Right-Wingers Want Muslim Cop in Broward Fired

Right-Wingers Want Muslim Cop in Broward Fired

Nezar Hamze is a deputy with the Broward Sheriff's Office. When he Googles himself, the top result is a post from a right-wing blog called FrontPage Magazine, which accuses Hamze, who is Muslim, of being a sleeper-cell terrorist, hell-bent on destroying the sheriff’s department from the inside.

“By employing Nezar Hamze, Sheriff Scott Israel has compromised not only the Broward Sheriff’s office, but the security of the entire county and by extension U.S. national security,” the post reads.

Hamze worked as an activist fighting Islamophobia with the Council of American and Islamic Relations (CAIR) for seven years before being hired by the Broward Sheriff's Office in 2014. He currently maintains a full-time position with the nonprofit group in addition to his sheriff's office duties.

He says he’s been the target of hate since his first day with the department. “I’ve been called everything in the book,” Hamze tells New Times. “And all of it is bullshit. Every word is just bullshit.”

Hamze, a 39-year-old father of four, is the son of Lebanese immigrants. "My father is Muslim, but my mother, actually is Catholic," he says. "And I'm married to a Mexican Catholic, whose grandmother turns out to be Jewish. So there are connections all over the place."

Born in Michigan, Hamze moved to Fort Lauderdale as a toddler, and later attended Dillard High School, but did not graduate, instead earning his G.E.D. in 1992. He is a gargantuan presence, with a rectangular head, beefy arms, and hands that feel, at least, to be the size of rowboat oars. "I spend most of my free time working out," he jokes. His voice is, at all times, deafeningly loud.

In 2008, Hamze was working as an operations manager for the used car retailer CarMax when a friend showed him a video called "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West," which a right-wing group had paid to distribute as an insert along with Sunday newspapers (including the Palm Beach Post and Sun-Sentinel). After his wife watched the video and became so offended she cried, Hamze felt inspired to join Florida’s chapter of the CAIR, hoping to improve communication between Muslims and the rest of the nation.

He went on to serve as the organization’s executive director and spent most of his days traveling around the state lecturing young Floridians about Muslim traditions. In 2011, after Florida congressman Allen West made disparaging comments about Islam, Hamze showed up to one of West’s speeches. When West said the Quran told Muslims to "kill infidels," Hamze pulled out a copy of the holy book, and, in a video that later went viral, asked West to show him what exact portion of the Quran he was referring to.

Hamze began: “I am ashamed to be here, in front of all these people, and you attack Islam—“

“You attack us!” the congressman shouted back, to a fanfare of applause.

The next year, after FrontPage Magazine writer Joe Kaufman — who is now running to take Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s congressional seat — distributed flyers calling Hamze a terrorist, the pair was profiled in a Daily Show segment.

Hamze says a friend who works in law enforcement noted that his even-keeled mannerisms and skills as a spokesperson might make good traits in a police officer, and suggested he become a cop. Hamze then applied at BSO.  

“Something I always noticed was that there was not any Muslim law enforcement in Florida,” he says. “The Muslim community really does not trust law enforcement right now.” He says he wanted to show young Muslims that they, too, can be involved in local government. According to a 2012 Miami Herald piece, there are roughly 100,000 Muslims in South Florida.

Right-wing blogs pointed out that Hamze applied to work at the sheriff's department in 2012 but was not hired. Hamze does not dispute this. Personnel records show that he applied in both 2009 and 2012, withdrew his application the first time, and was not selected to become a deputy the second. He officially joined the force in August 2014.

Hamze says department policy prohibits him from speaking, specifically, about his role with the department. He maintains a lesser, but still salaried role, as CAIR Florida’s Regional Operations Director. Records show he was making $62,000 in that position in 2014.

Bloggers and online commenters have complained that Hamze splits his time between the two organizations and suggested it could present a conflict of interest. Though sheriff's office spokesperson Keyla Concepción provided New Times with a copy of its outside work policy, which states that "Florida statutes, management rights, and applicable accreditation standards permit the Sheriff to place requirements or restrictions" on employees' outside work, the department approved Hamze's request to continue working with CAIR.

Hamze, meanwhile, says his work as a civil-rights activist makes him a better cop, rather than a worse one. "Speaking generally, in law enforcement, there really does not have to be a conflict," he says. "I spent many, many years involved in civil rights, and I think it makes me a super strong law enforcement officer." Before he got involved as a cop, he said, he spent a ton of time analyzing why, for example, officers might have been profiling Muslim folks in his neighborhood. "Now, I have a very neutral, educated approach to things," he says. If any of the right-wing folks who insult him ever called 911, he says, "I'd go right to their homes and help them, no questions asked."

