The idea that he would become an activist for Muslim rights never occurred to Tony Mijares, who is not a Muslim. But then, destiny rarely raps on the doors of the overprepared. Shortly after retiring from the international freight forwarding industry in 2005, the 54-year-old Mijares relocated from bustling cosmopolitan Los Angeles to the considerably smaller and more conservative town of Smyrna, Tenn. — not to spark a new front in America's culture wars, but to take care of his elderly mother, Josephine.
"That," Mijares tells the Scene, "and the cheap rent."
Prone to speaking his mind in a fashion unbecoming to most definitions of Southern gentility, Mijares nonetheless managed to keep a low profile in a town of approximately 39,000, spending his days caring for Josephine and trying his best to enjoy the retiree's life in small-town America — a big leap for the native Chicagoan.
"I'm an Italian-American," Mijares says. "I have black hair, I have a big nose, I have olive skin, and I have this accent. I look pretty different than most people here." So different, he says, that he and his mother have gotten an odd vibe sometimes when they've gone to a store or restaurant.
"They look at us like, 'You don't fit in here — how dare you walk in here, what are you even doing here?'," he says. "I thought, what the hell is this? I've lived in LA and it's like the United Nations over there. If people there don't like you, it's because of something you've said to them, not because of how you look. That really grated on me, and it still does."
Some degree of culture shock was inevitable. "I'm already sick of biscuits and gravy," Mijares jokes. But his aspirations for idyllic retirement began to evaporate in April 2010, when he opened a copy of a local weekly publication, The Rutherford Reader.
Mijares was familiar with the Reader. Founded in 2000 by career newspaperman Peter Doughtie and employing several of his family members, the Murfreesboro-based community newspaper often caught Mijares' attention with its ultra-conservative editorial content. To Mijares, it "went off the rails" after Barack Obama was elected in 2008 — but that wasn't what caught his attention this time.
"While I respect the works of moderate Muslims ... I wholeheartedly, unfortunately, must assert that the U.S. must halt all future Muslim immigration, until Muslims acquiesce to living within the legal structures of their host nations rather than striving to restructure nations under an evil, de-humanizing, backward and defiling 12th century ideology, even should this take the next 50 years," wrote Reader guest columnist Justin O. Smith in the April 8, 2010, edition.
Reading it in disbelief, Mijares says, "My mouth just dropped open, because all you have to do is substitute the word 'Jew' with 'Islam' and this would be a Nazi paper."
Alarmed by the Reader's increasingly anti-Muslim bent amid the ongoing controversy over a proposed 52,000-square-foot Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Mijares decided to take action. He began calling the Reader's advertisers and distributors about what he was reading. And one by one, they began withdrawing their support.
Mijares' efforts garnered local headlines last year as a result of his campaign's success. Multiple Rutherford County businesses, including Kroger and Kentucky Fried Chicken, refused to carry the Reader after actually reading its articles, which frequently detail the threat of Sharia law and radical Islam to the freedoms of small-town Smyrna. Conservative websites like the New English Review and even Fox News portrayed the campaign as yet another example of political correctness and liberal censorship in the Obama era, despite the fact that the decision of former advertisers and distributors to end their business relationships with the Reader were entirely voluntary.
As the headlines died down, Mijares continued to sporadically write letters to the Reader's diminishing advertisers, which by then were largely limited to local businesses. Many of them either defended the paper's right to free speech, or just ignored Mijares altogether.
"This is not my job," he says. "This is not even a hobby. I have an elderly parent I gotta take care of, and in my spare time, if I happen to look at it, I'll do something about it. This is not something I do everyday, every week or even every month."
But beginning with its August 2011 editions, the Reader turned the tables on Mijares. For three consecutive weeks, the paper published a letter he sent to one of its advertisers, Music City Medical Supply. That letter included Mijares' home address, which was highlighted on page 20-B with the following speculation: "[Is Mijares] working for or being funded by a Muslim group to harass local businesses?"
"Phone calls are being made and letters sent because of the large number of businesses that have chosen to advertise with The Reader and carry it in their stores," the paper declared. "We appreciate any support you can give our advertisers to combat the bullying and harassment they are receiving."
Mijares was terrified. Living in the same county where the construction site for the aforementioned Murfreesboro mosque expansion was vandalized and construction equipment set ablaze in August 2010 didn't bode well for the reluctant activist, whose elderly mother had now been implicated in the feud.
"This is not some paranoid fantasy of mine," he says. "Just because I'm alive right now doesn't mean there couldn't be some incident coming up. It's not just a local paper. They published this on their website, which is read across the country, so that any Aryan or skinhead or redneck from Montana to West Virginia could get it into his head that I'm supposed to be a target. Even then I could still handle it, but what pisses me off is that [Doughtie] put my family at risk."
