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I Islamophobia

Since Pulse, culture of fear exists on Treasure Coast

By Nicole Rodriguez, For USA TODAY NETWORK - FLORIDA, On 12 June 2017, Read Original
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For residents near Omar Mateen’s former home, the savage act he perpetrated at Pulse nightclub in Orlando a year ago has fostered a culture of fear of Muslims and created a heightened awareness of terrorism on the relatively sleepy Treasure Coast.

People look over their shoulder more often.

They’re suspicious of their neighbors.

They’re especially skeptical of Islam.

Some have even condemned any new mosques in the area out of a crippling fear the places of worship could spawn the next homegrown terrorist who could strike locally next time.

That’s been the new reality for many area residents in the year since Mateen, 29, of Fort Pierce, embarked on a shooting spree June 12 at Pulse, a gay nightclub, that left 49 dead and dozens injured. He was killed after a standoff with law enforcement officials.

Much like Sept. 11, 2001 was a brutal wake-up call to terrorism for the nation and world, the Pulse massacre — the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history — was a jolt for the Treasure Coast, said PGA Village resident Jim Gioia, who lives in the Port St. Lucie gated community Mateen patrolled as a security guard up until the attack.

“When we talk about what the United States is supposed to be — a totally free country — we’ve lost some of that, going back to 9/11 and also here locally after what happened in Orlando,” Gioia said.

Fort Pierce resident Herbert Johnson now has a heightened awareness of his surroundings, talks more to his neighbors and underestimates no one, he said.

Johnson lives in Woodland Condominiums, where Mateen once shared a condo with his wife and young son. Johnson crossed paths with an unassuming Mateen around the complex, but never spoke to him.

Mateen’s widow, Noor Salman, has pleaded not guilty to charges of aiding and abetting her husband, and obstruction of justice. She’s awaiting trial from an Orlando jail.

“It makes you pay attention,” Johnson said. “Your guard is up.”

Neighbors of the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce said many who live around the mosque believe it’s a breeding ground for terrorists. Mateen wasn’t the first extremist with ties to the Midway Road mosque.


Federal officials in 2014 identified 22-year-old Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who spent much of his life with his family in Vero Beach in Indian River County, as the first known American suicide bomber in the Syrian civil war.

“People think it’s an ISIS training facility,” said mosque neighbor Michael Parsons, who promotes tolerance and dismisses the assumptions by his neighbors as nonsense.

Islamic Center of Fort Pierce spokesman Wilfredo Ruiz also dismisses the notion.

“Those are Islamophobic comments with the sole purpose of demonizing Islam and Muslims,” Ruiz said. “They’re totally baseless. They’re not based on any facts.”

The fear, however, is widespread.

Just recently, a group of Treasure Coast residents decried the prospect of a mosque in Port St. Lucie, saying the institution would promote fear, hate and terror.

“Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because we live in small communities,” Stuart resident Nicolas Vessio said at an April 24 Port St. Lucie City Council meeting.

“These are soft target areas and this can easily happen here as evidenced in San Bernardino and what happened in Orlando and it can happen right here,” Vessio said, citing violence and a proliferation of mosques in Europe.

In San Bernardino, California, two shooters killed 14 people and injured 22 others during a terrorist attack in a county facility Dec. 2, 2015. The two shooters, Syed Farook, 28, and his wife Tashfeen Malik, 29, of Redlands, California, were killed hours later in a gun battle with authorities.

The unease isn’t isolated to just non-Muslims. It’s reciprocated by local Muslims who fear for their lives.

Since the Pulse attack, a worshipper was beaten outside Mateen’s former mosque and a large group of motorcyclists rumbled around the Islamic Center in what could be conceived as an act of intimidation.

In September, Joseph Schreiber set the Midway mosque ablaze, which caused significant damage. Schreiber is serving a 30-year sentence for the arson, which was considered a hate crime.

“The fear is not of what will be told or what will be said about them,” Ruiz said. “They have a real fear of being physically endangered.”

The only way to ease fears and bridge gaps between different religious groups leery of one another is to take time to learn about each other, St. Lucie County Commission Chairman Chris Dzadovsky said.

“We are a melting pot and we do have differences — differences in how we love, how we pray, how we look at economic issues and we have political philosophies that are different,” Dzadovsky said. “America was produced that way and for over 235 years, we have been successful.

“The challenge that we face is people not speaking to people to learn more and be more accepting of different thoughts and feelings,” Dzadovsky said. “We’ve created a landscape of hate across the world and in our country, which is a real shame.”

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