Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fear & Loathing In Graves County

This article appears in the current issue of Bazooka Magazine.

I’d originally planned to write an article about the First Amendment for this issue, since it’s been in the news a lot lately. I was going to talk about the sheer economy of language by which the founding fathers packed the most essential freedoms of our society into just 45 words. Then I would launch into a story of the Coke Zero Culinary School (better known, with equal inaccuracy, as the “Ground Zero Mosque,” properly called the Park 51 Community Center), giving some background on the project, pointing out that it’s not a mosque and it’s not located at Ground Zero, providing poll data that shows most of the people in Manhattan support the project, and maybe even putting forward my pet theory that the whole controversy is just a smokescreen to obscure the story about how the GOP (many of whom built their careers on 9/11) blocked passage of a bill that would provide health care to Ground Zero emergency workers suffering from respiratory diseases and other problems as a direct result of their work in New York nearly a decade ago.

From there I would go into the freedom of speech and assembly portions of the First Amendment and make the sickening admission that, much as I’d like to see Fred Phelps drown in a pool of his own blood, I have to agree with the judge who ruled that his hate-mongering is protected speech. I was going to include a quote from Larry Flynt and everything. It would have been great.

After I’d got a couple paragraphs into writing the piece, a story came across WPSD’s Facebook feed about a group of Somali immigrants in Mayfield who want to use a space as a mosque. Knowing that some redneck would start screaming about terrorists, I decided to include a paragraph or two about the Mayfield mosque to give the story a little local flavor. That was on Monday. By Wednesday night the story had grown considerably, with dozens of stories in the local media turning up new information and hundreds of people discussing the story (WPSD’s Facebook feed alone had around 1500 comments spread out over eight threads the last time I looked). The story even got some national coverage on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Obermann, briefly eclipsing Rand Paul as Kentucky’s greatest current national embarrassment. The old saying says that “if it bleeds, it leads,” and this story was hemorrhaging enough hate, fear, and ignorance that I was tempted to stage a gay military funeral in hopes of luring Fred Phelps in so I could drown him. Instead, I changed the focus of my story.

Before I can properly begin heaping scorn on the--and I believe this is the proper technical term--booger eatin’ morons of our community, I should probably present the known facts of the case as I have been able to piece them together from news coverage and comments from people from Mayfield and the surrounding area. Both WPSD and WKMS did surprisingly good jobs of covering the story, and numerous people who know who they are have provided valuable supplemental information, research, and analysis. Putting all of them together, the following story emerges:

Approximately Six Months Ago:
A group of Somalis living in Mayfield rent a storefront on Broadway in downtown Mayfield. The space is originally intended as as combination store and community center, but at some point the Somali Muslim community begins using it as prayer space.
A Few Months Ago: Mayfield City Planner Brad Rodgers notices that the storefront is being used for prayer and informs the occupants that places of worship are required to get a use permit from the zoning board in order to comply with a city ordinance.
Early August: The Mayfield zoning board approves the use permit in a closed meeting.
The Day After That: Grumpy Old Man Dick Conner (now better known as the “Baptists know how to park” guy), who owns the flower shop next door, decides he doesn’t want these damned kids on his lawn and complains to the zoning board that the public should have been allowed to speak before the permit was granted. He threatens to stop paying his taxes and hold his breath until he turns blue if he doesn’t get his way. The permit is revoked and a public meeting is set for August 24.
August 24: A public meeting is held to determine whether the permit will be granted. The meeting is limited to 100 people (nearly all of them white, some carrying Bibles, and many wearing Christian-themed jewelry or clothing) due to space issues. Police prevent the Somali representative from attending the meeting because it is already full. After an hour of public comments that according to local news reports focuses almost exclusively on the religion, culture, and nationality of the petitioners, the zoning board unanimously votes to deny the permit based on concerns about parking.

In the days leading up to and immediately following the meeting, there was a lot of discussion about the Mayfield mosque. Not surprisingly, lots of people were against it. Let’s look at some of their well-reasoned arguments:



Parking
On the surface, this seems like a valid reason, but the timeline of events (which includes six months of prayers at the mosque with no parking issues), the fact that there is a municipal parking lot a block away, the small detail that no place of worship has ever been denied this type of permit, and the fact that most people don’t normally get all Jesused up and quote scripture at meetings about parking spots make this seem like a smokescreen. Perhaps the most damning evidence that parking isn’t really the issue comes from Brad Rodgers (from a story on WPSD’s website shortly before the meeting).

“‘We don't know if it's going to pass,’ Mayfield City Planner Brad Rodgers admitted.
Rodgers said permits in the past have not been a problem but this one might prove tricky.
‘I think it's more about the newness of having Muslims in this community. I think that's what people are concerned about.’”

Even if Somalis all lose their jobs at Pilgrim’s Pride start driving those welfare Cadillacs we’re always hearing about, parking might not be a valid excuse. According to one commenter on the WPSD boards, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act may protect them. I read over the act, but since I’m not a lawyer I can’t confirm that it applies here, but it would be very poetic if it does, since the law was the result of efforts by far-right wing (and probably not very Muslim-friendly) Christians of the James Dobson variety.

