The men file in slowly to the meeting room at the Broward Sheriff's Office headquarters in Fort Lauderdale. "As-Salaam-Alaikum," they greet one another, shaking hands, smiling warmly at
a Sunrise police officer they recognize from prayer services.
About 25 men are here, some wearing skull caps, others wearing police uniforms. The civilians represent mosques from all over South Florida -- Pompano, Hollywood, Fort
Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Pembroke Pines, Cooper City. They gathered last Wednesday evening to meet the police officers from their towns.
It's the first meeting of
its kind in Broward, organized by the Florida Muslim Congress, a group that promotes
education and cooperation between Muslims and law enforcement officials. The goal is to help
ordinary citizens understand terrorism laws and avoid being accidentally linked to extremists. Nezar Hamze, a member of the Florida Muslim Congress and executive director of the South
Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is leading tonight's meeting. "Our community leaders saw a need to deal with some serious issues," he says.
Hamze begins by asking the Muslim leaders to sit next to the police officers who work in their
cities. Then a steady parade of BSO officials gives speeches about the sheriff's various
outreach and volunteer programs -- the citizens police academy, the Law Enforcement
Explorers Program for teenagers, citizens observer patrols,
and Crime Stoppers.
At times, the speeches sound like a PR campaign for Sheriff Al
Lamberti. Then the group is reminded of the reason they are here, the canyon of misunderstanding that often divides
Muslims and cops.
"Things we need to build up on are trust," Sgt. Rudolph Nesbitt says. "You don't trust me; I
don't know you. The trust just isn't there."
Nesbitt, who is in charge of the sheriff's youth programs, recites his phone number for the crowd. Immediately, Jamil Rizvi, one of the Muslim leaders from Miami, invites all the cops to an upcoming barbecue his mosque is holding in C.B. Smith Park.
The mood in the room shifts from cordial to something warmer.
As another sheriff's captain begins
speaking about hate crimes, Sofian Abdelaziz Zakkout, the gray-bearded director of the
American Muslim Association of North America in Miami, raises his hand. "I wish your
department would do more about prevention," he says. When politicians bash Muslims, "that
will lead to hate crimes."
Hamze announces a break for the evening prayer. The Muslims in the
room stand and face Mecca, their heads down.
When the meeting reconvenes, Commander Michael Calderin, head of Crimes Stoppers
programs in Broward, gives the last speech of the night. He makes his position clear:
"You're people of faith, and attacking you is attacking all of us," he says. "We're all on
the same boat; we're on the same team."
Calderin turns to Hamze and invites him to appear on Lamberti's weekly radio show. Hamze raises
an eyebrow, looking pleased but surprised. Later, Hamze will urge the crowd to sign up for the volunteer police programs.
Calderin provides Crime Stoppers fliers in Arabic and Urdu for the men to display in their
"Our doors are always open whenever you need to contact us," Calderin says.
In the back of the room, a lithe, gray-haired gentleman from the Islamic Center of South
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Florida rises from his seat. He speaks with grave urgency about the need to change "the face
of Muslims in America."
"It lies with us," Ashraf Ali says. "All we have to do is work with them to get them to
work with us. Please, let's show an interest and get them to work with us."