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A Look at the Rise of Islamophobia in Central Florida

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This photo was taken at a vigil shortly after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Central Florida's Muslim leaders say Islamophobia has reached an unprecedented level since then. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This photo was taken at a vigil shortly after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Central Florida's Muslim leaders say Islamophobia has reached an unprecedented level since then. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Islamic leaders in central Florida say Islamophobia is at an all-time high. That’s after a mosque was vandalized in Titusville less than a week ago. It’s one of the latest incidents in the past two months directed at Muslims in the area. 90.7’s Renata Sago spoke with local Imams and activists who are blaming the acts on anger and a narrow view of Islam. Read the latest from her conversation with 90.7’s Nicole Creston during Morning Edition.

(To hear the conversation, click the ‘Play Audio’ button.)

CRESTON: Renata, thanks for joining us. Can you bring us up to speed on what happened at the mosque in Titusville over the weekend?

SAGO: Well, video footage shows a man at The Islamic Society of Central Florida’s Masjid Al-Munin Mosque. He’s pulling a machete from a bag and breaking the cameras and lights and windows. Titusville police say it happened late Friday night. Staff arrived the next morning to see bacon on the door of the mosque. That’s an insult to the faith because in Islam, the swine is viewed as an impure, filthy animal.

CRESTON: And police have made an arrest in the case?

SAGO: Yes, police arrested a 35-year-old man—Michael Scott Wolfe of Titusville—on Monday night. He’s been charged with criminal mischief to a mosque.

CRESTON: Why was this specific mosque targeted?

SAGO: That’s unclear. It’s one of four mosques in Brevard County. And this is the second time in ten years a mosque there has been targeted. But it certainly is not an isolated incident. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris, someone left a voicemail threatening to firebomb a mosque in St. Petersburg. And here in Orange County, a Muslim family was threatened.

Florida’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, has been very vocal about these sorts of incidents. They’re calling for the vandalism at the Titusville mosque to be investigated as a hate crime. Rasha Mubarak is the Orlando Regional Coordinator. She’s spoken with worshippers who usually go to that specific mosque. There are about 30 or 40 who go there, including some of her family. She says many are afraid to go back:                         

“And that’s the scary thing about it,” she said. “If this is investigated as a hate crime, then it’ll send a message that this is not okay. These are your neighbors. These are your doctors. These are your engineers. These are your teachers. These are people that you work with that contribute to the fabric of this nation like anyone else.”

Central Florida Muslims face threats outside of mosques

CRESTON: Now, for perspective, how big is central Florida’s Muslim community?

SAGO: Well, there’s an estimated 40,000 Muslims here. And as Rasha Mubarak said, they are teachers, doctors, lawyers. Some have emigrated from other countries. Others were born here. The community is diverse.

CRESTON: Now, no one was hurt when the mosque in Titusville was vandalized, correct?

SAGO: Right. No one was hurt. But officials from CAIR are saying that members of the community are receiving email threats. They’re being harassed via social media and in public. I spoke with Imam Muhammad Musri. He runs the Islamic Center of Central Florida, the network of which the vandalized mosque is a part. He says the threats have been especially disconcerting for Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, the headscarf. It can make them an easy target in public.

“It’s putting pressure who want to take their kids to school or Muslim women who wear the hijab who go to work,” he said, “So there are incidents causing more people to fear, and the question of many women is: What are we going to do about it?”

Call to action for community building, public education

CRESTON: And what’s been the answer?

SAGO: Well, heightened security, for one. After the Paris attacks, imams say members of the community called for more security in mosques. And those requests went up after the San Bernardino shooting. And after specific comments from presidential candidate Donald Trump about banning Muslims. The faith community also offers training for if a shooting occurs in at a church, mosque, or synagogue.

CRESTON: But there have also been efforts to coordinate with local law enforcement, right?

SAGO: Yes, the American Muslim Leadership Council, for example, held its first forum with the FBI, Orlando Police, and six other law enforcement agencies to plan ways to protect the community and work with the community. Imam Abu Farah is behind the forum. He believes educating the public is important, too.          

“Individuals that committed acts of hate have been those who literally nothing about Islam other than what they hear about in the media,” he said in a recent phone interview. “The key here is an obligation from us as American Muslims to reach out.”

CRESTON: And there has been a billboard campaign, too, correct?

SAGO: Yes, the American Muslim Community Centers of Longwood actually launched a billboard campaign in November with signs along I-4 that read “Muhammed believed in peace, social justice and women’s rights” and “God does not judge by your face or wealth. They also have a hotline where people can call to learn about Muslim Americans. It is part of a national campaign.

CRESTON: Renata, thanks for joining us.

SAGO: Thank you for having me.

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About Renata Sago

Renata Sago