A few days ago, Coffee County’s commissioner Barry West made an insensitive and irresponsible gesture towards Muslims through his Facebook account. A picture was posted on his page, showing a man aiming a gun and winking. The commissioner used the “winking” to hint at killing Muslims. Whether a poor attempt at humor or simply a hateful message, the post drew a huge wave of backlash on a local as well as national level. Within a few hours, the photo was circulated through thousands of social media outlets followed by dozens of stories in local and national news outlets. Phone calls and emails poured in from all directions, expressing disgust at the hateful message that the commissioner’s post carried, and demanded an immediate apology to the Muslims.
Eventually, the commissioner issued a formal apology and has reportedly agreed to meet with the local Muslim leaders and citizens to ‘bridge’ the gap that has been produced by his poor choice of actions to start with. Now, while I felt disgusted as well with the commissioner's post, I must also commend him for having the courage to come out and admit to his mistake. On review of the course of events, which started from this post and lead to his ultimate apology, several positive lessons can be learned.
First of all, while it is concerning to any sincere citizen to see a public official promoting hate, it is also refreshing to see a person who shows readiness to listen and respond to the voice of reason and common sense, which Mr. West did, at least up until now. Secondly, as a Muslim citizen who’s lived in middle Tennessee for over 12 years, I witnessed the political maturity of the Muslim community on display during this incident. The huge mobilization of efforts, in large by groups such as the American Center for Outreach and the American Muslim Advisory Council, within the Muslim community was something unheard of, even during the saga of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. This time, it looked as if everyone knew their role and what should be done, in a peaceful and professional manner, of course.
Five years ago, an incident like this would barely initiate some weak talk within the community. This sense of political activism was long due on the part of the Muslim community. Having said that, I must say that as Muslims, we have to emphasize the importance of developing a special sense for detecting injustice towards any minority, and I am only hopeful that such hateful messages are never repeated again towards any other religious or ethnic group, but if it were to happen, then my sincere hope is that Muslims would show as much sense of urgency to protect the rights of others as they would when their own rights are violated.
Another positive message I want to point out to everyone touched with this incident is the fact that we, as a whole diverse community, must always be ready to handle such incidents. Government officials, politicians, priests and other public figures, are all still humans and prone to mistakes. If we want to live together as a mixture of different ethnicities and ideologies, as one big family, then we must be willing to accept the mistakes of each other with an open heart and aim at constructive criticism, and not retaliation. I am sure many Muslims still have a hard time believing Mr. Barry West, and the feeling may be justified, but then we have to remember Islam teaches us to be forgiving and open for a clean slate, considering new forthcoming actions correspond with the stated sincere intentions. Therefore, I would invite commissioner West to create all possible means to open new lines of communication with the Muslims with sincere attempts to engage in positive dialogue.
Finally, I have to say this: our modern American societies are becoming more diverse than fifty or a hundred years ago, and they are only projected to become more diversified. Whether perceived as good or bad depends on what glasses someone looks through. Bottom line is, whether we like it or not, we are going to have to live, work, buy to, sell from, and deal with people in our communities whom we differ with in major ideological views of life. Whether our public officials like it or not, they will have to serve citizens whom they don’t share the same views of life with. Yet, life has to move on and this great country has to continue to develop on the shoulders of every single member of its diverse societies. We must take every mistake and turn it into a positive experience that would eventually bring positive change into our communities.
Dr. Zaid Brifkani