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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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab