CNN’s In America Series Presents Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door

by Latoya Peterson

Readers, you can imagine our surprise when we received an email inviting us to the screening of CNN’s latest documentary for the latest in their In America series.

After all, we had a lot to say about the first few:

Thoughts on CNN’s Black in America Series
Going For Broke: The Racialicious Review of Black In America: Almighty Debt
Latinos Under Siege? A Look At CNN’s Latino In America
Latino In America goes out with a whine
The Fallout from Latino in America

But hey – they offered an advance screening, free breakfast, and a Q & A with Soledad O’Brien and the producers afterward. How could I resist? So Art RSVP’ed and I hopped on the Boltbus and made it to NYC in time for the 9:00 AM screening.

The newest addition to the In America family is called Unwelcome: Muslims Next Door. Here’s the trailer:

The Unwelcome: Muslims Next Door special revolves around the town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, situated about 35 miles from Nashville. According to O’Brien, her team first heard about the tensions flaring in Murfreesboro when researching the “Ground Zero Mosque.” While the proposed Islamic Center in New York made national headlines, the drama playing out in Murfreesboro illuminated a different issue: how smaller towns were coping with the Islamaphobic rhetoric currently in vogue and how local Muslim populations were beginning to feel the heat.

Unwelcome begins by looking at the community of Murfreesboro, where even amid the fever pitch of hateful rhetoric, the citizens describe each other as neighborly, and defend Murfreesboro as one of the best places to live in America. For decades, Muslims in Murfreesboro have been free to worship as they see fit – there is one Islamic center in the town and around 250 currently practicing Muslims. Some of the Muslims interviewed in the documentary remarked that Murfreesboro remained peaceful and civil even after 9/11 – the idea of Muslims living and worshiping in the town was just a non-issue.

That is until plans to expand the existing Islamic center came to light last year.

The residents cited all kinds of issues to back up their claims as to why the Islamic Center should not be built – many of which were based in bias, ignorance, or just straight up bigotry. Here are a few quotes:

  • “Here is this enormous building which is going to be occupied by people who are of the same religion that the people are who we’re fighting in Afghanistan.”
  • “Why are they building a mosque and needing 53,000 square feet? That is a lot of square footage.  And it’s going to be a very expensive thing.  Now how are 200 families – or 200 muslims, however many there are – how are they gonna pay for it? I know when we expanded our church, we’re still paying for it.” [Ed Note: The documentary explains what the footage will be used for - in addition to a 10,000 square foot mosque, there will be a gym, cemetery, swimming pool, basketball court, tennis courts, and a small school.]
  • “In a post 9/11 world, we should be a little suspicious of any group trying to relocate to this community.”
  • “I didn’t say to hate ‘em – I just said we don’t need ‘em here!”
  • “It wasn’t Baptists and Catholics that put bombs in the bottom of the World Trade Center.”

The documentary follows a few different people in Murfreesboro looking at how the controversy has impacted them.  Lema Sbenaty, a nineteen year old practicing Muslim sheds a crucial light on all of the controversy, noting that she’s grown up in Murfreesboro and is suddenly seeing an entirely new side of the townsfolk there. Sbenaty’s story is heartbreaking – numerous times during the show, people talk right past her or through her, ignoring her experiences to talk about Sharia Law and the oppression of women in the Middle East.  The documentary also speaks with Imam Osama Ballul (sp? – there were no titles for the correct spelling of surnames in the doc).  Imam Osama (as he is referred to in the doc) talked about his journey from Egypt to the US, landing first in Texas and then moving to Murfreesboro.  Along the way, Imam Osama wed Ivy, a white Methodist who had converted to Islam.  The two have a daughter and led a fairly peaceful life in Murfreesboro, up until recently.  The documentary also interviews opponents of the new center.  Most notable of these are Kevin Fisher (who sites traffic and corruption of the ground water by the cemetery as reasons why he would oppose the construction) and Sally Wall, a longtime Murfreesboro resident who doesn’t believe it is bigotry to oppose the onset of sharia law – which again, is not the issue at hand.