Doughtie tells the Scene via email that Mijares has "spent a year and a half trying to harm our publication, our livelihood, and our family. I do not feel I owe Mijares any consideration whatsoever." Whether that justifies publishing Mijares' home address, Doughtie declined to say, adding instead that he has retained an attorney who sent a cease-and-desist letter to halt Mijares' protest. Mijares, protected by the First Amendment, has ignored the letter.
"My philosophy is that if a bully pushes you, you push back immediately and kick him for good measure," Mijares says. "If you do nothing, he'll be encouraged to keep bullying you." He's since contacted the Smyrna Police Department, who declined to comment for this story, and is actively seeking legal representation.
But others who say they've run afoul of anti-Muslim opponents in Rutherford County have retained more than lawyers. In 2010, documentarian Eric Allen Bell found himself in Smyrna during a period of disillusionment with Hollywood.
"I went to a wedding in Murfreesboro, and while I was there I walked around the neighborhood and [was charmed by] the old houses in the historical district and the town square," Bell says. "I grew up in LA, and we don't have anything like that there. I thought I could do about six months or a year here to just write a script and take a break from Los Angeles."
Bell's idyll didn't last long, though. As controversy over the proposed Murfreesboro mosque expansion turned the county into a new frontline in the culture wars, he began filming a documentary titled Not Welcome.
His confrontational tongue and critical eye evidently didn't sit well with some members of the community. As Bell's project began picking up steam, he says, so did the threats against his life.
"You never know for sure how seriously to take it when someone threatens you," Bell says. "I felt that my life might be in danger, and it was hard to know if I was overreacting or not. But there were enough threats from a large group of people, so that when I filmed group scenes I had to have armed security on more than one occasion. Eventually I just decided I have enough footage [and went back to LA]."
At a September 2010 county commissioner meeting, Bell cornered then-Republican congressional candidate and Rutherford County Planning Board member Lou Ann Zelenik on the sidewalk outside the Murfreesboro town square. The filmmaker hammered her with questions about her claims that the mosque expansion was nothing more an Islamic training camp, as Zelenik had insinuated on a Fox & Friends appearance in June 2010.
"A man stepped out in front of [Zelenik] and right into my camera and said, 'Get out of here! I'm gonna stuff that camera right up your ass!' " Bell recalls. "And police were there and said something inaudible and the man said to them, 'I don't care, I'm stuffing that camera up his ass if he doesn't get out of here!' "
A couple of days later at a Tea Party event, the man who threatened Bell introduced himself as Peter Doughtie. Bell says Doughtie apologized, but more so with an aim of keeping the footage of his outburst off of YouTube. (Doughtie did not deny that the encounter took place, but added a note of clarification: "I was referring to his microphone that was attached to the camera.")
"He's very much a Southern gentleman," Bell says of Doughtie. "He's very easy to talk to. He comes across as really harmless and really simple, but he's actually pretty Machiavellian, because his full-time occupation is getting these Muslims out of the country, because they're all terrorists, right?
"I've had enough conversations with [Doughtie] off the record, and I can see this is a really personal issue for him," Bell adds. "He actually really believes this stuff. That said, he can be vicious. If you grab the Rutherford Reader, if you evaluate that magazine on the basis of 'what's the feeling I get from this,' every page is fear, fear, fear. Ironically, it's also supposed to be Christian. Everything about it is pointing the finger. It's ugly."
To be sure, not all of Doughtie's unpaid columnists rage against the Islamic fundamentalist machine. Along with news content provided by Murfreesboro radio station WGNS-1450 AM, the paper provides a few inches each week penned by a token liberal. That is offset by a 4-to-1 ratio, however, in favor of topics such as "No Sharia, no minarets," "Who is the Muslim Brotherhood?' or, as a recent columnist stated, "Islam has caused more harm than Communism and Nazism combined."
"We do not share the same opinions as the Reader," says WGNS Vice President Scott Walker. "We allow for the Reader to publish our stories in the Reader as a way for more people to be informed about news in our community. At WGNS, we believe in individual freedoms. Although the Reader has different opinions then ours at WGNS, we value the fact that they are allowed the freedom to publish their own opinions in the great country of America. We are big believers in the freedom of speech. We value that freedom that all Americans have, even if a person's personal views are different from ours."
Indeed, a recent editorial penned by Doughtie himself, titled "We have our work cut out," practically oozed "freedom of speech."
"I am not in awe when the Imam glides by, being soft spoken and with the burkas and the robes," writes Doughtie. "Dress like that any time in your home, and on Friday in the mosque but that dress is offensive to me in public. I'm sick and tired of not being counted when I'm offended. So many of us are offended every day but we do not speak up, we just smile and take it yet if you are something other than 'white American,' you are allowed to demand things be YOUR way. And the sad thing is, you get what you demand. Well, it's time WE demand a few things."
