By David Noriega
The fire department called before dawn. Daoud Abudiab and his 13-year-old daughter were already awake, so they got in the car quickly. From about a mile away, Abudiab saw a plume of black smoke rising above the low skyline and started getting nervous. He thought back to the arguments over whether to mark the Islamic Center of Columbia, Tennessee, the only mosque in the hundred-mile stretch between Nashville and Huntsville, with a large sign or a small, unassuming one. They had opted for a large one.
Abudiab and his daughter could feel the heat of the fire when they stood at the yellow police tape. A black swastika was spray-painted on the mosque’s facade. Flames pushed out from the burst windows and up through the collapsed roof. Abudiab’s wife arrived with the rest of the kids, followed by other congregants and their families.
Abudiab looked at the women and all he saw was headscarves. “Go home,” he pleaded. “Don’t go out. Don’t go to Walmart. Don’t go anywhere.”
The ringleader of the band of white supremacists who burned down the mosque with Molotov cocktails justified the act by saying, “What goes on in that building is illegal according to the Bible.” This was February 2008. The theory of Barack Obama’s crypto-Islamism was faint chatter on the fringes. But in the years after Obama’s election, Tennessee became a key battleground in a national anti-Muslim movement whose influence has culminated, for now, in the presidential campaigns of Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom are being advised by people whose views on Islam were once considered too extreme for mainstream politics.
Abudiab and his daughter could feel the heat of the fire when they stood at the yellow police tape.
Tennessee, like much of the South, was once a friendly place for Muslims to live. Abudiab and his family had been in Tennessee and Arkansas for more than two decades, and they’d felt at home in the Bible Belt — glad, like many Muslims they knew, to raise their children among People of the Book, people they could count on to share many of their values and who, by and large, welcomed them.
The firebombing blindsided Abudiab, but it seemed like a terrible, isolated incident, after which life would go back to normal. Over the next few years, though, Abudiab came to look back on this as the opening shot in an ongoing, ever-intensifying, hostile campaign playing out in Nashville and the surrounding small towns and suburbs. His kids were bullied more often in school, and he became the target of violent online threats. Many of Tennessee’s legislators fell under the sway of conspiracy theories about Islamist infiltration of government and schools, and the state became a testing ground for campaigns to curtail the building of mosques and the resettlement of refugees. The pulpits and radio airwaves were filled with vitriol, and more mosques were vandalized.
Today, Abudiab says, he can’t leave the house in the company of his wife — a white convert who wears the hijab — without feeling viscerally uncomfortable. His 9-year-old son has started asking when they’ll need to leave the country.
“It’s never been like it is now,” Abudiab says.