Photo and story by Emily Blalock / Contributing Writer
The Religious Studies Association and the Muslim Students Association co-hosted a screening of Jennifer Maytorena Taylor‘s “Redneck Muslim” documentary in the Paul W. Martin Honors Building Tuesday night at 6 p.m.
The short film was followed by a Q&A session with Imam Shane Atkinson, the subject of the documentary.
Rebekka King, the faculty advisor for the Religious Studies Association, introduced Atkinson. She explained that Atkinson grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, in a southern Baptist background but accepted Islam in 1999.
Atkinson founded the “Society of Islamic Rednecks,” a Facebook group he used as a way for people with similar experiences to network with one another.
“I don’t consider myself a redneck person, but that’s the background I come from. So, part of doing the Facebook group was just trying to experiment, trying to rustle with how do you have conversations with people that are vastly different than you,” he explained. “I realized later, part of doing this Facebook group, it was a way of me kind of searching to put myself back together and to make peace with my past and move forward as a whole person.”
Atkinson also described why he agreed to be the subject of the film.
“There was dialogue being established. So, they felt like, if we documented some of what was going on, it could help facilitate some discussion with other people, maybe help us not demonize each other, you know, to highlight some of the things we have in common,” he said.
He also explained how dealing with the death of a friend is what drew him to this particular faith in the first place.
“I think everyone wants to be happy, so I was looking into every religion, every secret society, every meditation, anything,” he said. “I think I was trying to find the magic word to get what I wanted, thinking if I can just get what I want I’ll be happy. A lot of these traditions kept telling me, it’s by serving other people is where your happiness lies, not being focused on yourself. Understanding you’re a part of, there’s one human family. But Islam especially, it helped me make sense out of the nonsense being in Mississippi. Mississippi is very polarized.”
Atkinson was the first Muslim chaplain in-training at North Carolina’s biggest trauma center and now works as a chaplain at a university in North Carolina.
Atkinson’s goal in this documentary was to show the complicated fabric of self-identities, and learning how to embrace the southern culture that had been a part of his life for so long while purifying it of racism and sexism. He also addressed how he is trying to reconcile for the white privilege he has benefited from.
“I’m definitely trying to be brave, because I know I’m going to make mistakes, but being brave enough to try to have these conversations when we know we’re going to make mistakes, it’s a very emotional, painful topic for people,” he said. “Everyone doesn’t need to be Muslim, but we need to have relationships with the people that want good for each other. We want everyone to thrive and have good lives, regardless if we see eye to eye on every single subject.”
The president of the Religious Studies Association, Allison Reddish, explained why they wanted to show the documentary.
“I think the biggest thing I want people to take out of it is the fact that you can combine two completely, obviously different ideas, a redneck and a Muslim, and here in the south there are so much negative stereotypes toward anything, any religion, any people that are different,” she said. “It’s becoming heartbreaking to see all these devastating news stories of mosques being shot up or synagogues with bacon on the handles, and I think this was a good reach-out to show community and to almost humanize a group of people that others have kind of been ignoring and demonizing.”
In 2017, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro became the target of vandalism when “f— Allah” was spray painted on the walls of the mosque and vandals left bacon on the ground around the entrance and wrapped around the door handle.
King explained why she thinks this topic is important to talk about right now.
“There’s something about his brother, Shane’s story, that reflects the Murfreesboro story in the aftermath of the White Lives Matter rally last year in Shelbyville and in Murfreesboro and around a lot of the larger experiences of the Muslim community here,” she explained.
The event was free and open to the public.
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