Allah Drops In
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.
Ali, a 41-year-old father of two, came to Florida from Guyana after high school because, he says, his native land had just one university. He attended Florida International University and went to work for the Florida Department of Children and Families. One of his formative moments at his organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was watching the arrest and trial of an off-kilter Pinellas County podiatrist who had plotted to blow up Islamic centers as revenge for 9/11. The Muslim community was too politically weak, Ali felt, to rally public support after that threat. He resolved to make Muslims more visible in Florida.
Last November, Broward County Mayor Ben Graber appointed Ali to the county's Diversity Advisory Council, which advises commissioners and the public about cultural and ethnic issues.
Dozier's and Ali's discussion that not only shed little light on the question of a Pompano construction project but also threatened to veer into surrealism.
"Jesus never told me to live by Old Testament standards," Dozier told Ali, explaining the superiority of Christianity. "He told me to live by New Testament standards. So that's what I do as a Christian. And my Christianity does not run planes into World Trade buildings. My Jesus don't do that."
"What about the Crusaders?" Ali said.
"And your god, Allah, is not my god," Dozier continued.
"You see, that's how you're ignorant," Ali replies. "Allah is the Arabic word for God."
"No, it's not! It's a moon god!" Dozier said.
"It's a moon god!" called someone from the crowd.
"The Arabic word for ," Ali tried again.
"It's a moon god!" Dozier said.
Ali, for his part, makes a formidable opponent in this sort of sparring. A former social worker who as a guardian ad litem represented children in court for the Florida Department of Children and Families, Ali started the state's first chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Pembroke Pines after 9/11 put a damper on Americans' relationships with Muslims.
"Do you know that Christians in Arabia praise Allah?" Ali replied.
All the while, news cameras and microphones swirled around the men. The noise from the crowd grew as latecomers jammed against one another and began little squabbles of their own.
Dozier was just getting rolling.
"Did Muhammad start his religion off by cutting off the heads of 700 Jewish men and taking their wives and giving their wives " Dozier asked.
"Sir," Ali tried to interrupt.
"... as concubines " Dozier continued.
"... of the Muslims?"
"You said "
"... and did he take their money? And did he take their money "
"... to help finance other holy wars that he was going to fight in the name of Allah?"
"Reverend," Ali said, "you said that Islam's a cult. That's wrong."
After ten minutes of this dance, with the men keeping their smiles, they came together in the sort of prolonged handshake associated with the familiar menace of Mafia dons. They began to exchange unpleasant pleasantries.
"Let me just make this clear...," Dozier said. "I love you as a creature of God."
Ali brushed off the dubious gesture of amity. "Your congregation's going to suffer because they're the ones who are going to have to carry your rhetoric on their shoulders."
"No, no they're not," Dozier replied. "They're carried by Jesus. I speak for Jesus Christ."
Off to the side of this fracas, a man with heavy eyes and round cheeks leaned against a sedan. He held a sign that read, "Single Family Homes." This was Dr. John Mohorn of the Word of the Living God Ministries, perhaps a foot shorter than Dozier and a hundred decibels quieter.
"My goal period is single family homes, nothing else," he said. "I don't come against no man religious. Whatever he believe, he believe. But I'm here for the best interests in the community, and we need single family homes. And that's it. Like I say, it ain't got nothing to do with hate; it ain't got nothing to do with religion. It's about the need of the community."
The neighborhood around the site for the new mosque, near NW 15th Street and Andrews Avenue, is an anomaly in Broward County. For one, it incorporates one of the rare industrial sections still inhabiting the east-central part of the county, north of Fort Lauderdale's slowly gentrifying northern edge, east of the manicured white-flight suburbs such as Coconut Creek, and south of the conspicuous consumption of Boca Raton. Two miles west, beyond Florida's Turnpike, subdivisions intertwine with golf courses and water hazards.
The mosque's current home in northwest Pompano is decidedly more humble, as 54-year-old congregation member Joe Harris will tell you. A paunchy, salty-bearded real-estate agent who grew up in a nearby neighborhood nicknamed Collier City, Harris pulls up to his Pompano office in a beat-up white pickup truck with what looks like clothesline holding up its back bumper. The "check engine soon" light on his dash is lit orange. The tidy truck cab smells of jasmine. He drives past the site of the proposed mosque, now just an overgrown field beside Markham Elementary School. He continues to the end of the block and turns north on Andrews Avenue. On his right looms a concrete plant; to his left sprawl choppy, scrubby fields strewn with piles of debris tiles, couches, toilets, paint buckets, tires apparently dumped frequently and illegally.
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."
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.
