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On a recent Tuesday, the air around Pompano Beach City Hall smelled of evaporated rain. It was the calm after one storm and before another. By 6 o'clock, people had begun to pool under an eave at the west side of the building, news crews were unspooling cables from their vans, and Altaf Ali, a diminutive, bearded man dressed nattily in a gray suit, answered questions under the tall portico at the north entrance. All awaited the arrival of the Rev. O'Neal Dozier, a politically connected firebrand who, days earlier, in terms more graphic than even the Miami Herald cared to repeat, had declared that Muslims such as Ali were bloodthirsty barbarians.
"I think he's grandstanding," Ali, head of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a private moment before the circus began. "I don't think he really means it."
The previous Friday, on the Steve Kane Show, a conservative South Florida AM commute-filler, Dozier had dubbed Islam "a religion that is designed to cut off your head." Almost as an afterthought, he labeled its followers "evil, corrupt, bad people."
Not only were his remarks inflammatory but they were political nitroglycerin in this diverse coastal town, where modest plans for a new mosque on a vacant lot had been wending their way through the city and county committees that review plans for construction projects. Dozier and his flock suddenly threatened to ratchet up tensions between religious groups that had coexisted quietly in Pompano Beach for at least a generation.
Dozier, who shepherds the Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach, has long been a fiery spokesman for conservative Christian causes. Until recently, his most intemperate public proclamations had concerned homosexuality, which, according to him, makes God vomit. That gastrointestinal theologizing apparently hadn't offended Gov. Jeb Bush's sensibilities: In 2001, Bush appointed Dozier to the Broward Judicial Nominating Commission, which helps recommend new candidates for the bench.
"The Muslims are not people that you want to deal with," he said on-air, stretching out that first syllable to Mooslims. "They have a one-track mind, and that is to spread their religion across the land." He asked supporters to join him at the following week's City Commission meeting "to help us fight this cult coming into our community."
The latest Muslim scourge, as Dozier sees it, is the new $5 million Islamic Center of South Florida planned for a five-acre lot in a predominantly black section of Pompano. The mosque will include a prayer center, a day-care center, and a basketball court. The threat, in Dozier's view, isn't diminished by the fact that the Islamic Center of South Florida has since 1984 quietly occupied an 80-year-old house in an affluent neighborhood less than a mile from City Hall.
Dozier's comments made their way into the newspapers and onto the Internet and, in short order, got him kicked off the judiciary committee. "The sad thing about it is," he told New Times, "you're persecuted for speaking truth. But I guess that's the way the world is. I can see why my Lord walked the Earth. And why he was crucified. He spoke the truth."
Although the Bush camp balked at Dozier's rhetoric, the flock listened. By the time the reverend arrived at City Hall tall, lean, angular, and prim in a black suit, pink tie, and pink shirt nearly 40 protesters had gathered, and nearly all of them were, like Dozier, black. Television cameras tracked him as he approached the portico where Ali had been killing time.
Reasons for the animosity over the mosque's relocating to its chosen site in a poor, predominantly black area are multifarious, going beyond religious differences and involving land use, social class, and a healthy dollop of xenophobia.
Like most American Muslims, the members of the Islamic Center of South Florida say they want no part of the terrorists who threaten violence to non-Muslims.
Hasan Sabri, the imam at the mosque, points out that the dozen mosques in Broward and 1,500 or so nationwide have been operating for years, often decades, without being labeled by the government as nests for terrorism. "These are places of worship," he says, "not political clubs."
The Pompano congregation also takes pains to avoid the kind of sectarian differences that are now fueling violence in Iraq. The group is a mixture of Sunni and Shia "We do not distinguish," Sabri says but, like the world's Muslim population, predominantly Sunni.
Clearly, though, possibly legitimate arguments against the mosque, such as the need for space for recreational facilities and affordable housing in the neighborhood, are drowned out by the more heated debate, especially when Dozier and Ali haltingly argue the fine points of two religions embraced by about half the world's people.
This promised to be a face-off between polar opposites.
The 57-year-old preacher is a mainstay of the fundamentalist Christian movement and, despite the inflammatory rhetoric and his penchant for pushing all the hot buttons, a longtime pal of the Bushes. He has been summoned to the White House to consult with the president about Social Security and AIDS.
He portrays himself as an up-by-the-bootstraps success story. The son of sharecroppers and a graduate of Pompano's Blanche Ely High School, Dozier went to Bethune-Cookman College, then played briefly in the National Football League for the Bears and Jets (though apparently so briefly that neither team's website lists him among their all-time rosters). He then served in the Army, competed as a bodybuilder in Europe, and attended law and divinity schools in Atlanta before founding his church in 1985.