Clashes between Muslim activists and Florida conservatives have turned the state into a stand-off. Why?
When hardware superstore Lowe’s pulled its advertising from the cable reality programme All-American Muslim, it did so at the behest of a small group called the Florida Family Association (FFA).
The FFA’s previous letter-writing campaigns have been targeted at shows with both gratuitous and non-traditional sexuality, like Behind Girls Gone Wild and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
All-American Muslim is the first show that FFA has targeted on the grounds that it obscured “the Islamic agenda’s clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values”. But it’s not the first time Florida has made national headlines for sentiments hostile towards Muslims.
Last spring, pastor Terry Jones caused worldwide outrage when he burned a Koran at his church in Gainesville, Florida. In September, Nezar Hamze, head of the Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was the first person refused admission to the Broward County Republican party executive committee.
And Congressman Allen West, who represents constituents in South Florida, was recorded by the liberal website ThinkProgress last August saying “Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology, it is not a religion. It has not been a religion since 622 AD, and we need to have individuals that stand up and say that.”
The boycott by the FFA comes as distrust of Muslims is on the rise across the US. Statistics released by the FBI in November show that anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by about 50% in 2010.
After a long quiet period, says Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, crimes against Muslims started up again in 2010 with the May fire bombing of a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida.
The big spike in hate crimes across the US, he says, coincided with the summer controversy over plans to build an Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero in New York City.
“There’s been a dramatic increase thanks to this completely ginned up controversy about the imposition of Sharia law,” says Mr Potok. “What we’re seeing is fearmongering on an absolutely massive scale.”
He is careful to point out that while speech against Muslims is not a hate crime, “words have consequences”.
That being said, his office has not observed a noticeable rise in anti-Islamic group activity in Florida.
Sense of urgency
However, the debate over Muslim ideology has become a political fulcrum in Florida, especially for Tea Party candidates. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Matthew Hendley, a reporter for the New Times, a weekly paper in Palm Beach and Broward county.
“Florida really is a hotbed for this kind of thing,” says Tim Murphy, a reporter for Mother Jones magazine who has covered the issue.
He notes several factors that make Florida unique: a history of well-organised political activism, large populations of both pro-Israeli Jewish residents and pro-Palestinian Muslim residents, and a few high-profile arrests of Muslims suspected of terrorist activity.
As reported in the Miami Herald, the FBI also investigated ties between the 9/11 hijackers and a Saudi family living in Sarasota, Florida.
To those concerned about Islamic extremism, says Mr Murphy, these arrests “give them a sense of urgency – ‘we need to act now.'”
In South Florida, political figures concerned with Muslim extremism and what they perceive as the spread of Sharia law are well-represented.
Joyce Kaufman, a south Florida radio host, frequently speaks out against Islam encroaching into classrooms and American culture, and her remarks are examples of the kind of extreme rhetoric now being heard.
At an event hosted by the anti-Islamic activist Pamela Geller, Ms Kaufman said that “almost every act of political murder” has been done in the name of Allah.
When a Tampa imam was arrested on suspicion of aiding the Pakistani Taliban, religious leaders held a protest, demanding the mosque be shut down.
Former Florida Representative Adam Hasner, who is now running for the US Senate, has been vocal in the fight against Sharia law and the threat of radical Islam. When he was speaker of the house in Florida, he invited the controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders to speak at a summit. During his speech, Mr Wilders said while there may be moderate Muslims, “there is no such thing as a moderate Islam”.
A new approach
To that end, those who fight “radical Islam” often see any expression of Islam as a threat, say Muslim activists.
“I’ve been in South Florida my whole life. It’s been on a steady rise for the last few years,” says Mr Hamze, the man who was excluded from the Broward County Republican party. “Since ’07 or ’08, there has been an increase in activity,” he says. “Now there are churches involved with this, politicians involved, radio stations involved.”
Though his views as a Muslim hew closely to Republican views on social issues, his affiliations with CAIR – which opponents say is an organisation with extremist ties – factored into his exclusion.
While Florida Republicans actively courted Muslim voters in 2000, the party has now found success rallying voters against the dangers of militant Islam.
But they maintain that fight against Muslim extremism is not the same thing as a fight against Muslims. Rick Wilson, an advisor for Mr Hasner, says that CAIR and other groups “shout down any critique of extremism as a critique of Islam”.
“Opposing Islamic radicalism and opposing Sharia Islam, these are things, as Adam has frequently said, that speak to our national security in the first and our national character in the second,” says Mr Walker.
A fear of Muslim extremism in the US is not solely a Florida phenomenon, after all. While the Florida Family Association initially pushed Lowe’s to drop their All-American Family advertising, the campaign has found support across the country.
And Florida is not defined by groups like FFA.
Hasan Shibly, the director of the Tampa chapter of CAIR, recently moved from New York to Florida. He says that he’s never known Islamaphobia to be so rampant, but believes that for the most part, those attitudes belong to a vocal but small minority.
“I really don’t think this rhetoric is reflective of Floridians as a whole.”