A young man sporting a coiffed block of dirty-blond hair steps to the microphone. He asks whether Professor Binhazim is still in the room, before fixing his eyes on the man seated in front of him. Of course Awadh Binhazim is still here. He's a panelist at the Jan. 25, 2010, discussion on Vanderbilt's campus — an event since watched by tens of thousands of viewers on YouTube.
The young man launches into a question, which he reads from a card:
"Given the recent controversy surrounding homosexuals in the military, under Islamic law, if a homosexual person began to actually engage in homosexual relations in an ongoing and permanent way with no intention of quitting, then the punishment under Islamic law would be death — unless, you know, he agreed to quit. As a practicing Muslim, do you accept or reject this particular teaching of Islam?"
You know where this is going. The camera trains on Binhazim — an olive-skinned man with a polite haircut and trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a dark suit jacket, dark shirt and tie — for the gotcha moment.
Instead, Binhazim winds into a three-minute, highly nuanced response. The questioner tries to interrupt. He just needs Binhazim, the adjunct Muslim chaplain at Vanderbilt, to say Islam requires him to believe in the killing of gays and lesbians; then he can get out of here.
Late in the video — which became the kind of viral Web menace that ruins lives, prompting an email campaign against Vanderbilt and Tennessee State universities for hosting Binhazim's lectures — recognition flashes across the professor's face that he's being set up. The questioner is a plant from the far-right student group Youth for Western Civilization, whose stated goals include fighting "multiculturalism, socialism, political correctness and racial preferences." Not satisfied with Binhazim's answer, the student asks again. And again.
Finally, he narrows his inquest to a yes-or-no question: "Under Islamic law, is it punishable by death if you are homosexual?" The professor gives him the answer he's come for, though still far from an endorsement: "Yes." In the video, Binhazim pulls hard on his lapels, and his expression stiffens.
Thus began an 18-month Internet campaign to convince locals that the college professor and interfaith leader, who's lived here for more than a decade, is a link in a trumped-up Tennessee terrorist conspiracy — a threat as imminent as last Saturday's predicted Rapture.
Though quieter than the outcry against Murfreesboro-based Muslims last summer, the campaign against Binhazim culminated last week in a bizarre and shameless act. Republican state Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro — sponsor of the bill that in its earliest form would've essentially outlawed Islam in Tennessee — disbursed to his 32 Senate colleagues a DVD of a new 16-minute video alleging a terrorist conspiracy in Nashville. In it, Binhazim is portrayed as part of a sleeper cell that, it is alleged, has contributed to at least one man's murderous tendency. His comments about capital punishment for gays and lesbians are edited down tidily and used against him.
It was Ketron's last-ditch effort to get the edge back on his anti-Islam bill, and like much propaganda, the video ignores context and thoroughly muddles its chronology. For instance, producers use a 2008 clip of Binhazim teaching a student group at Vanderbilt ... to prove he took part in classes at Tennessee State University sometime between 1999 and 2004 ... which drove a man named Carlos Bledsoe, a student at TSU in 2003 ... to kill someone in 2009 and use Islam as his defense. Got that? If it weren't for the Jaws-style ooh-scary music in the background, you might mistake the video for a middle-schooler's first pass at argument on film.
Still, it has made life difficult for Binhazim, a 12-year Nashville resident and Meharry professor who for more than a decade has performed interfaith outreach with various Jewish and Christian congregations. He has spoken at more than 150 churches in Middle Tennessee, he says.
The day after Ketron circulated the video, Binhazim could be found at the newly renovated Islamic Center of Tennessee in Antioch. He wasn't exactly plotting the slaughter of infidels. Instead, he was loading bottled water, canned goods and various child care supplies onto an 18-wheeler bound for post-tornado Alabama. Two Christian churches in Rutherford County are also part of the effort.
"Let me be very honest," he says. "You know, this video is just a bump on the road. ... I won't say I'm OK with it, but they can say what they want."
In person, Binhazim seems at peace — perhaps the result of a lifetime of religious and multicultural studies that began in Kenya, where he was born.
"There were people from all walks of life," he says. "There were people whose ancestry is Indian, whose ancestry is Arabic, who are Europeans that were there, the African population that was there. And so I was raised in a very multicultural environment, but I was also raised in an environment that was very religious-tolerant and pluralistic, because there were people of all faiths."
Binhazim came to the U.S. in 1987 to attend the University of Georgia. He earned a Ph. D. in 1992 and took a job as a medical researcher at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and he has collaborated with the U.S. government over the years, including as a committee member at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Binhazim also attended an eight-month training in 1984 conducted by the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit in Nairobi.
Twelve years ago, Binhazim arrived in Nashville with his wife of 30 years and their two children to take a job as an associate professor and pathology researcher at Meharry Medical College. In the aftermath of 9/11, he performed outreach with the Islamic Center of Nashville in 12South. That morphed into lectures and panel discussions at local universities.
In the small, informal classes — initiated by students at Tennessee State and later Vanderbilt — he discussed the central tenets of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It so happens that he has videos of these lectures, which as of last week he was copying for those schools' archives. Many are also posted on YouTube. The lectures are about as radical as Sunday school.
"I've attended some talks by Dr. Binhazim — one in Murfreesboro more recently about the true nature of Sharia and about the content of this anti-Sharia law and so forth," says David Irvine of Christ the King Church. Like a number of non-Muslims, Irvine came to the mosque last Thursday afternoon to offer Binhazim his support.
Word of mouth spread about his classes, and Binhazim eventually left the Islamic Center of Nashville to focus on outreach. It was during one of those later lectures — called, appropriately enough, "Common Ground: Being Muslim in the Military" — when he was tabbed for inclusion in Ketron's video.
"It is very unethical of someone to do that, because you are mistakenly portraying someone's character and integrity and honor to arrive at a certain endpoint," Binhazim says. "In that process, you don't care who you character-assassinate and who you slander, and I think that is — I can't stoop that low. That is beneath anybody."
It evidently wasn't beneath Ketron, whose anti-Islam bill was amended down to a more courteous overreach that allows state government input on matters of alleged terrorism. Those changes were made after he famously pushed his bill without first reading it. Why bother? After all, the actual author was David Yerushalmi, who has written that women and blacks shouldn't have been afforded the right to vote.
And it's certainly not beneath Lou Ann Zelenik, the Murfreesboro carnival barker and former congressional candidate who continues to rail against anything with an Islamic tint. The Tennessee Freedom Coalition, of which Zelenik is executive director, is a title sponsor of the video and a common promoter of the dumbest, most unworkable aspects of the Tea Party phenomenon.
Most of the animus toward Binhazim exists, of course, in a vacuum populated by a minority. As of Wednesday, about 40,000 people had viewed the Ketron video, while some 30,000 had clicked on its predecessor.
"It's criticizing what I understand to be mainstream efforts by clergy and community leaders to build bridges," Hedy Weinberg, the ACLU's executive director in Nashville, says of the campaign against Binhazim. "Instead of celebrating these ecumenical efforts by mainstream religious leaders, it's demonizing those leaders."
For Irvine, the contrast is even clearer.
"It shouldn't be necessary for peaceful Muslims in this country to have to deal with slanderous talk like that," he says.