walked the crowd through a PowerPoint slide describing what constitutes a hate crime. Another woman called him a “traitor” for his comments. Arguably the worst moment in the proceedings was when Sabina Mohyuddin mentioned a mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, that was burned to the ground in 2007. The hecklers’ response? To break out into cheers. Watch the video here:
“Shame on you,” Mohyuddin can be heard scolding the hecklers over their applause. It wasn’t the first outburst against her during the forum. Earlier in her presentation, when she mentioned the high rate of citizenship among American Muslims, one of the hecklers shouted “Infiltration!”
Outside, Geller and and AFDI co-founder Robert Spencer led hundreds more protesters in rallying against the idea of civilized discourse, claiming to be protecting their right to free speech. “This is the line in the sand,” Geller told the crowd, which included former Saturday Night Live star and fellow Islamphobe Victoria Jackson. “The Constitution and Sharia cannot coexist,” Jackson said, adding, “Islam is evil.”
Spencer defended his group’s harassment of the speakers at the event, calling “the claim that someone in the crowd was ‘afraid’ of the other audience members, as if these patriots who came out to defend the freedom of speech were some gang of menacing thugs, bent on silencing their foes by force, was utterly preposterous.”
AFDI is the mastermind behind the anti-Muslim advertisements posted at public transit stations in major cities around the country, including New York City and Washington, DC. Geller and Spencer also each hold prominent places in CAP’s report “Fear, Inc,” on the network pushing Islamophobia across the country. That the two chose to lead protests supporting Muslim discrimination in a state where several Islamic centers have been subjected to arson and vandalism over the past five years says a lot about their aims.