Allah Drops In

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

"This is a picture of Mecca," he continues. "That's over 2 [million] or 3 million people coming to one location, praying at one time. It just goes to show that this thing is much bigger than you could ever imagine. It's not limited to what one individual thinks.

"Believe me, brother, it is such an experience. It is an intense experience with you and God. You see all those people there? They don't even matter. All that matters is you and God."

Colby Katz
Architect Salah Elroweny prays toward the east, as do shoeless worshipers at the Islamic Center.
Colby Katz
Architect Salah Elroweny prays toward the east, as do shoeless worshipers at the Islamic Center.

Protesters moved to the side of Atlantic Boulevard to wave signs — "Mosque Not Needed," "Affordable Housing Not Mosque" — at passing traffic. Drivers honked in solidarity. One hulking Florida Power & Light utility vehicle laid on the horn so heavy that it drowned out conversations across the parking lot, where Dozier still held court on the sidewalk before the city meeting. Reporters continued to huddle around him. After he compared the Koran to cancer, one reporter asked, "In a country that allows religious freedom, what do you do about not-in-my-backyard?"

"Well, let me just say this," Dozier said. "The Muslims do not allow religious freedom. Why should we give them religious freedom? Why should we give them religious freedom? If a Muslim converts to any other religion, his Muslim brothers, they kill him."

This is an endless Möbius strip of an argument, but perhaps in some parts of the world, it might be the case. It happens that the architect of the mosque, Salah Elroweny, is a Muslim and an Egyptian national who lives in the United States in part because here he enjoys more freedom to practice his religion.

"When the preacher called Islam a cult, I'm sorry, that's an agenda," the architect says when reached later. "A cult is not followed by 1.2 billion people. That's not really a rational analysis of any religion, but people have fears of what they don't know. And the way to overcome that is to get to know people."

As with several of Dozier's objections, his religious rhetoric about the neighborliness of Muslims actually echoes a concern among the people who will live near the mosque; in this case, that Muslim grocers exploit the black neighborhoods. "If they're for our community, why are you selling beer before hours on Sunday?" said Sam Smith, who lives near the mosque's new site. "Why are you letting guys hang around your doors selling drugs, smoking weed, smoking drugs?"

Another view states that observant Muslims must be hypocrites to sell pork and liquor at their stores. Although that might be so, it hasn't stopped some shops from integrating almost seamlessly into the fabric of the city. For instance, there is Croft Market, a store on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard a few blocks south of the proposed mosque. It wears its decades hard, with fossilized dust beneath the shelves and a dark, trodden path along the high-traffic areas of the blue-and-white-tiled floor.

Over the decades, this store earned a reputation as a pickup point for day laborers, who would gather early in the a.m. and return after sundown. These days, men walk in with engine grease on their shirts and paint under their fingernails and leave with pickled sausages and tall cans of Natural Ice. A new car wash and a music store next door bring crowds to the surrounding parking lot to set up lawn chairs and chill. Inside, the most conspicuous sign of the store's success is a 42-inch flat-screen TV hanging from the ceiling above the door and pointing toward the cash register. On a recent weekday evening, its DirecTV connection beams in ESPN.

"You got doo-rags?" a customer asks from the aisles.

"Back, up against the wall back there, partner," replies a bald, hazel-eyed Palestinian shopkeeper named Jad Musa, who's wearing a number 54 Chicago Bears jersey. "Doo-rags."

"No, not doo-rags, I'm talking about..."

"Head scarves are right here, man. My doo-rags..."

"Aw, man, same difference, man," the customer says, trudging to the front of the store.

"There's a big difference, man," the shopkeeper says.

"Ain't no difference to me, man. I'm from the hood."

Musa and his older brother, Ike, have been managing the store for more than three years in a neighborhood that Ike describes as "working class" — in contrast to poor. Relations, the brothers say, are good with the neighborhood. Cashiers and kitchen staff are black — including the butcher who chops and wraps pig's feet in the meat case near the back.

Occasionally, a customer complains that he can get something cheaper at Publix. In that case, Ike reminds him that they're not shopping at Publix.

Jad bristles when he hears about the language being used in the neighborhood in connection with Arabs.

"See, I really wouldn't know why they would say that," he says. "They're pretty much stereotyping Arabs. A lot of people don't know about the religion; they're thinking just Arab people — it's more than that. There's all different kinds of Arabs. There's Sunnis, there's Shia, there's extremists like bin Laden. People don't know that; they don't really look into it to understand what the religion is all about."

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