South Florida Muslims Seek a New Way to Get Along in the Wake of Terrorism Charges and Bigotry
"Financial support for MURDERERS!" yells a ponytailed man holding an American flag.
"Are you going to blow up our daycare centers?" a woman shouts nearby.
On a quiet, residential Margate street, roughly a hundred angry protesters gather outside an unassuming white building adorned with a rounded green dome and a small gold crescent.
Men and women drape themselves in flags, holding signs that say "Shut Down the Mosque" and "Taliban Imam." In the warm June evening, police wrap crime-scene tape around the mosque.
On the other side of the fence, a television news camera zooms in on a bemused-looking man in a white tunic and matching hat, arms folded across his chest, his mouth an unreadable line.
Weeks earlier, FBI agents arrested Izhar Khan, imam of the Masjid Jamaat Al-Mu'mineen mosque. Police leveled charges of providing funding and material support to the Pakistani Taliban on the 24-year-old Khan; his 76-year-old father, Hafiz Khan, who is the imam at the Flagler Mosque in Miami; three other family members; and an unrelated Pakistani man. Their arrests shocked the local Muslim community and left two prominent spiritual leaders in solitary confinement awaiting trial.
John Gillies, special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami office, was careful not to implicate the mosque or its members in the criminal case. "I remind everyone that the Muslim and Arab-American members of our community should never be judged by the illegal activities of a few," he said in a written statement.
But protesters from groups such as the Tea Party of Fort Lauderdale and the Coral Springs-based Americans Against Hate remain unswayed.
A pale man with glasses and a grave expression steps up to the podium. "We believe that things that are unsavory and unacceptable to this community are being done, and we want the answers," he tells the cheering crowd.
Such is the logic of anti-Islam groups that have become increasingly visible in Florida: Last year, a Gainesville pastor burned a Qur'an, and the Florida Family Association persuaded Lowe's to pull advertising from the TLC reality show All-American Muslim. In Boynton Beach, the construction of a new mosque prompted protests, and Broward County Republicans refused to allow a local Muslim activist to join their executive board. The call to shut down the Margate mosque is the latest example of backlash against South Florida's roughly 90,000 Muslims. Nezar Hamze, executive director of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says, "Unfortunately South Florida is developing into a pit of anti-Islam bigotry."
Now, with two of their beloved spiritual leaders accused of supporting terrorism, Muslim civic activists are trying to remake their image in the larger community.
Masjid board President Yazid Ali faces the news cameras. "We don't support terrorism," he says. "We're Americans."
Just before 6 a.m. on May 14, 2011, FBI agents surrounded a single-story, flat-roofed building that could be mistaken for a private home. Despite its humble appearance, the Flagler Mosque is one of the oldest in Miami. As the men inside began their morning prayer, they heard a loud banging on the door, congregant Sayeed Shamin Akhtar told NPR.
An FBI agent removed his shoes and strode into the prayer hall. He grabbed a stooped, elderly man with a long white beard by the hand. "You're coming with me," the agent told imam Hafiz Khan.
Forty-five miles north in Margate, police cruisers and federal agents blocked the entrance to the mosque on Holiday Springs Boulevard before the morning prayer began.
"They pointed the guns at the entire mosque," says 19-year-old Shan, who can't hide the outrage in his voice. Shan, who declined to give his last name, used to play basketball with Izhar. He's now one of many teenagers struggling to reconcile the role model they knew with the man accused of supporting terrorism.
The 20-page federal indictment against the Khans includes damning allegations. Members of the conspiracy are accused of sending money to the Pakistani Taliban, financing the purchase of guns, and sending children from an Islamic school to learn to kill Americans in Afghanistan. Their ultimate goal, according to the indictment, was to help the Taliban overthrow the Pakistani government and establish shari'a — strict Islamic — law there.
Federal prosecutors say the Pakistani Taliban is allied with al Qaeda and has been involved in numerous attacks against America, including a December 2009 suicide attack on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan that killed seven Americans, an April 2010 suicide bombing against the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, and the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010. Last May, the group claimed responsibility for suicide attacks that killed at least 80 people at a military training facility in northwestern Pakistan.
The indictment portrays the white-haired Hafiz Khan — who has lived in the United States since 1996 — as ringleader of the alleged conspiracy to support the Pakistani Taliban. He founded a madrassa, an Islamic school, in Pakistan before moving to the United States and has sent children there to learn to kill Americans in Afghanistan, prosecutors allege. In conversations recorded by the FBI, he's accused of calling for an attack on the Pakistani Assembly and the death of that country's president. When he heard that mujahideen — radical Islamic militants fighting to overthrow the government in Afghanistan — had killed seven Americans, he allegedly wished that "God bring death to 50,000 more." He and his sons are accused of sending more than $50,000 to support the Pakistani Taliban.
