Police officers outnumbered protesters at the Islamic Center of Nashville. Counter protesters outnumbered both the protesters and police by 10 to 1.
Three members of Westboro Baptist Church, an independent fundamentalist congregation in Topeka, Kan., run by Fred Phelps and his family, had come to town to protest at the funeral held at Woodmont Hills Family of God Church for Marine Sgt. Kevin Balduf. Balduf was killed in May in Afghanistan.
Westboro Baptist members have long protested at military funerals, claiming God’s judgment on the nation for tolerating gays. They also condemn those who don’t accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, which might explain why they added the Jewish community center and the Islamic center to their field trip.
At the Islamic Center, Westboro Baptist members wore T-shirts that read, “God Hates America.com,” “Jews Killed Jesus.com” and “God Hates Fags.” Westboro signs read, “Your Mercies Are Cruel,” “Destruction Is Imminent” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.”
Counter protesters waved American flags, held homemade signs asking cars to honk in support and shouted, “Go home Westboro.”
A counter protester with a Star of David on his cap and fringes on his clothing attempted unsuccessfully to draw a Westboro protester into an argument.
At one point, a police officer cautioned him not to touch the Westboro woman.
Other counter protesters with an array of hair colors and youthful exuberance turned the short-lived Westboro media event into a street party. Objecting to intolerance, some counter protesters display a profane and angry intolerance toward the intolerant.
The Tennessean reported that Westboro’s rented SUV had its tires slashed during the protest at the Islamic Center.
Unlike the counter protesters, Mohamed Ahmed, the Islamic imam, was calm and courteous. He turned the event into an invitation to visit the mosque.
“Stop by some time,” he said repeatedly to the counter protesters as they pursued the retreating Westboro members up the streets.
“We are living in a confusing time in America,” Ahmed told me.
Dressed in a suit with French cuffs, Ahmed said that he served earlier as an associate imam at the University of Georgia before moving to Nashville two years ago.
“This is not America,” he said referring to the Westboro protesters. “This is a country of freedom. A lot of immigrants came for religious freedom.”
Comparing the bigotry toward Muslims with what Catholics once faced, Ahmed said the protesters would not change the beliefs of American Muslims.
He also said about the hostility toward American Muslims, “We’re going through what the African-American community went through.”
Ahmed said that an estimated 1,000 Muslims attend the center’s Friday services and that middle Tennessee has some 4,500 people of Islamic faith.
To avoid confusion over the name “Baptist,” American Baptist Churches-USA issued a 2010 statement distancing itself from Westboro Baptist Church.
“Westboro is in no way affiliated with American Baptist Churches, USA. Westboro is an independent, non-affiliated church,” read the statement. “In light of the increased media attention focused upon the Westboro Church of Topeka, KS, American Baptists want to be clear that we denounce their message and tactics of hate. It grieves us that in bearing the Baptist name they destroy the reputation of thousands of Baptists who daily give themselves in selfless acts of love as followers of Jesus.”
The statement said that Westboro’s “hostile, angry confrontations…are an embarrassment to the Gospel and the church.”
After Westboro won a free speech case earlier this year before the Supreme Court, Roy Medley, ABC-USA’s general secretary, said, “The Phelps family represent only themselves, but we do not have a copyright on the Baptist name, so they have the freedom to use and abuse that name. As a result, Baptists everywhere are defamed by them. ”
Not only are Baptists defamed, but others of goodwill faith are harmed by Westboro’s claim to faith.
Some in the Nashville interfaith community had rightly decided to ignore the carload of Westboro members with their hateful signs and offensive T-shirts. They refused to honor Westboro’s agenda with their presence.
As Westboro protesters needed visibility for viability, some counter protesters were more than ready to show their intolerance to the intolerant. Negativity and hostility to counterbalance negativity and hostility hardly foster the common good.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.