Global Politics

How one Muslim American in Tennessee fought prejudice head-on

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Monica Campbell

Zak Mohyuddin, born in Bangladesh and raised in Pakistan, ran (and just lost) a commissioner's race in Coffee County, in rural Tennessee. He is one of the few Muslim Americans in the area and faced several attacks against his faith. But he also reached out and tried to create more dialogue with his neighbors. “It’s not like I’m an immigrant living in a big city, where I can stay within my own community and remain in a bubble,” he said.

Zak Mohyuddin was born in Bangladesh, raised in Pakistan and moved to Tennessee years ago, in the 1970s. He was 18 when he arrived. Today, at age 58, he’s a longtime resident in Tullahoma, a small town in Coffee County, halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga.

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Like a lot of people here, Mohyuddin works at the large Arnold Air Force Base. He’s an engineer with high-security clearance.

And he has always closely followed US politics. But he had never thought of becoming an active participant. When I asked why not, he said that he always thought politics was for “other” people, not him, not an immigrant.

But after volunteering for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, working to bring out the vote in the Carolinas, something snapped.

“Why not me?”  Mohyuddin said.

So he ran for a commissioner seat in Coffee County — a rare Democrat in a deeply Republican area and, it seems, the first foreign-born candidate to run in the county, too.

“I wanted somebody like me to run so that other immigrants would come out of their cocoon,” he said.

I met Mohyuddin just before the vote, which was August 7. He gave me a quick tour of Tullahoma.

The first thing you notice is a huge sign for the Jack Daniels distillery, in next-door Lynchburg. Mohyuddin tells me how the distillery is actually in a dry county. So, the whisky is made there, but you can’t go into a bar or restaurant and drink it. Go figure. But that’s how politics and culture can mix here. And sometimes it can get ugly.

Mohyuddin knows this well.

“Some people were clearly very hostile to my religious faith,” Mohyuddin said. He is a Muslim, and one of the very few Muslims in the area. And he’s faced several personal attacks. His opponent, Mark Kelly, falsely accused him of wanting to remove the Bible and the American flag from public places. And Mohyuddin was heckled during a forum he helped organize last year to talk about hate crimes, including an arson attack at a mosque in neighboring Rutherford County. (See the full video of that forum below.)

But something else also happened — hitting close to home for Mohyuddin. Barry West — an elected commissioner at the time in the same county that Mohyuddin ran to represent — posted something online that made Mohyuddin shudder.

On West’s Facebook page, he shared an image showing a man with a double-barrel shotgun aiming, with eye closed. The caption read, “How to wink at a Muslim.”

It went viral. But instead of ignoring it, Mohyuddin reached out to West and invited him over to his house for dinner.

Mohyuddin said that, during their evening together, West told him how he felt that the “word Muslim and terrorist were one and the same.”

“He didn’t think there was anything he’d done that was out of place,” Mohyuddin said.

West said he was surprised by Mohyuddin’s dinner invite, but accepted. He said, “So, I apologized, and went to Zak’s home, my son and I.”

“We met with his family, and just had a real good conversation about the world situation, and what I had done. We were just full of questions,” West said, “because I had never been around a Muslim that close, to ask about his religion, or what he believes in.”

Mohyuddin said that it was important for him to reach out to a neighbor. “It’s not like I’m an immigrant living in a big city, where I can stay within my own community and remain in a bubble,” he said. Here, in rural Tennessee, he said that he feels he must “take on attacks like this straight on, be direct. We have to push ourselves out of our comfort zones.” For him, for immigrants, he said, this helps change “our thinking from that Americans are ‘them’ and then there’s ‘us.’” He said, it needs to move to "we.”

After their chat, Mohyuddin felt like West “felt bad that [his post] hurt people ... and recognized that everybody is not how he thought they were.”

West says he enjoyed meeting Mohyuddin’s family, but still feels like “all we’re told in the media is how Muslims do this and are behind that. We never hear anything positive about them.”  

Thursday night, the results of the county commission race came in. Mohyuddin lost his bid to Kelly.

He said he might run again. But if there’s a next time, he told me he’d like to see more immigrants running too. 

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