Muslim Convert Launches the South Florida Muslim Defense Coalition

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Jonel Jones has special reason to pause and reflect today, the anniversary of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center. "My father was a firefighter," the Lake Worth native told New Times. "The sacrifices made that day, I really felt them."

The aftermath of the attacks also have a special meaning for her. Raised as a Southern Baptist, now 26 years old, two years ago she converted to Islam. Since then, she says, she's become increasingly aware of the rise of Islamophobia in American public life, including South Florida.

In response, Jones has organized the South Florida Muslim Defense Coalition, which meets for the first time next week. The group's charter, posted on Facebook, reads:

We will teach about local hate groups in the area, to understand how they work and how to fight against them in our community. This is a way introduce our organization to the public also. We are group that promotes interfaith communication. Please come and be a part of our chance to become a better community to have love and kindness again with our brothers and sisters. Inshallah.

Jones said she first became aware of local anti-Muslim activity while working last year to defeat Allen West's reelection and found that his base included "support by hate groups." Local individuals and organizations she categorized that way include Lake Worth-based The United West, Broward-based Joe Kaufman, Boca Raton's Citizens for National Security, and "a number of fringe, Tea Party elements."

"It fascinated me," Jones said. "These people twist and turn Koranic verses. I started researching them in order to understand and contain them."

Jones, who wears the traditional hijab (not the burqa) in everyday life, feels that, by and large, the American people have not given in to fear-mongering. "Personally, the majority of people are quite good with me," she said. "Though I don't feel safe everywhere in North Florida."

Jones acknowledges that the extremist label cuts both ways. "Like every religion," she said, "we have our crazies. There are a lot of uneducated, desperate people in the Muslim world. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, the mullahs take advantage of them. That's why we have to get out there and make it clear, real Muslims don't believe in killing."

Jones said that while the coalition's debut meeting would focus on Islamophobia, hate groups of other sorts would be topics of following meetings. The meetings will be nonpartisan, she said, and open to all. "I want everyone to come with an open mind," she told us. "The only way to break through is to be open and talk."

South Florida Muslim Defense Coalition Wednesday, September 18, 7 p.m. Lantana Road Branch Library 4020 Lantana Road, Lake Worth

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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