Heidi Hall, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A Coffee County commissioner's Facebook post suggesting Muslims are best greeted from behind a rifle barrel is prompting demands for an apology.
Commissioner Barry West's post follows a string of anti-Muslim acts throughout Middle Tennessee in recent years, including at least four incidents of mosque vandalism. Opposition to a new mosque in Rutherford County was so strong it took federal Justice Department intervention to open it last year.
West played no active role in any of those incidents. He just put an image on his Facebook page, which shows a man aiming a shotgun under the phrase "How to wink at a Muslim." But even that put a chill through Muslims in Middle Tennessee.
Muslim groups tweeted a screen grab of his post and it went viral.
West, who lives in Manchester, removed it about an hour later. He did not apologize, instead questioning how his tweet had become the focus of attention.
West responded with this email: "No I did not Twitter this ... no I did not create this picture ... yes I shared it ... so why am I being singled out?"
It's particularly troubling when elected officials post such Internet memes because they set the tone for how constituents should behave, said Drost Kokoye, an American Muslim Advisory Council board member. The statewide group was created to promote communication between Muslims and Tennessee law enforcement and government.
"This may just be a picture to him, but for us it is very threatening," said Kokoye, an Antioch resident who has lived in Tennessee for 17 years. "Muslims in Coffee County should not feel safe to walk outside their homes."
She said it was important for her group and others to expose and condemn the post to show it isn't funny and could be dangerous.
The Boston Marathon bombing prompted a nationwide uptick in invitations to violence against Muslims, said Hatem Bazian, director of the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project at the University of California Berkeley.
The group tracks social media posts, comments on online news articles, TV coverage and radio talk shows.
"Racists will always find a way to express their sentiments," Bazian said. "They use these events as a reason to come out with it. People who are in the silent majority have to reclaim the public space and say this is unacceptable."
A message from Mayor David Pennington on the Coffee County website extends the hand of hospitality. West's Facebook post doesn't change that, Pennington said, and Coffee County shouldn't be judged based on it.
"I have no control on what a commissioner does when he leaves the commission meeting," he said. "I have no idea why he did it."
He said county government and Muslim business owners have enjoyed a long, supportive relationship that he believes will continue. Pennington said he would admonish commission members at their next meeting to be more careful about what they put on Facebook.
There are fewer than 50 Muslims in Coffee County, said Sabina Mohyuddin, a Nashville native who moved there in 2002. She said West's post was uncharacteristic of the county, although she senses some residents are disturbed when they see people different from themselves.
She said the post scared her.
"That gun was pointed at me and my family," Mohyuddin said. "We know that these lead to discrimination and hate crimes in the Muslim community, and we are very wary of that.
"I am a second-generation American. My children are third generation. We don't see ourselves as anything but American."
The best thing West can do is apologize publicly and meet privately with Coffee County Muslims in an effort to understand them better, said Daniel Tutt, an Episcopalian interfaith activist and a research fellow at the nonprofit Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington.
"It's not a shocking thing coming from Tennessee, which in the last few years has produced a number of Islamophobic incidents," he said. "There was a whole CNN special on Murfreesboro.
"The initial reaction from Muslims will be, 'This is unfortunate, but we've seen a lot of this.' But it's not acceptable. If the same thing were done to the Jewish or African-American communities, it would not be tolerated."
The Al-Farooq Islamic Center on Fourth Avenue South in Nashville suffered vandalism earlier this year and in 2010, when someone spray painted "Muslims Go Home" on the building. Arsonists burned a Columbia, Tenn., mosque to the ground in 2008.
A new mosque opened last year in Murfreesboro after arsonists burned construction equipment on the site and community members sued to stop construction. A federal judge ruled the mosque could open after the Justice Department filed suit to force county workers to inspect and issue an occupancy certificate.