Florida Muslims Fight Islamophobia
Partner with local synagogue for joint activities
Bassem Alhalabi stands in front of a group of visitors from a local church, sitting in plastic chairs. His voice rises and falls as he excitedly speaks about the local Muslim community.
“What can we do to help?” one of the Christian visitors asks, referring to Alhalabi’s plea for help in dispelling Islamophobia.
“Spread the word!” answered Alhalabi.
Bassem Alhalabi, an engineering professor at the nearby college, Florida Atlantic University, is the president of the Islamic Center of Boca Raton (ICBR). Alhalabi says he is on a mission to dispel misinformation about Islam, connect with local religious groups, discourage fear of Muslims, and to fight growing Islamophobia in the United States.
The Islamic Center, a large sea-foam green building, is tucked away on one of Boca Raton, Florida’s side roads. Many people may never pass it on the road, but its presence and all that it stands for, has made an impact throughout the community.
Besides a mosque, the center also offers a school for pre-kindergarten through high school students called the Garden of Sahaba Academy, first opened in 2003. The school was started as way to serve the local Muslim community, many of whom were homeschooling their children. Approximately 250 students now attend the school.
ICBR is involved with international outreach – they recently made 50,000 packets for Haiti with a local synagogue– and is the only Islamic center that is a part of the Boca Raton Interfaith Clergy Association. Over the years, the center has done various charity projects with other churches and synagogues and within the community.
Rabbi David Steinhardt has been the leader at B’nai Torah Congregation for the past 23 years. His relationship with ICBR spans 10 years, and has involved faith-based seminars, study groups with leaders and members of his synagogue and ICBR, and charity events, such as making food packets for Haiti.
“It’s critical for people of different ethnic groups to come together,” said Rabbi Steinhardt. “ICBR is a mosque that has an openness to the community and a desire to be a part of the fabric of the community.”
A recent incident reminded the members of ICBR just how much more work needs to be done for Muslims to be fully accepted in the US. Last November, for the first time, the Center was supposed to be a polling center for the election.
“Before the primaries, it wasn’t even on our radar, said Annie Hyat, Director of Public Relations and Outreach at ICBR. “Susan Bucher [Palm Beach County elections supervisor] contacted us and said we would love for you to be a polling center. People were excited.”
However, some people in the community told election officials that they were worried about voting at a mosque, and the Center was taken off the list of polling places. They only found out about the decision in the media.
“We felt insulted as a community,” said Hayat. “We felt appalled that there was hatred for something we didn’t ask for. We wanted to participate in the democratic process.”
“It kind of felt like when we do want to be a part of the democracy that is our country – to be a part of an election – we were told that “no we can’t”, but yet at the same regard we’re yelled at and said we’re not American enough,” said Hayat. “How can you have those two standards? It doesn’t make sense.”
Hayat is also a teacher at the school. She teaches American government and enjoys sharing the benefits of democracy with her students.
“I don’t have any other identity but American,” said Hayat. “I believe red, white, and blue. Even though at times it seems unfair and that there is a lot of hatred, I love this country and I love America. We [Muslims] will continue to show our love, our patriotism, our nationality and who we are.”
As president, Alhalabi provides direction and vision for the center. He is concerned about a jump in Islamophobia since President Trump took office.
“Islamophobia has been in the community for a while but with Trump it’s more prevalent,” said Alhalabi. “People aren’t pretending anymore but now they are speaking.”
Many in the interfaith community stood up for the mosque and said it should have been used as a polling place. Reverend Harris Riordan and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton, were some of the supporters for ICBR.
“Fear is not the way to build a community,” said Rev. Riordan, who has been the minister at UUFBR for 19 years. “I think some voices in American society feed it [Islamophobia]. It’s easy to make prejudice grow.”
In protest at the decision not to use the mosque as a polling place, the Universalist Fellowship decided to remove themselves as a polling location after hearing ICBR was removed.
“[The local government decision] was a fear-based reaction that was not appropriate,” said Rev. Riordan. “If any religious place could be a polling place, then all can be.”
Alhalabi and Hayat recognize how Islamophobia or wariness of Muslims affects their community.
“The Muslim community is afraid, there is pressure. We can’t be distracted or work on the hands of bigots, who are very few,” said Alhalabi. “But they are so loud, so vocal, and so persistent. The majority of us are nice, but nice people are also silent.”
Hayat thinks there is a lot of misinformation about Muslims being circulated, particularly in the media. She explains how Muslims are “100% not perfect” and that they deal with divorce, mental illnesses, and other issues like the rest of the population. In terms of violence caused by Muslims, Hayat wants to clarify misconceptions.
“We are sick and tired of apologizing for everyone,” said Hayat. “All acts against humanity are wrong. We are not hateful people.”
Each Friday, Muslims gather at ICBR for a prayer service, called Jum’ah. An imam, or person who leads worship and prayer, will pray in Arabic, then give a speech in English, and end his message with a prayer. This is one of five prayers that Muslims will do throughout the day. Jum’ah is mandatory for men, but optional for women and children.
With divided American views towards Muslims, Dr. Main Al-Qadah, a guest imam who spoke at one of ICBR’s Friday services, reminded the congregation to look past the criticism.
“Do not underestimate the kindness and goodness of the people around,” said Dr. Al-Qadah. “We might disagree when it comes to faith and credence, but we need to learn how to live with our differences.”
*Michaela Garretson is a student journalist from Florida Atlantic University and participant in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.
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