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When media acts responsibly

Huffington Post and AltMuslim.
In Kuwait Times (May 31, 2010).

When media acts responsibly
By Parvez Ahmed, May 19, 2010

In a span of just over a month two incidents rocked my city of Jacksonville garnering wall-to-wall coverage in local media. The first was my nomination to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission. The mayor's nomination, which is otherwise routinely approved by the City Council, drew an unusual and unprecedented scrutiny in my case. The second incendiary (no pun intended) situation was related to a pipe bomb that exploded at my city's largest mosque and Islamic center. Both situations had one thing in common; it impacted Muslims who were the target of hate, anger and violence. And one other thing, both situations did not draw any national media attention, which led American Muslim groups to question the national media silence and double standards. But is such silence, as disturbing as it maybe, a sign of bias?

Decrying the national media's silence as bias solidifies the misperception that the Muslim community is perpetually playing the victim card. In reality the Muslim community in Jacksonville feels anything but victims. The community faced formidable challenges but respond with positivity with timely help from public officials, faith leaders and law enforcement professionals. Far from being the victims, the Muslim community has been helped by the controversy as the local media has enabled an extended public dialogue on difficult issues like diversity, inclusiveness and faith. Such positive lessons deserve far more attention than any complains about bias.

Much of the controversy surrounding my nomination to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission was contrived. The first sparks flew when City Councilman Clay Yarborough emailed me a series of irrelevant questions regarding my views about the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and the issue of legalizing gay marriage. Although I was under no obligation to answer his boorish questions, being very sensitive to the extreme misunderstanding about Islam and Muslims that permeates American society, I felt not answering the questions could cause greater harm.

Our local newspaper, the Florida Times Union, found out about this exchange (thorough Florida's Sunshine Laws), and wrote a story. The media report had an unintended consequence. A hate group called ACT For America, which has a history of all being virulently anti- Muslim, predictably organized opposition to my nomination. ACT bombarded the city council and the mayor's office with a series of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations mostly stemming from my past associations with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).

As the situation unfolded, the local media generally acted with restraint. The local newspaper, Florida Times Union ran several stories refuting the spurious allegations of my links to terrorism. To the contrary, I have a long record of not only condemning terrorism in all its forms but also persistently advocating dialogue between faiths and nations. The newspaper also exposed Councilman Yarborough's prejudices who when pressed by local columnist Mark Woods could not answer if Muslims deserve a chance to serve in public offices. The newspaper later used a full-page editorial to offer its unequivocal endorsement of my nomination. The local NPR radio station interviewed me on their morning show First Coast Connect allowing me to get my side of the story out in my own words. Later when Councilman Redman made the awkward request that I "pray" to "my God" it was the local media that took umbrage and over next several days painstakingly explained to the public the potential economic and social damage that are likely to result from this hullaballoo. As result of the media spotlight Councilman Redman later apologized.

Rather than decry what the national media did not do, American Muslims should celebrate what the local media and public officials did despite heavy pressure from a minority but vocal group. They exemplified that even in an age of extreme sensationalism responsible journalism and diligent public stewardship is alive and well. Partly as a result of this, the City Council was able to vote 13-6 in favor of my nomination.

When my mosque got bombed, literally hours before I was to attend my first meeting of the Human Rights Commission, many in the local media speculated that the bombing could be related to the anger exhibited by a few people who were most vocal in agitating against my nomination. The local media speculated that the circumstances were too coincidental, but did not sensationalize the issue. They exhibited great professionalism by staying with the story even when the blogosphere was complaining about too much attention being given to the bombing of a Muslim mosque. The local media rightfully felt that this matter required extended attention so long as the perpetrator of this heinous crime remains at large.

American Muslims instead of decrying what did not happen should celebrate what did. This is a teachable moment. The importance of relationship building with media and public officials, a task that is not undertaken with the seriousness it deserves, is amply demonstrated. The silence in the national media is less related to bias and more the result of a lack of meaningful relationships between the community and national media outlets.

Legitimacy of issues is not the only criterion that the media uses to focus its attention on a story. With many competing interests each fighting for media attention, it becomes the responsibility of American Muslims, individually or collectively, to undertake proactive steps to develop sustained relationships. The Jacksonville saga shows that getting the appropriate media attention and support from religious/civic organizations is much easier when the community has taken the time to build such relationships well in advance of a crisis. This more than anything else is the path to empowerment that American Muslims rightfully seek.

American Muslims must be on guard against radicalization

Delaware Online

American Muslims must be on guard against radicalization
By Muqtedar Khan • May 18, 2010

Faisal Shahzad, Major Nidal Hassan and Anwar Awlaki: Is it now official that American Muslims too have become radicalized and are well on their way to becoming Al Qaeda in America?

The recent incidents involving American Muslims may suggest so, and it has triggered panicky responses from Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John McCain, who have called for the suspension of the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights (Mirandization).

I guess their line of thinking is: Why wait for the terrorists to destroy our freedoms violently, when we can legislate them away peacefully? I would recommend that before we rush to judgment and look at every Abdullah with suspicion, let's pause, take a deep breath and review the evidence.