Yet his son Izhar merits only a few sentences in the indictment. On June 11, 2009, Hafiz Khan allegedly asked Izhar to collect money from a donor in the United States that was to be used for the mujahideen. Five days later, Izhar wired $900 to his sister Amina in Pakistan.
Izhar and Hafiz Khan have both pleaded not guilty and are being held in solitary confinement in a federal detention center.
Khurrum Wahid, the Margate attorney representing Hafiz Khan, calls Izhar a sweet, outgoing guy who likes basketball and sent money to his sister at his dad's direction. As for Izhar's father, Wahid (pronounced WAH-head) says the case against Hafiz Khan is based on rhetoric — the rants of an older man talking to his children. "Does rhetoric make you a terrorist?" Wahid asks.
The Khans allegedly began sending money to the Pakistani Taliban beginning around April 2008, two years before the Pakistani Taliban was labeled a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. According to the indictment, the money transfers continued until at least November 2010.
Interestingly, the Khans were not arrested for six more months. The feds finally cuffed the imams in May, shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed and the world turned its attention to the people who harbored terrorists in Pakistan.
Women arrive for Friday prayer at the Jamaat Al-Mu'mineen mosque with traditional headscarfs, hijabs, covering their hair and necks and layers of shimmery fabric concealing their bodies. Friday is the most important prayer day of the week in Islam, similar to Sunday for Christians.
There are separate entrances to the mosque, one door for men and one for women. A man who days earlier attended a hearing in the Khan case stops to welcome a visitor, making sure she knows where to go. Older ladies smile and welcome her with the traditional greeting, As-Salaam-Alaikum — peace be unto you — before slipping off their shoes and entering the building.
Upstairs, the women's prayer hall is a windowless room with green striped carpeting. A small sign on the wall urges: "Sisters: No eat/drink/speak in prayer hall!!"
Sweet-smelling lotion and soap perfume the room. Roughly 50 women sit in rows on the carpet, some cross-legged, others leaning against the walls, keeping their eyes down as they listen to the imam preach. His service downstairs is broadcast on TV screens mounted on the wall. In Islam, there is a tradition of men and women praying separately to avoid being distracted by the opposite sex.
Some of the women wear all black, but others have red, gold, and turquoise scarves. Toddlers babble and wander around the room. One little girl, with dark curly hair and a mischievous grin, keeps trying to play with the vacuum cleaner as the adults turn and kneel toward Mecca. In the back of the room, teenagers cluster and peek at their cell phones. Lying on a nearby wooden shelf is an informational pamphlet titled "Women's Rights in Islam — Respected, Honored, Cherished."
On the TV screen, the imam preaches about devotees failing to follow religious laws in their daily lives. He scolds them for sacrificing Muslim rules of modesty to fit in with American society — shaving their beards and changing their clothes to go out in public or fly on a plane. "This is what we do," he says in disapproving tones.
Later, he provides a legal update. Defense attorneys had been to the mosque weeks earlier to update them on the Khan case, and the trial is scheduled for November. "Inshallah, this case it will take approximately six weeks," the imam says. "Let us... pray for imam Izhar and his family to resolve this sooner than later."
The women in the prayer hall register no reaction to this announcement, listening as quietly as they have throughout the service.
In the days after the Khans were first arrested, the civil rights division at South Florida's chapter of CAIR received a stream of complaints. The masjid in Margate, the Flagler Mosque, and Masjid An-Noor in Miami all said they received hate mail. Flagler Mosque got two hate calls, along with a van parked outside with a sign that read, "This place needs to be razed down."
When first questioned about the impact of the arrests on the community, Hamze can't recall anything but the spike in hate mail and phone calls. Then he remembers the Margate protest. "Obviously the hate groups use the Khan case," he admits.
Hamze's group, CAIR, is a nonprofit that protects civil rights and promotes understanding about Islam. It doesn't help his cause to discuss Muslims being scared away from mosques or worried about having their phones tapped. Instead, he highlights the good news: no violence, no chaos. "We really grounded the community and explained the [legal] process to them," he said.
After the arrests last summer, he says, members of the community launched a statewide initiative, the Florida Muslim Congress, aimed at teaching Muslim leaders about terrorism laws and organizations. The goal is to help ordinary citizens work with law enforcement officials and avoid being accidentally linked to extremists. "OK, I'm sending money home to my family; what do I need to know?" Hamze explains.
"We can help avoid situations like we have here with the imams," he says. "This is the Muslim community dealing with issues that we need to deal with."
