How We Got the Story: Reporting on Islamophobia

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Last week's New Times cover story explored the lives of Muslims living in South Florida. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how we got the story:

The hardest part was picking an outfit. Living in South Florida, I rarely have the need for a turtleneck. But as a female reporter visiting a mosque, I wanted to be respectful. So I dug out my one and only blouse with a high collar, buttoned a cardigan over that, and made sure my slacks reached my ankles.

I pulled up to the Masjid Jamaat Al-Mu'mineen mosque in Margate tugging a black scarf over my head. The silky piece of fabric was not designed for modesty, and it kept slipping off.

Nervously, I walked toward the entrance. Congregants milled about, chatting and greeting one another before the Friday-afternoon prayer service. No one seemed troubled by the strange Jewish woman fiddling with her scarf.

A man smiled and asked if I knew where I was going. Unfortunately, the woman who had agreed to escort me was running late. So I sat outside the women's entrance to the mosque and waited.

"As-Salaam-Alaikum," a series of older ladies greeted me, before slipping off their shoes and entering the building. Some of them were pushing walkers or stepping carefully on aching feet. My friend later explained that this was the entrance for the elderly and infirm -- I had missed the main entrance around back.

Later that evening, at the Islamic Foundation of South Florida, a mosque and school in Sunrise, I received a similar welcome. Around 7:30 p.m., I spotted two young women standing outside, deeply engrossed in conversation.

"Excuse me, do you know if there's a youth group meeting here tonight?" I asked.

By this point, I had given up on the headscarf and looked like any heathen off the street. The women didn't mind. They said that the meeting was usually held after the prayer service and that I should go inside to find the classroom. 

"We are an open community," they assured me.

And they were right. Inside, the school secretary had no qualms about allowing a reporter to observe the youth group. She ushered me over to the teacher, Abdur Rahman Al-Ghani, who was thrilled to have a visitor. And there I sat, for more than two hours, listening to teenagers discuss how they coped with the inherent conflicts of being young and Muslim in Florida.

No one asked my religion or my political leanings. They didn't question my motives or accuse me of bias. Unlike those who so often judge Muslims based on fear or prejudice, these people didn't judge me at all.

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