Domestic Affairs

Immediate Reflections CNN’s "Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door"

By Imraan Siddiqi

The CNN Special “Unwelcome – The Muslims Next Door” premiered a few days ago and is one of the highest profile pieces in mainstream media regarding Islamophobia. At first, I was sort of squeamish about tuning into the program, because even though we have become adept at reading endless emails, columns, and talk radio commentary that highlight anti-Muslim bias – seeing this on TV really tends to be heart-wrenching.

I recorded the special on my DVR and subsequently spanned the full spectrum of emotions. From pleasantly surprised at the very human (yes Muslims are human too!) portrayal of the Murfreesboro Muslim community, to concerned when hearing of the scope of the outcry against the mosque, to finally outraged in seeing the depths that some within the opposition would sink to in order to squash this project. There was also surprise, in seeing how a personal connection existed in this mosque project as well.

From CNN’s perspective, I believe they did a fair job in attempting to not take sides – even though this is an issue of Constitutional right among the Muslim community. From a journalistic standpoint, CNN played the role of ombudsman – however this real-life morality play was truly reflected in its characters.

The Muslims of Murfreesboro did an excellent job of representing an Islamic community to the rest of America by being strong, composed and sticking to the facts. Although the documentary was filmed much earlier – it is airing in the shadows of the Peter King Radicalization hearings in Washington DC. In the current climate that the Muslim community is facing – there is a narrative that the Muslim community is playing the role of victim, prone to shedding “crocodile tears” when they get in front of the TV cameras.  Don’t believe me?  Just click here. Rather than showing respect for the Muslim’s willingness to shed tears for their faith – the script is flipped, and the anti-Islam community uses these emotions as fodder.

A Show of Solidarity

With that being said, the Murfeesboro Muslims did a wonderful job of showing a strong and determined face – such as in the case of young college student Lema Sbenaty. In witnessing her Islamic Center vandalized, her community demonized and the entire issue politicized – the sister had every reason to break down under the weight of the pressure. As I sat next to my wife watching the show, I even at times felt tears welling up into my eyes, in witnessing the level of hatred that some harbor toward Muslims as a whole – one cannot help feel emotional in these circumstances. The trolls among us in society unfortunately would have a field day.

We have seen a concerted effort in the Islamophobia business to dehumanize Muslims. Talking heads such as Brigitte Gabriel and Michele Malkin have unconscionably stated that images of Muslim parents crying, holding their dead or wounded in bombed out Arab neighborhoods – are actually just random passers –by, just faking it. The Islamophobic community also likes to state that Muslims are practicing the buzzword “taqiyya” in order to portray your smiling Muslim neighbor – as a lying, sleeper  terrorist-in-waiting.  As you see, in today’s political climate, Muslims are not allowed to express human emotions. Either way, it is likely that those who didn’t like Muslims before the special – will still feel the same way. Those who are neutral will see that this has to do with the inalienable rights that all Americans enjoy

On a personal level, I was pleasantly surprised to see the former Imam of the mosque I attended in Irving, TX – Shaykh Ossama Bahloul. When the Imam came to the U.S, he could hardly speak any English – but you could see the true effort that he has made in learning the language and in order to become a more engaged member of the Islamic clergy. He is now fluent in English, and did an excellent job of representing himself to a national audience.

Hope For Muslims – from an Unlikely Source

In recent months, there has been a concerted effort in passing anti-Shari`ah legislation in states like Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida – and the state at the epicenter of this documentary, Tennessee. With many candidates successfully running on a platform of fear-mongering, Muslims now find themselves wondering what implications that this has on them long-term. Is it possible that a Muslim meat-store owner gets 15-20 years in prison, for processing halal meat? Unlikely, however he is in effect practicing Shari`ah-law – which according to these half-brained bills would be illegal.  Needless to say, many Muslims are rightfully concerned.  That is why seeing this legal process adjudicated on the CNN documentary was especially helpful.

After the mosque opponents did everything within their power to protest the mosque’s building permit, they decided to move forward with a temporary injunction. On what basis, you ask?  For that answer, we go to Murfreesboro’s racist legal council:  Joe Brandon. Due to the fact that this house of worship is protected by the 1st Amendment, the councilor decided to attack from the angle that Islam is not a religion. Therefore, he has set forth on a quixotic adventure in delegitimizing a faith with 1.5 billion adherents.

As a human being, it is very gut-wrenching to see your faith be twisted out of context, and for it to be used as political fodder. Muslims love their faith, and to hear it being equated with suicide bombing and wife beating  – as in the case of Attorney Brandon, is completely unacceptable. But however uncomfortable this situation gets, what has unfolded rings of hope for the Muslim community. The appeal was denied. Sure there was plenty of pomp, circumstance and shout-downs. But the most telling moment came when the Department of Justice intervened in the proceedings and informed the participants that “Islam is plainly a religion,” and is therefore unequivocally protected by the 1stAmendment.

The appeal failed, so in the aftermath of the documentary – the opponents are still grasping to any legal straw that is available to them. Although this promises to be a long, arduous process – Muslims can rest assured that they cannot be denied the right to practice their religion freely, just as the case with any other faith. The same logic can be applied to what the opponents of Park 51 have attempted from a legal perspective – by trying to label the abandoned Burlington Coat Factory a “historical site” after the fact, among other last-ditch legal loopholes that they are attempting to exploit. This will also be the ultimate downfall of those states who attempt to pass anti-Shari`ah legislation – as a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise Muslims. Bottom line:  Muslims represent less than 2% of the entire U.S. population. In “anti-Shari`ah” states like Oklahoma, the population of Muslims is more like .02%. Please explain how buzzwords such as “creeping Shari`ah” have any precedent given these statistics.  In the end, there is absolutely no push for Shari`ah in the U.S., however the word has been politicized to foment a climate of fear/otherness of Muslims. So thank you Joe Brandon, your failure and mockery of the legal profession just lifted the spirits America’s 7 million Muslims.

In closing, the documentary turned out to be a net positive for the American Muslim community. While it may have been a bitter pill to swallow initially – in witnessing the rampant hate and fear-mongering taking place, it still highlighted many positive messages. We were able to see the principled, steadfast stand of the Murfreesboro Muslims, along with just how our faith is protected by the U.S. Constitution. As proud Americans, we will someday be able to look back and remember anti-Muslim resentment as a thing of the past, and will insha’Allah (God-willing) be accepted and respected as part of the fabric of America.

Imraan Siddiqi is an entrepreneur, freelance writer and MBA from Arizona State University.  He writes primarily on the subject of Islamophobia, and his articles can be found on  You can also find links to his articles at


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  • I was feeling really uneasy about the documentary. I haven’t watched it yet but I’m really happy that they showed a fair portrayal of Muslims.

    “The Islamophobic community also likes to state that Muslims are practicing the buzzword “taqiyya” in order to portray your smiling Muslim neighbor – as a lying, sleeper terrorist-in-waiting.”
    ^ That’s probably one of the most annoying accusations. Even if a Muslim cures cancer they’ll yell out taqiyya.

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