Growing up in South Florida, 35-year-old Hamze developed a remarkable tolerance for bigotry. When he worked as a manager for a company that sells cars, his coworkers didn't realize he was Muslim. They saw his clean-shaven face and fair skin and assumed it was fine to badmouth the religion in front of him. He says he listened quietly and used the opportunity to talk about diversity with his staff. But when he told them he was Muslim, he remembers with a laugh, they looked "like they just saw a ghost."
Since becoming head of CAIR in 2009, Hamze has received more than his share of vitriol from anti-Islam politicians. At a town hall meeting in 2010, he stood up to question U.S. Rep. Allen West, the congressman from Plantation who has called Islam "a totalitarian, theocratic, political ideology." That night, West added salt to the wound with a reference to 9/11. "The people that flew those planes into buildings were shouting 'Allahu Akbar,' " or God is great, he said.
Hamze tried to argue with him. "You've attacked Islam — " he began.
But West shouted him down. "You attacked us!" he said, and the crowd of West supporters cheered.
"It hurts," Hamze says now. "I can't describe the feeling of having 300 to 400 people yelling and screaming at you."
Last fall, Hamze again tried to reason with his opponents. He applied to join the Broward Republican Executive Committee, noting that he agrees with many GOP values. But roughly 200 people packed a committee meeting to make sure he was not voted onto the board. They shouted "terrorist" and "you're in al Qaeda."
Joe Kaufman, head of the anti-Islam group Americans Against Hate, led the charge against Hamze. "They humiliated me in front of everybody," Hamze says. "They made a mockery of themselves." Yet he prided himself on remaining stone-faced. "I just keep it inside and know that I have to have patience."
In Islam, one of the paths to salvation is to "keep your mouth closed," he says.
It's a teaching many locals seem to take to heart. Leaders of the Margate mosque have remained largely quiet, except for a statement released the day Izhar Khan was arrested. "We would like everyone to know that there are no charges against Masjid Jamaat Al Mu'mineen for any wrongdoing, and we are cooperating with all the authorities involved in the case," he said. "We would like everyone to know that Masjid Jamaat Al Mu'mineen does not support terrorism, for this is forbidden in Islam. The Qur'an clearly tells us, 'Do Not Spread Corruption on Earth.' "
Calls to the mosque seeking comment for this article were not returned.
At a January hearing for the Khan case, supporters of the imams filled two back rows of the Miami courtroom. They sat quietly through the legal arguments over how much evidence would be released to the defense team.
Afterward, when a reporter approached to ask their response, one of the men shook his head gently and directed her back to the lawyers. There would be no loose tongues today.
In private, local Muslims admit they have an issue with P.R. In a modest white office building a few miles from the Margate mosque, a group of activists is tackling the problem from another angle — starting with kids.
This is the law office of Khurrum Wahid, Hafiz Khan's attorney. It's also home to Emerge USA, a nonprofit group Wahid founded in 2006. Emerge aims to empower Muslim, Indian, Pakistani, and Arab-American people through voter registration, political polling, and a leadership training program for young adults. By getting more of Florida's 120,000 registered Muslim voters involved in politics, Wahid hopes participants will stop being alienated and vilified. "Public perception drives public policy," he says.
Wahid is a former public defender with a friendly face and a relaxed, scruffy goatee — the look of a working dad who can't be bothered with pretense. He sits at the wide conference table in his office with his shirtsleeves rolled up, leaning forward. He points out a framed document on the wall marked "Secret" from the days before he was cleared to read classified government documents.
Born in Pakistan and raised in Canada, Wahid is now thoroughly American. He roots for the Dallas Cowboys and hosts political fundraisers through the political action committee he founded, CVA-PAC. Wahid remembers, as a kid in the early '70s, getting beat up a lot. Other children taunted him with "Paki go home." Things improved by high school. After the initial shock at an influx of multicultural immigrants, Canadians began to accept them as part of the landscape. The taunting stopped, and Wahid grew more confident. Back then, he says, Muslims were seen as computer geeks, not terrorists.
Wahid was working as a public defender in Miami when the World Trade Center fell. He began representing immigrants detained for questioning in the wake of the terrorist attacks. When he opened a private practice in 2004, he started taking cases other lawyers might shun. He defended the man who was convicted of plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station in 2004 and Boca Raton doctor Rafiq Sabir, who was convicted of conspiring to treat wounded al Qaeda militants. He also recently represented Rais Bhuiyan, a convenience-store clerk in Texas who tried to prevent the execution of the man who shot him in the face after 9/11.
