Tuesday, 31 August 2010

South Florida Muslims weigh in on ground zero mosque debate



BY JAWEED KALEEM
jkaleem@MiamiHerald.com

In Pembroke Pines, imam Shafayat Mohamed plans a sermon on Islam's stance against excess, citing the proposed $100 million Islamic community center near ground zero. In Miami, hotel broker Ahmed Kabani is torn between his love of Islam and his belief that the project's location is insensitive to victims of 9/11. In Kendall and Miami Gardens, mosques are hosting voter drives to get Muslims involved in elections where Islam has taken center stage among candidates.

(Image: In this Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010 picture, Muslim men worship at the Darul Uloom Institute in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on the first day of Ramadan.)

The controversy over the Islamic community center in New York has hit home for South Florida's 70,000 Muslims. Not everyone is on the same side, but for many Muslims, the debate reflects a growing tension about Islam's role in America and a chance to engage the region's burgeoning Muslim community during the highly religious month of Ramadan.

``Muslims should have the equal right to build a mosque anywhere they wish,'' said Mohamed, who leads the Darul Uloom Institute mosque in Pembroke Pines, echoing President Barack Obama's controversial statement on religious freedom at a White House Ramadan dinner last week. ``But I say they should build 10 mosques all over America instead of one big center.''

Days before Tuesday's primary elections, candidates -- in races from governor to Senate and local offices -- have declared their opposition to the New York center, with a handful supportive or maintaining neutrality. Caught in the middle are local Muslims.

``This whole week I was thinking, `Why is this happening?' Religion should not become a political issue,'' said Kabani, 63, who organizes cultural events for the area's Pakistani community. ``As a Muslim, I'm proud that they are building, but I also feel that we should be respectful.''

Some Muslims are taking advantage of the heightened attention toward Islam to get Muslims more involved in politics and civic matters.

On Saturday evening, after Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast, Masjid an-Noor in Kendall and the Islamic Center of Greater Miami in Miami Gardens will host voter-registration drives. At about 25,000, a little more than a third of eligible Muslims in South Florida are registered to vote, said Farooq Mitha of Emerge, a nonpartisan Muslim civic organization based in Miami.

``People are using the Islamic center to start a cultural battle about the moral compass of America,'' said Mitha, a Sunrise-based attorney. ``This is not a Muslim issue, this is an America issue. You're going down a slippery slope. Who's next?''

In early September, Muslim activists are hosting an interfaith rally in downtown Miami in support of religious freedom to combat what organizers call several disturbing trends, including opposition to the New York center and other mosque projects around the nation and a Gainesville church's plan to burn Korans on 9/11.

``We want it to be about preserving all holy scriptures and religion,'' said Irma Khoja, 26, who attends the Islamic Jafaria Association mosque in Hialeah Gardens. Khoja, a law student at the University of Miami, said the conversation about New York is vital to the future of Muslims in South Florida and elsewhere and a chance to forge connections beyond the Muslim community.

``It's not occuring here, but it affects Muslims across the country because New York is the epicenter of a lot of our current events,'' she said.

Dario Moreno, a political-science professor at Florida International University, said he believes the debate over the mosque has less to do with the proposed building and its location than the nation's complicated relationship with Islam and President Obama.

A survey released Thursday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that nearly one in five Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, an increase from 11 percent in March of last year.

``With the mosque controversy, as a president who has reached out to the Islamic world and tried to appeal to Arabs and said that those that practice moderate Islam are not the enemy -- that has left him vulnerable to charges that he is weak on terrorism,'' Moreno said. The Islamic center is ``symbolic of how far the United States should go in courting moderate Islam,'' he said, and for Muslims, ``it creates a feeling of isolation.''

Ihsan Bagby, an Islamic Studies professor at the University of Kentucky, agrees. ``Muslims are becoming more and more alarmed at the rhetoric and unhappy with developments,'' he said. ``At the same time, there are voices of moderation. It is not a totally bleak picture.''

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