When asked by the Scene why his publication possesses such hostility toward a faith not unlike his own, Doughtie writes that "you may find it useful to read up on Islam by authors who are not apologists and defenders of Islam. I am not a bigot or a hater. I just have my eyes open."
In an interview in the June 10, 2010, issue of the New English Review's staunchly anti-Muslim blog The Iconoclast, Doughtie says the terrorist attacks of 9/11 prompted him to initiate the Reader's own jihad against radical Islam.
"After [9/11], I knew we could no longer ignore the fact that Islamic terrorists were carrying out their plans with a vengeance for the destruction of the West," he says. "We reflect a Christian perspective throughout the paper. When I got into Sharia law, I knew we were in trouble."
In the same interview, Doughtie lists the books that opened his eyes to the true nature of the Muslim faith. First was Shelley Klein's The Most Evil Secret Societies in History, which describes the 12th century Muslim order the Hashishin (from which the term "assassin" is derived) alongside such strange conspiracy-theory bedfellows as the Bavarian Illuminati, the Ku Klux Klan and Aleister Crowley's Argentum Astrum. Then came Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America Without Guns or Bombs by Robert Spencer, founder of Stop Islamization of America, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Spencer's work has been criticized by a broad spectrum of academics and journalists for selectively using passages from the Qur'an.
Armed with this perspective, the Reader's reactionary slant on Islam and immigration seems almost inevitable, given the demographic shifts that have occurred in Rutherford County over the past decade. According to data from the 2010 U.S. Census, Rutherford County is significantly less Caucasian than it was just 10 years ago. Despite the total population growing by 40 percent, from 182,023 in 2000 to 262,604 as of last year, the white population has shrunk by 7.5 percent in the past decade alone. The growth is attributable to a rapid and sustained influx of minorities, whether Hispanic, African-American or Arab, minorities that now comprise 20 percent of Rutherford County's overall population.
Meanwhile, the Reader boasts 400 distribution points with nearly 40,000 online subscribers. In light of the county's demographic shifts and the unease reflected in the Reader, the candidacy of an anti-Muslim grandstander like Zelenik isn't surprising.
Yet even if her 2010 bid for the 6th Congressional District failed, it exposed the extent of the divide now yawning between the Reader's fatwa-fearing readership and people like Mijares and Bell. To those who consider the Murfreesboro mega-mosque a Trojan horse, Zelenik is a noble crusader sounding clear and present danger in our midst, bleeding hearts be damned —while freedom-of-religion advocates like Bell regard her as a Southern-fried Goebbels clad in JC Penney power suits, whose guilty-until-proven-innocent campaign rhetoric echoes the screeds found within the pages of the Reader.
One of Zelenik's campaign fliers draws the line: "Until the American Muslim community find it in their hearts to separate themselves from their evil, radical counterparts, to condemn those who want to destroy our civilization and will fight against them, we are not obligated to open our society to any of them."
Dr. Ossama Mohamed Bahloul, imam of the Murfreesboro Islamic Center, which received a fake-bomb threat in the week preceding the 10th anniversary of 9/11, thinks that such political and media-induced divisiveness is designed to distract all Americans from larger issues.
"You and I and everyone, at heart we want to care about our country and our life," Bahloul says. "Some try to distract and increase the level of anger in people's hearts. It's how some of the politicians choose to deal with the serious challenges we have, like the deficit, or competition from China, or health care reform. I feel that sometimes if politicians can't fix the issue, [they] try to distract people away from serious business."
Bahloul isn't the first person to suggest this.
In an era of contextual fragmentation wrought by mainstream mass media and the short attention spans they foster, you'd be forgiven for assuming the following passage recently appeared on Daily Kos as a wonky critique of the Tea Party.
"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated ... how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. I am not speaking in a clinical sense ... the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant."
In fact, this is the lead paragraph from a 45-year-old essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," that ran in the November 1964 edition of Harper's Magazine. Its author, historian Richard Hofstader, sought to analyze the racially charged, anti-Communist rhetoric of the John Birch Society within a historical framework. If there's any comfort to be found in Hofstader's words, it's that America has a long, well-documented tradition of vitriolic misinformation, and still the Republic stands.
About this, Tony Mijares has no illusions.
"There is always going to be a Rutherford Reader or something like it," he says. "My goal is not to put this guy out of business. If I have any kind of an agenda, it's to continue what I've done already, which is to strip away this facade of it being a mainstream newspaper."
Despite it all, Mijares' sense of humor remains intact.
"Remember, I come from Los Angeles," he says, "where you have the Bloods and the Crips and the Mexican Mafia and the Russian Mafia and the Chinese triads. LA is one of the most violent cities in the world — and I come to the South and I find myself endangered here, compared to all of the dangerous shit I had to put up with out there? It's insane."