Wahid believes terrorism cases are, in many ways, the civil rights battles of his generation. While outsiders might paint his clients as criminals, he says people like the Khans are being prosecuted for giving money to groups the U.S. government doesn't like. "I think these things are not so black and white," he says. "I think innocent people get caught up in the politics."
Yes, this means Wahid gets threatening emails and letters. But like Hamze, he insists such backlash doesn't get under his skin. "I tend not to really focus on those," he says.
The closest he comes to complaining is to point out that most of his cases have nothing to do with terrorism. In 2006, he defended the Miami man known as the "Shenandoah rapist," accused in a string of sexual assaults and convicted of raping an 11-year-old girl. Yet no one blamed the lawyer. "I think people are more accepting of me representing a serial rapist than they are of me representing an imam [accused of] giving support to the Taliban," Wahid says.
But sometimes, a clash between his work and personal life is inescapable. Last year, he landed on a federal "Selectee" list — a terrorist watch list. Now he gets a pat down at the airport before flying and can't print boarding passes at home. He smiles when first relating the hassle, laughing at the absurdity of government bureaucracy. But when asked about it later — how does he handle that kind of stigma? — he retreats back to serious lawyer mode. "It tells me that the system is broken."
Wahid's office is a haven for the fresh-faced and ambitious, including a college-student intern who also works with Emerge and a cadre of young lawyers. Nauman Abbasi, the 27-year-old executive director of Emerge, works here too. With his clean-shaven face and gelled, dark hair, Abbasi embodies the vast difference between the older and younger generations of Muslims living in South Florida. He arrives for an interview on a January afternoon wearing a gray blazer and jeans, mourning the damage to the BlackBerry he accidentally dropped that day.
Abbasi grew up in Michigan, the child of North Indian parents. He says his pre-9/11 childhood was "not that bad." But after moving to Florida in 2003, he noticed a marked difference in the treatment of Muslims. Up north, he never heard of pastors burning Qu'rans or people shooting at mosques, as happened in Melbourne in 2006. "No one should have to go through what we are going through as a community," he says.
To him, Muslims in South Florida are following an age-old immigrant pattern. Thirty years ago, they came here to earn money to send back home to places like Pakistan and India. Their goal was to provide for their families and build a mosque. After 9/11, they realized they had no coherent voice with which to condemn the attacks and draw a bright line between ordinary Muslims and terrorists who kill in the name of religion. Now, he wants something better for his peers, particularly those who are stereotyped as budding terrorists. Young men who are seen as criminals tend to get caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy, he says. "It's like a disease. If you have all that hatred built up in you, you're not going to go anywhere."
Abbasi began volunteering for Emerge in 2010 after he organized a successful protest in Sunrise, preventing a garbage dump from being built near the Islamic Foundation of South Florida, a combined mosque and school. He also does P.R. for the Islamic Foundation. Speaking at local mosques about Emerge, Abbasi says he gets a mixed reception. Some people support the group's goal of working with the American political system to create change. Others don't see the point in joining a system that portrays them as terrorists. Abbasi admits bigotry is a serious problem. "We're at the lowest tier of society right now, unfortunately," he says. "People can pick on us."
In 2010, Abbasi was visiting New York City and wanted to see the Wall Street trading floor. But a police officer told him the public viewing area was closed. Eying him, the cop blamed Abbasi for the change. "We've beefed up security because of your people," the cop said.
Abbasi shakes his head, letting frustration creep into his voice. He's also upset by the way the FBI agents handled the arrests of the Khans — surrounding their mosques instead of their homes. "When you go into a mosque with your gun, how does that look?"
But he is troubled by the charges. To kids in the community, seeing 24-year-old Izhar Khan accused of supporting terrorists is shattering. "Here is a guy that's supposed to be a role model, and he's accused of doing something horribly bad."
Like Wahid, Abbasi focuses on his hopes for the future. Emerge places young people in internships with mayors and state representatives, introducing them to elected officials and lobbyists in Tallahassee. If a girl in a headscarf works in the mayor's office, he says, people will realize, "They're not all terrorists."
Laila Abdelaziz is a model for the change Emerge hopes to create. The 20-year-old Palestinian refugee spent her childhood in Baltimore and moved to Florida in high school. As a teenager, she watched her mother bristle as neighbors ridiculed her traditional headscarf. "She couldn't handle the comments, the looks, driving us to school. She was looked at as an extremist," Abdelaziz says ruefully, as if the ignorance of Americans is a tired, established fact. Eventually, her mom stopped wearing the scarf.