They’re Illegal Aliens

This also initially sounds like a valid argument, especially given Pilgrim’s Pride’s alleged history of hiring illegal aliens. My thoughts on immigration reform are a whole other article, so I’ll just say that we do, in fact, need to enforce immigration laws. Unfortunately for Mayfield’s racist community, that doesn’t matter. Even if allegations are true, that’s an INS problem that doesn’t affect their right to worship in any way. Our courts have ruled time and again that all people within the U.S.’s jurisdiction are protected by the Bill of Rights, even those who are here illegally. The subtle subtext of this reality is that everyone in the world is entitled to the same rights American citizens have, but our government can only legally extend those rights to people on American soil. It’s the kind of thing that almost makes America seem like the shining beacon of hope we’ve been told it’s supposed to be.

They Kill Albinos, Chop Them Up, and Use Their Body Parts for Magic!
Ok, only one person said this, and she was a complete idiot, but I’m not the kind of guy who passes on the chance to include albino mutilation in a story. Strange as it may sound, this does have some basis in reality, just nothing to do with Somalia or Muslims. According to a BBC story from August 17, a Kenyan (not Somali) was arrested in Tanzania (not Somalia) for human trafficking in albinos. The story goes on to say how witch doctors (not imams) in some parts of Africa (again, no specific mention of Somalia) value albino body parts for use in magic spells.

The thing is, even if the story was about Somalian Muslims, guilt by association is not a valid reason to deny anyone their freedom of religion. In fact, since we don’t punish thought crime in this country, it would be perfectly acceptable for the imam to talk about what great magical amulets you can make out of albino eyes. Until somebody attempts to slice up an albino, no crime has been committed. For the same reason, pricks like Fred Phelps and Bill O’Reilly can talk about how great it would be if someone would murder more abortion doctors without going to jail.

This Is a Christian Nation
Some of these intellectual super-heroes will even present cherry-picked out of context quotes from the founding fathers to back up their claim. Even if you don’t want to take the time to actually read the writings of Thomas Jefferson (though you should--he’s pretty awesome), simple logic should tell you that this isn’t true. I think we can all agree that the founders were pretty smart guys. Therefore, if they intended for America to be a Christian nation, why would they make the very first line of the Bill of Rights prohibit the government from establishing a state religion or prohibiting the free practice of religion? That’s like starting a basketball game by throwing away the ball. I’m pretty sure that if the founders wanted this to be a Christian nation, they’d have mentioned that somewhere in the Constitution.

You Wouldn’t Want A Satanic Church In Mayfield
First off, comparing a religion with 1.57 billion adherents all over the world and a millennium and a half of history that includes preserving vast amounts of human knowledge that otherwise would have been lost after the fall of Rome to the childish, reactionary religious equivalent of shock rock shows a weak grasp of Islam. Despite that, the Church of Satan is recognized as a valid religion, so they’re protected.

To be perfectly honest, I’d love to see Satanists in Mayfield, along with Jews, Discordians, Mormons, Pastafarians, Liberals, Repubicans, Hippies, Jedi, Hobos, Indians, Ninjas, Pirates, Scotsmen, Vikings, Pagans, Baptists, Punks, Yuppies, Sasquatches, and even Scientologists. The best way for us to move forward and address our real problems--unemployment, the environment, our broken education system, and everything else that’s holding us back--is for people to put aside all the stupid little differences that divide us and work together. In my experience, people who interact with each other day in and day out usually find common ground no matter how wide the cultural divide is between them.

They’re Terrorists Who Want To Destroy Us
As you’ve probably guessed, this was a popular justification and most people who argued this did so by bringing up 9/11. As one commenter said, anyone using this argument is judging nearly 1.6 BILLION followers of a religion based on the acts of 19 criminal extremists. If this is a valid argument, then from now on out we need to assume that all Christians are abortion doctor murdering, homophobic domestic terrorists, all Germans are Nazis, and all people from Mayfield are ignorant bigots. If that’s the way you want to see the world, the Westboro Baptist web site is www.godhatesfags.com. I’m sure they’ll be glad to have another member to help them protest homosexuality at the funerals of American heroes.

The story of the Mayfield mosque is not over. As soon as the story broke that the permit had been denied, numerous people stepped forward to see what they could do to help. As I type this, people throughout the region looking into ways to appeal the decision or file a court case, organizing protests, and trying to find ways to welcome the Somalis to our region and help them find a place to worship. I hope they’re successful. These people are thousands of miles from home in a completely foreign culture, working shitty jobs in a chicken plant. If practicing their religion makes life more bearable for them, I think they deserve a safe place to pray. The First Amendment, which I’d rate somewhere between ice cream and Lemmy on the awesome scale, should allow them this small comfort, and hopefully it will. If not, we’ve lost one of the ideals that makes America great.
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