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Redneck Muslim

“I’m probably the only person here [at UNC Medical Center] whose grandfather taught them how to tie a noose,” says Shane Atkinson in Jennifer Taylor’s short documentary, Redneck Muslim. Atkinson is a self-described “Muslim with a Southern accent who can talk about deer hunting.” Born to a Southern Baptist family in Mississippi, he was socialized in the culture of white supremacy. It was only after he began attending a racially integrated school—the first in his family to do so—that Atkinson began to question his learned biases. “Things didn’t really add up,” he says in the film. “Seeing that there’s good and bad in all people caused a lot of confusion for me.”

As Atkison’s worldview began to expand, he learned about Islam. Eventually, he would convert to the faith and marry a Muslim woman. He is now an Imam, serves as a chaplain at the University of North Carolina Medical Center, and is the founding director of the Southern Hospitality Islamic Center, formerly known as the Society of Islamic Rednecks. Through his work at the Center, Atkinson strives to challenge a common assumption of identity politics: that the terms “Muslim” and “redneck” are fundamentally incongruous.

“In the process of running the group, I realized it provided me with a space to make peace with my past, and move forward as a whole person,” Atkinson told The Atlantic. “Being able to extend that space to other people has been a life-giving experience. I can [tell you that] you can keep your Amercian identity and practice the Islamic spiritual path, but when people actually see it with their own eyes, it clicks on a much deeper level.”

Atkinson’s humility and openness are evident as he meets with leaders of the local African-American Islamic community. “Someone was asking me, ‘What would motivate white people to stand up for justice?’” Atkinson says in the film. “[That person thought] we don’t really have anything to gain. Are we just going to give away our privilege? I’m thinking, ‘You gain your humanity by doing that.’”

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