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Saturday's CAIR banquet is a time to show unity with Muslim neighbors

By Ernest Hooper, For Tampa Bay Times, On 30 November 2016, Read Original
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TEMPLE TERRACE — Hassan Shibly, the chief executive director for the Council on American Islamic Relations Florida, keeps a card on the desk in his Temple Terrace office.

Someone troubled by the increasing acts of disdain aimed at the American Muslim community mailed a message of support with a small donation. He had never met the person, making the positive words more meaningful.

Perhaps our Muslim neighbors have never needed more signs of hope and support than right now. In the wake of Donald Trump's campaign — and his political boasts of wanting to ban Muslims from entering the United States, create a registry and employ mass surveillance — emotions in and outside of the community range from indignant concern to outright fear.

Some will label Trump's bombast as mere rhetoric and insist he will temper his tone as he grows more presidential. It's a debatable point, given the stained background of some of his initial appointments, but in his defense, we don't know what kind of president he will prove to be.


Less debatable is the rise of hate crimes against Muslims as Trump and others ratchet up their proclamations about Muslims. Shibly said there has been a 500 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes and hate incidents in Florida over the last year.

According to a new study from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the United States saw nearly 900 reports of hate incidents in the 10 days after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The center also noted that schools nationwide reported an uptick in violence, derogatory comments and verbal harassment.

For those who say the statistics should include Trump supporters who have come under attack, Shibly has a message.

"I want people, in the state of Florida at least, to know they have an ally in us," said Shibly, who oversees a staff of 20, including six lawyers. "I don't care if they voted for Clinton or Trump or the Green Party or anyone else.

"I don't care what their religion or what their race is. If their civil rights have been violated, we will have their back. We will defend them and we will protect them."

As Shibly's organization prepares for Saturday's annual CAIR banquet at the Embassy Suites USF-Tampa, he offers a message of patriotic unity, speaking often of CAIR's mission to defend the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights for all Americans.

Still, this remains a time of great worry for the Muslim community. Those of us outside that community may not fully understand the concerns, but if nothing else, we should fight the compulsion to dismiss them. This community is not overreacting, is not unduly paranoid, is not a group of spoiled losers.

Shibly's message to his fellow Muslims is to make this a time to shine, to show people what Islam is truly about. He admits to going through a roller coaster of emotions immediately after the election, but now remains upbeat about what the future may bring.

"I can't afford to be afraid or worried," Shibly said Wednesday. "I have to see every challenge as an opportunity for the community grow stronger and for us to come together.

"God never takes. He only gives."

For those of us empathetic toward the American Muslim community, Shibly said, the banquet represents an opportunity to learn about his organization and to stand in solidarity with its members. He notes that even some Trump supporters have expressed dismay at the hateful acts and offered support.

Every encouraging word resonates. Shibly points to a photo that's gone viral on the Internet of a Texas man holding a sign outside a mosque: You Belong. Stay Strong. Be Blessed. We Are One America.

It's the kind of message, Shibly says, that his community wants to hear — needs to hear — repeated.

"To see our fellow Americans coming (to the banquet) and showing, not even their financial support, but their moral support — that we are your brothers and sisters — to see that level of support would go a long way."

At the risk of sounding cliche, one of my best friends is Muslim. We speak in both tones serious and comical about the atmosphere enveloping the American Muslim community these days. The humor, albeit crass, helps take the edge off of genuine worries about what the Trump administration might yield for Muslims, for Hispanics, for African-Americans, for us all.

To paraphrase Lyndon B. Johnson, there is no Muslim problem, there is only an American problem. And we are met here as Americans — not as Democrats or Republicans — we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

That's all I'm saying.

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