"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."
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."
He rings up customers a heavy man buying an all-black Atlanta Falcons cap, a woman sheathing 16-ounce Miller High Lifes in individual brown paper sacks while he considers the rest of the charges. The drinking? Well, a lot of guys do come early in the mornings, and while they wait for the landscapers or pool maintenance companies to come by and pick up day laborers, they might kick back with a beverage.
"Why they do it, I don't understand why they do it," Jad says. "But we do have people who like to sit outside, against the wall, especially after work, and they drink. And it's harmless. We rarely call the cops here. We rarely have a problem."
To make his point, he turns to a customer standing across the counter, near the lottery tickets, wearing a straw hat and white tank-top.
"People been coming to this store for a long time," Jad prompts. "People bypass going to Winn-Dixie and Publix just to come here."
"You all got that book in the drawer," the customer drawls, "where you can get on credit with no money."
It's a spiral notebook with columns full of scribbles where dollar amounts have been scratched out, revised, scratched out under accounts identified under names like "Ricky" and "Husky." Ike pulls it out one afternoon when his sunglasses distributor is unpacking $5.99 pairs of shades onto a rack. Funny thing, the guy says. Out of maybe 100 stores in the black neighborhoods he services, he knows of precisely none that is black-owned.
After the foofaraw on the front steps, the city commissioners finally settled down and brought the night to an explosive anticlimax.
At issue was the city's zoning board's decision to grant the mosque the right to build on its land. The developers had let a zoning special exception lapse and went to renew it at a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on May 18. There, residents voiced concern about the surfeit of churches in the neighborhood. (According to an unofficial transcript of the meeting, one resident complained, "I am sick of the churches and car lots and body shops in our residential area." Said another: "Every corner you turn, there's a church.") When the board reapproved the mosque, members of the neighborhood filed an appeal with the city manager asking the city to reconsider the special exception.
Their objections? Traffic congestion. The fact that the mosque wouldn't add to the tax base. A suggestion that the space would be better given to recreational facilities, a middle school, or "sit-down restaurants."
"Beheadings" did not appear on the list.
Unfortunately for the protesters, media reps, and other residents who came to see the commission debate those issues, procedures required that a verbatim transcript accompany the residents' appeal. The transcript that came instead appeared homemade, littered with errors in spelling and punctuation.
"I must say," Mayor John Rayson said from the dais, "the record is pitiful."
Commissioner E. Pat Larkins, whose district includes the northwest section, upbraided Rayson: "It shows once again what happens when poor folk want to oppose something." He added that he believed the mosque's traffic would conflict with that of the neighboring elementary school. He also charged that Muslim shopkeepers who sold spirits at 4 a.m. on Sundays, individual cigarettes, and "reefer packs for you know what" were a blight on their neighborhoods.
"We want to be friends with the Muslim community and all that, but we want them to be a part of the community," the commissioner said. "We don't want them raping it."
The commission declined to reconsider the zoning board's decision to allow the mosque, and the crowd filed out in obvious disappointment.
Later, Ali and Dozier had another small showdown after their contretemps in front of City Hall. They convened at a Davie television station for a remote appearance on Fox News Channel, then spoke at length afterward.
The meeting left Ali with slim hope for consensus.
"He was very adamant that Islam is evil, that Islam breeds terrorism, that Islam is a cult," Ali says. "I said, 'Reverend Dozier, are you calling me a devil?' He said, 'No, you're maybe OK, but others are devils.'
"I said, 'Listen, man, I follow the same religion that others follow. You cannot blame all Muslims for the actions of a few. If you apply the same analogy to the African-American people, then you have a very serious situation at hand.' It's not an informed decision. When you look at the Ku Klux Klan they are Christians! Are we going to say that all white people are predisposed to hating immigrants or people with dark skin or Jews?"
It sounded like an argument that Smith, the protester, had offered outside the meeting when a reporter asked him about the danger of stereotyping people on the basis of race or creed.
"Look how long I've been stereotyped against, as a black man in America, my race," was his reply. "And we are yet to blow up a trade center. You see where I'm coming from? I don't hate anybody of the Muslim religion. It's just, why are you going to build something somewhere that nobody wants you? Nobody."
Despite the heat of the debate with right-wing Christians, the new mosque is still a distant prospect. Sabri says that plans are on hold until the church can raise the money, which comes to the mosque as small bills, 20s mostly, that worshipers stuff into a large wooden donation box at prayer time. Groundbreaking is, under the best-case scenario, six months away.
Years, it will take, to save the funds to complete the project. Until then, Sabri says, anyone is welcome to worship with his congregation.
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