Today, Abdelaziz bears no resemblance to the subdued, cloaked stereotype of Muslim women. Hollywood starlets would kill for her confidence, along with her long, unveiled dark hair and daring grin. She has worked for Sen. Bill Nelson and campaigned for President Barack Obama. In 2010, she gained brief prominence when she questioned Obama after his speech at the University of Tampa. That night, she shouted to be heard over a crowd that erupted in cheers and booing when she mentioned the "occupied Palestinian people."
"Why have we not condemned Israel and Egypt's human rights violations against the occupied Palestinian people?" she demanded. "And yet we continue supporting them financially with billions of dollars from our tax dollars?"
As Central Florida field coordinator for Emerge, Abdelaziz brings that same passion to defending her cause. "Enough is enough. It's not right to antagonize a community this way," she says.
"What the Muslim community is trying to do is... step up their game.
The classroom at the Islamic Foundation of South Florida is cheery and colorful, with books and posters decorating the walls, including a special picture-book display titled "Meet our President Barack Obama."
It's past 7:30 p.m. on a Friday, and four teenaged boys gather in the corner of the room waiting for the teacher.
"Find Air Jordans," a boy in a Hollister T-shirt commands his iPhone.
The teenagers all attend local public high schools but are here for the weekly youth group run by the mosque after Friday-evening prayers. They're busy debating the previous night's Miami Heat game when a reporter interrupts to ask them about their political leanings.
"Ron Paul 2012!" shouts 16-year-old Hamza Andha, a thin, dark-haired kid who says he wants to be governor of Florida. "I don't want to sound harsh, but he [Obama] is kind of a tool."
The mood shifts when the teacher arrives. Abdur Rahman Al-Ghani is thin and solemn, wearing a white tunic and matching cap. He explains that the youth group has open discussions about the conflicts between Islamic teachings and American culture. For instance, young Muslims are not allowed to date or have sex before marriage. So Al-Ghani talks to the boys about abstinence. "He doesn't want us to end up like the people on Jersey Shore," Hamza jokes.
Tonight, Al-Ghani is lecturing on social media, how it's helped create change through the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to combat "greed and a heartless, ultracynical ideology of the banking elites and the policies they generate," the teacher says. Over the next two hours, the topic wanders from economic inequality to the failures Al-Ghani sees in the American system of government.
Shan, the 19-year-old Florida International University student who is friends with Izhar Khan, seems to embody the conflicting opinions in the room. First, he touts his American civil rights: "Our power as Americans is to criticize the politicians to make them better," he says. Moments later, he advocates religion-based government. "Islamic law is perfect."
When the discussion turns to the Khan case, mixed emotions again prevail. The students seem both angry and resigned. Shan's voice rises when he remembers the FBI agents, their guns trained at the mosque, ready to arrest his imam. "We're very good friends," he says of Izhar Khan. He says that Khan helped increase attendance at the mosque and that people were frightened away after his arrest. Wahid called the imam a "huge positive force" for young people.
But when asked about the terrorism charges, Shan becomes subdued, almost mournful. The animation that lit his voice is gone. "There's nothing we can do about it," he says.
Hamza, his 16-year-old classmate, is even more cautious. He's not sure if the allegations against Izhar Khan are true. "Life goes on," he says.
Owais Qureshi, a Deerfield High School student, still has some indignation left. He points out that the Margate mosque serves the wider community and provided food for the needy after Hurricane Wilma. He's hurt that the protesters ignored all that when they yelled and screamed for the mosque to be shut down.
"It does make me sad," he says. "They just didn't choose to first find the truth before they took action."
It will be nine long months before the Khans are scheduled to go to trial. Wahid expects to battle with prosecutors over the accuracy of their translations, since much of their evidence rests on phone calls in which Hafiz Khan was speaking his native Pashto. Meanwhile, both sides are still debating what evidence — particularly information-gathering via wiretapping — should be allowed during trial.
Wahid knows there is pressure to resolve this case. Hundreds of Muslims in South Florida will be invested in the outcome. As religious leaders, the Khans' fate is inextricably linked to their followers. "[This case] will have far more of an impact on the Muslim community as a whole than some other cases we've dealt with," Wahid says.
Back in Margate on a quiet Thursday afternoon, a small group of elderly men leaves the mosque after saying prayers. A white-bearded man stops to praise imam Izhar Khan. He doesn't believe Izhar was supporting terrorists. "He liked to help poor people. We like him. He's very educated. Nice," says the man, who declines to give his name.
The man is gentle and soft-spoken, smiling and patting the arm of the reporter questioning him. But there is a sadness in his weathered face. "We miss him very much," he says. "Only God knows best... I hope they come home one day — him and his father."
Staff writer Matthew Hendley contributed to this article.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.