But facts don’t seem to hold the weight they should in the case. In addition to the marches in the street and heated community meetings, some people in Murfreesboro decided to resort to violence and vandalism. Initially, the vandalism began by someone spray painting “not welcome” on the sign proclaiming the site of the new Islamic center. The sign was replaced for free by the sign makers, but eight months later, it was hacked at until it broke in two. Then, after the groundbreaking on the site, someone set fire to the construction equipment:

We’ve often criticized the In America series for presenting stereotypes and providing little to no context for what is happening.  O’Brien and her team have acknowledged some of those issues, and responded by tweaking the idea – instead of doing a bad job of telling multiple stories simultaneously, they instead are drilling down to tell one or two stories that could translate into a variety of contexts.  The shift was immediately evident in this documentary.  The people who were profiled felt real and relatable – even the misguided residents of Murfreesboro reveal more about their own fears than they intend to.  We heard from women both in an out of hijab, from practitioners and imams, received a view of one of the most diverse depictions of Muslims ever seen on television. and

At the end of the hour, most of us in the room were impressed by what was covered, though a few questions arose that I will get to in another post.

Outside of the documentary, CNN’s Belief Blog seeks to fill in some of the stories that didn’t fit into the hour long special. One of these stories is Matthew Miller, a 30 year old convert to Islam who currently lives in Murfreesboro:

Ultimately, the special reveals how easy it is for bigotry to triumph over common sense – and the difficult road facing those in Murfreesboro, who are suddenly considered outsiders in their own hometown.

Unwelcome: Muslims Next Door will air on CNN on Sunday, March 27th, at 8PM ET.  Racialicious will be hosting a live chat and post the rules for the drinking game to those who wish to play along.

  • Mohammed

    The problem in our world is generalization. When a few people from one group do something we assume that everyone in that group is like that. This happens to everyone not just Muslims, it happens to African Americans, whites, Hispanics, Jews, and pretty much everyone else. The world is full of racism, and racism comes form generalization Until we learn to not generalize a race, we will never have true peace.

  • Biancaj28

    I just watched the Unwelcome- Documentary you did and it was FANTASTIC. Thank you for exposing the ignorance of some people. I decided to write a critical analysis paper on this and i can only hope that it will be nearly as good as you have reported. It deeply angers me that people are so set in their beliefs that Muslims in general are a peaceful community. I am a Roman Catholic, I was born and raised in the Catholic Church, went to Catholic school, Catholic University (briefly), and to hear other christians denounce them is very sad. I grew up with muslim friends, went to school with muslims, yes of course we had open discussions about religion but never once did we every disrespect each other or our beliefs. The muslims in my classes at school were allowed to go to the library in our religion class periods but never as far as I can remember did they ever go, I am not an American nor did I go to school here until now. I applaud Soledad and her team for doing an excellent job in bringing this to our homes and helps to open the dialog on this.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is that if someone stands out as a leader among muslims to rally around their people, the FBI, CIA, NSA and whatever other security acronym you can think of will come down hard on that person, tearing their life up just to prove that they are or are not terrorist.

    The risk to personal safety and personal freedom outweighs the risks.

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  • -k-

    Re: Imam Osama’s last name–your first video clip shows it as Bahloul.

  • Enrich Weiss

    This country was built on the foundations of freedom, including the freedom of religion. This country has been through racism and many other differences between the people in these states. It use to be that African Americans had their own water fountains, but now we have a special day for Martin Luther King Jr. We, as a nation, have agreed to give the same rights to everyone that lives in this nation. Muslims are people too, and there is no reason to discriminate against the people who want a mosque in this city. Change is a part of life and everyone should understand that even the people of this town. Ignorance is looked down upon! Everyone deserves their freedom of religion and speech. DEAL WITH IT!

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thanks for this great round-up Latoya. I wish I could see the special as it airs…it’s good to hear CNN improved its presentation of such matters and they did well to highlight what’s going on in other parts of the US.

    Just wondering…wasn’t there another ___ In America CNN program focusing on the poor whites of Appalachia also that Racialicious covered? Thanks again for the round-up!

  • life

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about this from a friend I have at CNN working on it, but right at the outset I’m put off by the title. I understand that they want people to watch it, but such a sensationalized title strikes me as just silly.