Middle Tennessee got socked by outside instigators who "hijacked" a public meeting last week, turning what was meant to be a step toward harmony into something more akin to a KKK rally, according to a member of the Muslim panel that sponsored the event.
U.S. Attorney Bill Killian and representatives of the American Muslim Advisory Council faced a barrage of hostile comments Tuesday in Manchester, Tenn. Dorothy Zwayyed, East Tennessee coordinator for AMAC, said they were mostly out-of-towners who derailed an assembly of fellowship and learning.
Coffee County lies in mostly white Middle Tennessee where local communities have seen a significant influx of immigrants in recent years. The foreign-born population around Nashville jumped 83.1 percent, from 58,539 to 107,184. That growth represents the fourth-largest percentage increase in the United States from 2000 to 2008, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Zwayyed, a 50-year-old Muslim and Newnan, Ga., native, said she's seen the hatred her teenage son witnessed last week before -- at the KKK rallies of her youth in Middle Georgia.
Zwayyed and County Mayor David Pennington agree Coffee County might have gotten an undeserved black eye because of hecklers and protesters they said were not local people attending the event dubbed, "Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society."
"There was a whole lot of out-of-town cars there," Pennington said. "I think a lot of that heckling was from out-of-town people that came in to push the meeting that way."
Indeed, political activists Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, both known for their anti-Islamic stances and neither of whom are from Tennessee, spoke to people outside during a "pre-rally," and a number of other people identified themselves as coming from as far away as Texas, Florida, South Georgia and Virginia.
In a blog last week about the event, Spencer called reports in The Tennessean from attendees who said they were afraid "preposterous."
"People were there because they know that truthful and accurate exploration of Islam's violent teachings has been deemed 'inflammatory' by both Muslim groups and the Obama regime -- and that leaves us unable to examine the motives and goals of jihad terrorists, or to defend ourselves adequately against them," Spencer wrote in his blog. "That's why everyone was so upset with Killian and [FBI Special Agent Kenneth L.] Moore, but they were either oblivious to that fact or intent on ignoring it."
Many of those who traveled long distances to the event feel they are fighting a war on American soil.
Pam Liner, an occasional blogger who traveled from Morven, Ga., said her feelings and fears surrounding Islam stem from her experience being married to an Muslim Iranian man, who she says took away her daughter when the girl was 9.
"Islam allows for that," she said.
Liner said people don't understand how Islam's followers interpret the religion and the dangers posed to the United States. But she maintains her problem is with the religion.
"I don't hate Muslim people. I hate Islam," Liner said.
Killian initially described the event sponsored by the American Muslim Advisory Council as a community forum intended as "an education effort to inform the community about civil rights laws as they play into the exercise of religious freedom."
"Our purpose is to simply facilitate discussion toward a greater goal of tolerance, understanding and peaceful community relations, as well as to inform the public about what federal laws are in effect and what the consequences are for violating them, including what speech is protected and what speech could be considered a threat under the law," Killian said.
At the meeting, the federal prosecutor said that increasing hate crime convictions since 2010 illustrate the problem is on the rise and presses officials for more stringent enforcement. Those problems are the reason behind the need "to change hearts and minds," he said.
Killian was shouted down as he closed his speech with a quote from Attorney General Eric Holder: "This work begins by meeting fear with reason, by meeting ignorance with information and by meeting suspicious gazes with an outstretched hand."
Killian has since remained mum on the event.
Sharry Dedman-Beard, spokeswoman for Killian's office, said in an email Thursday that Killian "is not issuing any further comments on the event at this time."
She pointed to a copy of Killian's published remarks at http://www.justice.gov/usao/tne/news/2013/June/ 060513%20Remarks%20by%20U.S.%20Attorney%20Killian.html.
Reflecting on Tuesday's event, Pennington said he thought Coffee County residents are most concerned over what they take to be a federal government that no longer cares about them.
"This community, as a community, they don't hate or dislike Muslims," Pennington said. "As American Christians, though, they feel like that nobody is speaking up for them."
Zwayyed, who identified herself as a Republican, said a discussion over Muslim-Christian relations in Coffee County was launched by a Facebook post by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West. He had posted a photograph of a man squinting down the sights of a double-barreled shotgun pointing at the camera, captioned "How to wink at a Muslim."
But that's not the reason for the meeting, Zwayyed said. That matter was settled between West and Tullahoma Muslim Zak Mohyuddin in a face-to-face meeting several weeks ago.
But she said many of the remarks at the meeting were born out of hate.
"I've told my children about it and they've never experienced it. My son experienced it for the first time in his life," she said. "He was really in tears because he had never seen hate like this before.
"I felt like I was at a KKK rally, like an old-time KKK rally," she said. "I was very scared."
Zwayyed stressed that she didn't think the most hateful comments were coming from Coffee Countians, some of whom she said made a point of distancing themselves from some of the protesters.
"I feel like what happened in Coffee County, made the Coffee County residents realize what is happening to us," she said.
Pennington said federal officials involvement with the meeting might have made any existing problems worse.
"I think we already had them worked out until this meeting," he said.
But there's reason to hope tensions will be eased, "if people don't keep stirring the pot," Pennington said.
There's no instant remedy for the local community, he said.
"It's pretty simple. It's going to take time," he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@times freepress.com or 423-757-6569. Subscribe on Facebook at facebook.com/ben.benton1 and follow on twitter.com/BenBenton on Twitter.