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Some communities in central Tennessee have been experiencing tension between Christians and Muslims. Those tensions erupted last week at a gathering intended to address discrimination against Muslims. It turned into a heated shouting match. The event was organized by the local U.S. attorney. He intended it as a discussion. Instead, he endured jeering from the crowd. Blake Farmer, of member station WPLN, tells us more.
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BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: At first, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian tried to keep from talking over the protesters. Then he gave up and kept his head down, following his prepared remarks on the lectern as hundreds in Manchester, Tenn., shouted "go home," and called him a serpent.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Traitor!
FARMER: The reason Killian is being called a traitor is because of a local incident that he condemned. It's the underlying reason this educational event on hate crimes was held here. A county commissioner posted a picture on Facebook, of a man with one eye looking down the sights of a shotgun. The caption reads, "How to wink at a Muslim." Killian didn't mention the viral post specifically, but said that someone doesn't actually have to follow through for it to be a hate crime.
BILL KILLIAN: If someone makes threats of violence, that is not protected speech...
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KILLIAN: ...and they will be prosecuted.
FARMER: Killian did not delineate when a threat makes that leap to a punishable offense. He also has declined to be interviewed since slipping out of the meeting.
The booing continued through the presentation by an FBI agent, and by Muslim advocate Sabina Mohyuddin. She brought up a case that was prosecuted as a hate crime. Three men were convicted under federal statutes.
SABINA MOHYUDDIN: ...2007, a mosque was burned down in Columbia, Tenn.
MOHYUDDIN: Shame on you.
IBRAHIM HOOPER: Whenever you have hate crimes being applauded by an audience, you've got to wonder what's happening there.
FARMER: Ibrahim Hooper is a spokesman with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says the mood felt a bit like people should be carrying - in his words - pitchforks and torches. But Coffee County Mayor David Pennington rejects that image of his residents.
MAYOR DAVID PENNINGTON: We're not just a bunch of old country hicks sitting out here, you know, on the side of the road, whittling.
FARMER: Pennington says people in Manchester, Tenn., just don't like getting scolded by the federal government.
PENNINGTON: I think a lot of people were offended that the U.S. attorney was coming down here to give us a lecture.
FARMER: Pennington contends the loudest hecklers were from out of town, and even out of state. Indeed, activists from around the country were outside, stirring up the crowd with bullhorns. Pam Geller wrote the book "Stop the Islamization of America."
PAM GELLER: This is the line in the sand.
FARMER: Many protesters see the federal government playing favorites with religions, giving special protections to Islam. Tim Cummings, of Nashville, says he respects Muslim beliefs - until they begin infringing on his own First Amendment rights.
TIM CUMMINGS: When I'm being told if I post something which they might interpret as being inflammatory, or I will be subject to criminal or civil penalties, yeah, that's being infringed upon.
FARMER: Still, Cummings says the heckling was inappropriate, and likely hurt their cause. Remziya Suleyman, of the American Center for Outreach, says the yelling was intimidating while also emboldening.
REMZIYA SULEYMAN: If it was to scare us off, if it was to push us away in any way, it actually did the opposite for me.
FARMER: She says it just shows how much outreach work is left to do.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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