Hamze, who does pray five times each day, says that because of his job with CAIR, he worships at various mosques, so he can get to know the local Muslim community. He has denounced extremism, and tries not to respond to insults from others, he says, because the Quran advises followers not to respond to aggression with more aggression.

But Floridians aren't making things easy for him. On a forum for law enforcement officers, Hamze is sometimes derided as “Deputy CAIR” or “Deputy Hamas.” In an early thread discussing his hiring, one commenter exclaimed, “There’s a new Sheik in town!!!”

According to Local 10 News, Kaufman in October attended a small rally outside the Broward Sheriff’s Office, calling for both Hamze and Sheriff Israel to resign. From there, a host of other hate-spewing blogs, including “Islamophobia Today,” “Jihad Watch,” “Counter Jihad Report,” and “BareNakedIslam.com” latched onto Hamze’s job as a sheriff, most accusing him of being “linked to terrorism” and a “radical Islamist.” (BareNakedIslam also finds him “smarmy.”)

Earlier this month, Hamze, working for CAIR, traveled to Tampa's Daarus Salaam Mosque, in order to teach a class on self-defense and firearm usage in the event that an active shooter attacks a Muslim place of worship. A reporter from the news outlet Fusion actually accompanied Hamze on the trip and recorded video of the lecture, showing unequivocally that Hamze was lecturing on self-defense. Despite this, Kaufman, who believes that mosque, specifically, has ties to "radicals," published a story Monday that said Hamze's training sessions are equipping Muslims "to wage armed jihad." He added: The instruction must be halted immediately."

When attacking CAIR, most of the blogs refer to a 2007 court case in which members of Washington, D.C.’s CAIR chapter were named “unindicted co-conspirators” in helping an Islamic charity, the Holy Land Foundation, secretly fund Hamas, a Palestinian group that runs both a political party and a military arm, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.

Kaufman has been one of CAIR's loudest critics for much of the last decade. Speaking with New Times, he said that although he is often called an Islamophobe, his issues lie with CAIR, rather than the Islamic faith. He says he believes the organization's founders have ties to Hamas. "I'm not trying to defame Muslims," he says. "I'm just trying to go after organizations I know have ties to terrorism." 

However, government officials for years have said actually linking CAIR to violent extremism requires using tactics not seen, as the New York Times said in 2007, since the McCarthy era. That year, Michael Rolince, a retired FBI official, told the Times that most people criticizing CAIR — Kaufman included — were incapable of showing that the organization was actually committing crimes, or encouraging others to do so. "Of all the groups, there is probably more suspicion about CAIR, but when you ask people for cold hard facts, you get blank stares," he said.

Plus, Hamze is quick to point out that CAIR’s Florida chapter is an entirely separate legal entity than that of CAIR Washington.“That’s the biggest propaganda they spread about us, by far, the unindicted co-conspirator thing,” Hamze says. “First off, they’re entirely separate from CAIR Florida, and two, they were unindicted. They weren’t even charged with a crime.”

Jeffrey Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, tells New Times that Hamze has been an exemplary employee since joining the force. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about him,” Bell says. “He’s one of the harder workers in the district. As to what he does on the personal side, the union does not offer an opinion. But he’s been a good union member.”

A performance review dated August 6 said Hamze had been “commendable" on duty, and that his knowledge of Arabic had helped “bridge the gap” during incidents with Arabic-speaking civilians.

Hamze now lives in a gated community in Sunrise. When New Times visited his home Sunday evening, he answered the door in sweatpants. His police cruiser sat parked in the driveway out front. Inside, the walls were largely unadorned, save a framed photograph of the Masjid al-Haraam, the holiest site in Islam, which hung over one of the couches. An award from CAIR sat locked in a china cabinet.

"I think a big reason Muslims are getting so much backlash recently is because, when my father moved here, his generation did all it could to keep its head down and blend in," he said, leaning over his kitchen table. "My generation grew up and was like, 'Well, screw that, right?' When my dad came here, he arrived in New York totally alone, without a home or family, and just sat down on a bench looking for people who looked like him, hoping he could have a conversation with someone. What my Dad went through, that was hard. The stuff I go through? It's not all that bad."

Minutes later, one of Hamze's college-aged daughters walked downstairs, dressed in a hijab and bright orange Miami Hurricanes sweater. Controversy about her dad, she said, is nothing new. "It's just entertaining at this point."


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