After an internship at the state Capitol while she was a student at Tennessee State University, Remziya Suleyman never thought she’d be back.
“OK, this is nice,” she remembers thinking, “but it isn’t me.”
She also never thought she’d become a community organizer, much less an advocate and lobbyist at the legislature and across the state. (“Never in my wildest dreams,” she admits.) But then an unfunny thing happened: In 2011, two Tennessee lawmakers introduced a bill that essentially would have made it illegal to practice Islam in Tennessee. Whatever their intentions, they got more than they bargained for in response.
“My community needed a wake-up call to organize,” Suleyman says. “So I thank Sen. [Bill] Ketron and Rep. [Judd] Matheny for introducing the bill. As crazy as it may sound.”
In what Suleyman calls “one of the largest mobilizations in the U.S.,” more than 500 Muslims rallied at the Capitol, and eventually the bill was defeated. Realizing that such efforts are borne mostly out of ignorance, Suleyman helped found the American Center for Outreach, where she serves as director of policy and research, to advance understanding of Muslims and Islam.
“Yes, there’s still a lot of crazy bills,” she says, “but there’s nothing saying, ‘We’re going to outlaw you as a Muslim.’ ”
And that, sadly enough, is progress. But Suleyman says she has seen a shift in attitudes. “I think the biggest surprise is seeing the businesses kind of support our issue,” she says, “realizing how this negativity about our state and attacks on Muslims have hurt our economy.”
Still, Nashville got a recent reminder of how far we still have to go when the Al-Farooq mosque in South Nashville was vandalized for the second time in three years. The surrounding community — across religious and cultural lines — was visibly supportive in the aftermath, but such incidents can be chilling.
“It’s not safe being a Muslim activist in Tennessee,” Suleyman says. “I’m already a walking target for anti-Muslim groups because of my hijab, and now my face is the face of Muslims in Tennessee. ... Hate mail is one thing, but there are people who would like to do more than just send you hate mail. And that’s a reality.”
Through it all, Suleyman says she draws strength from people around her. “Not just folks from the Muslim community,” she explains. “I’ve spoken to incredible people in Tennessee, and specifically Nashville people from the civil rights era, and women activists ... and their support and their guidance has been incredible. And one thing they tell me is, ‘You’re doing something right for people to hate you the way they are.’ That’s kind of reassuring.”
The Model Citizen: Karen Elson
The Advocate: Paul Kuhn
The Cook: Tallu Schuyler Quinn
The Busker: Mike Slusser
The Cleaner: Sharon Reynolds
The Believer: Theron Denson
The Maker: Zoe Schlacter
The Animators: Magnetic Dreams
The Buyer: Kelly Anne Ross
The Arthouse Ambassador: Sarah Finklea
The Picker: Rory Hoffman
The Singer: Ruby Amanfu
The Educator: Ellen Gilbert
The Air Drummer: Steve Gorman
The Artist: Martin Cadieux
The Chef: Yayo Jiménez
The Futurist: Ken Gay
The Commissioner: Many-Bears Grinder
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