Allah Drops In

The Christian right tries to muscle a Pompano Beach Islamic congregation.

The area was once full of small matchbox homes, a neighborhood called Carver Homes. In the mid-1990s, the Pompano Beach Community Redevelopment Agency began paying market value for these homes, moving the owners away from the concrete plants and salvage yards that generate noise and dust and helping move them into a quieter, safer neighborhood called Canal Pointe.

Over the years, displaced residents have been described as both relieved at being able to leave a dilapidated neighborhood and distressed at having to raise the money to pay higher rents in newer housing elsewhere. In Harris' estimation, the program, which city officials have deemed a success after moving more than 100 families, feeds into the current backlash against the mosque, because the residents are tired of feeling powerless in the city's decisions.

"I'm going to tell you something," Harris says. "This is a story that I don't think anybody wants in the news. It was a deep wound. What happened, nobody came and protested when the city said we're going to take these homes and condemn them. Nobody protested."

Hasan Sabri, the imam at the Islamic Center of South Florida
Colby Katz
Hasan Sabri, the imam at the Islamic Center of South Florida
The planned mosque contrasts with the detritus that congregant Joe Harris (next image) says defines the area now.
The planned mosque contrasts with the detritus that congregant Joe Harris (next image) says defines the area now.

The northwest section of Pompano is also remarkable for its houses of worship, which teem by the dozens. ("That's typical of any African-American neighborhood," Harris says. "We're good at building churches... If we could continue to build [other things], it would be OK, but once the church is built, it seems like we lose that skill.") The churches range from the tiny — New Birth Primitive Baptist, First Haitian Baptist Church, the Christian Church by Faith — to the enormous. The most conspicuous, Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, occupies a ten-acre lot and employs a clergy staff of 11.

"This is old Pompano," says Sabri, the imam at the Islamic center. "Seems that people in the past were more religious than the new generation."

He says this while standing outside the current center, a mosque that looks like a tiny prep school, with about 50 parking spots and a sun-faded playground outside the old house. Over the years, the church has added a meeting hall and a small prayer building with thickly carpeted floors on which barefoot worshipers come to kneel, face east, and pray.

A couple of rooms on the ground floor of the main house have been converted to primary-school classrooms. Tiny chairs surround U-shaped tables inside. Posters on the walls depict Arabic words and cartoon children praying. Lack of space in the house has prompted the congregation to rent rooms at Pompano Middle School, cater-corner to the mosque, to accommodate the 150 students who attend weekend classes. The mosque doesn't have a formal membership, but Sabri, its spiritual leader, estimates that about 200 families frequent the mosque.

The center had begun to feel a space crunch about ten years ago and began searching in earnest for a new site around 2000, but it needed three years to save the half-million dollars to buy the five-acre plot it found in northwest Pompano. The mosque's leaders weren't terribly surprised by the pressure against it; since September 11, 2001, Sabri acknowledges, many of the congregants have been on edge. What was surprising was the timing of the demonstrations — after a dozen meetings, after platting, after a special exception was granted for the zoning. The storm stirred only at the end of the process.

"We never had a problem with the African-American community," Sabri says. "Many of our congregants are African-American, and we look at African-Americans as partners in working for social justice and equality."

Of Dozier's rhetoric, the imam adds: "I won't comment on what he says. I just feel sorry for him, honestly. I don't know how a man of God could have this much hatred in his heart for people he doesn't know."

Some residents — and Dozier — objected that African-Americans might in fact be too chummy with Islam. "We don't want our young generation to be misled" is the way protester Connie Frost puts it. In June, the FBI went into Miami's black Liberty City neighborhood to bust seven men who they thought were in cahoots with al Qaeda. The arrests only strengthened the impression that disaffected young black men were vulnerable to be swayed to the dark side.

Harris converted to Islam in 1969 and credits his faith with helping him find direction after he graduated high school with no prospects; he eventually graduated second in his class at a small college in Alabama and went on to work for an insurance company. Today, he works part-time as a minister in Broward County jails, performing services for Muslim inmates and offering Islam as a spiritual avenue for nonbelievers. Orthodox Islam is in some ways more rigorous than Christianity, requiring the faithful to pray five times daily, to fast during daytime hours in the month of Ramadan, to pay annual tithes to charity. But to convert is, at the outset, exceedingly easy. One must only state, sincerely, a declaration of faith that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is his one messenger.

"It's not a culture clash," Harris insists. He produces a wrinkled photo postcard depicting the Holy Mosque, which every able orthodox Muslim is obliged to visit at least once in a lifetime and which Harris visited in 1987 and 1988. Worshipers fill the palatial marble grounds as threads fill a carpet.

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