To do just that, I hosted a conference on Muslim Radicalization in America at the University of Delaware on May 12. The conference was sponsored by the Islamic Studies Program at the university and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The speakers included professor Charles Kurzman from the University of North Carolina; professor Parvez Ahmed from the University of North Florida; Lydia Khalil of the Council on Foreign Relations; and special agent Jeffery Reising, in charge of the Delaware Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The presentations and discussions shed light on the nature of Muslim violence in the U.S., its causes and the ways and means to fight it. Dr. Kurzman has studied nearly 140 cases from 2000-2010 of American Muslims accused of planning violent terrorist actions in the U.S. (The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were made by foreigners.)

He argued that even if the victims of John Muhammed, the sniper in the Washington D.C., area, were included, victims of American Muslim terrorism in the U.S. amounted to 31 in ten years.

His study found that the American Muslim communities' efforts to mainstream Islam has played a major role in keeping this count low. Based on his findings, one could argue that the probability of an American killing himself by suicide is 10,000 times higher than being killed by an American Muslim.

Parvez Ahmed argued that Islam did not teach violence, and by associating terrorists with Islamic concepts like jihad, which for Muslims is a noble endeavor, we demean Islam and glorify the terrorist. No religion, he argued, would teach violence and therefore it is important that we invoke religious language judiciously. He acknowledged that there was a problem of radicalism in the community and
called for a stronger partnership between the community and the government to combat it.

Lydia Khalil emphasized the importance of ideology. It was neither faith nor economic conditions that led to individuals becoming terrorists, she argued. It was the indoctrination of ideology that made people choose the path of radicalism. Whether it was Shahzad or Nidal, the impact of the ideological worldview that sees Islam and the West embroiled in a conflict was palpable in transforming them from disgruntled Muslims to murderous terrorists.

Reising shared the challenges that law enforcement faces in trying to balance security and liberty. He discussed how the FBI worked with Muslims to identify and deal with emerging threats.

Clearly, the extent of radicalization among American Muslims is disturbing. Muslims here enjoy more freedom of religion and prosperity than in most Muslim countries. The queue of people lining up to immigrate to the U.S. from the Muslim world is unending. Yet, more and more American Muslims are allowing their hatred to compel them to do terrible things.

Muslims must find a way to escape this hypocritical condition where they love to live in America, but also love to hate it.

The case of Anwar Awlaki is more disturbing than Shahzad and Nidal.

An American born of Yemeni origins, he does not come from anyplace affected negatively by U.S. foreign policy, which is the principal reason for Muslim anger against the U.S.

The man has used the benefits of his American upbringing to reach out to a large number of Muslim youth and preach hatred of America and non-Muslims. He is clearly a traitor, ungrateful to the land that welcomed his family and allowed them to prosper, and desires to make traitors and terrorists out of many young Muslims.

As American Muslims enjoy their American dream, it is time for them to give back. Make America stronger and safer. Teach your children to understand and respect the country that they call home. As you protect them from drugs, crime and immorality, also protect them from ideologies of hate.

The small number of cases that actually involve American Muslims indicates that the community is doing a good job in ensuring that their youth are not radicalized. I am just calling for more vigilance and more focused efforts to pre-empt youth from taking the wrong turn. There is no glory in killing innocent people. The Quran teaches that killing one innocent individual is like killing all of humanity (Chapter 5, verse 32). Can there be a clearer and stronger condemnation than this?

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Delaware and a fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

Accusations were absurd

Parvez Ahmed: Accusations were absurd

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In 2003 and 2004, I was invited with United States Attorney Paul Perez to participate in forums in Florida to discuss the high profile and sensitive issues surrounding the renewal of several provisions of the Patriot Act.

This federal legislation was passed immediately after the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, with the proviso that its continued implementation be revisited after two years.

In the first symposium, the third panelist was Parvez Ahmed. Despite the baseless, unwarranted and unsubstantiated suggestions that Ahmed either enjoys some form of relationship with, or tacitly endorses organizations which engage in terrorist activities, Ahmed's voice at the presentation was one of reason, conciliation and impressive judgment.

He fully acknowledged the intended purposes of the Patriot Act, and Perez has often remarked to me that the current accusations against Ahmed, when measured against our experiences with him, constitute the highest form of absurdity.

I was disappointed at the Anti-Defamation League letter, which included the suggestion that to "understand" certain organizations (Hamas, Hezbollah) is to condone their terrorist activities.

I recently represented a man in Jacksonville whose telephone calls were intercepted by the FBI, made from Jacksonville to Beirut, Lebanon. The phone calls purportedly authorized the release of weapons held in Beirut to Hezbollah leadership, which constituted a serious crime under United States law.

I felt obligated to study and learn as much as I could about the origins, dynamics and methods of Hezbollah. As with Ahmed, I cannot fathom that my "understanding" of Hezbollah could be translated into an endorsement by me of Hezbollah terrorist acts.

As the German minister charged with ridding that nation of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists of the 1960s and 1970s urged his anti-terror commission, there would never be a solution to these terrorist activities until Germany understands what drives the behavior.

One of my partners at the Bedell law firm often uses a phrase, "To a hammer, everything is a nail."

Human beings of all races, ethnicities and faiths are not hammers, and others are all not nails.



Muslims nearly impossible to elect in Bible Belt

Florida Times Union, May 2, 2010

Muslims nearly impossible to elect in Bible Belt
By Jeff Brumley

The smart money says a snowball has a better chance you-know-where than a Muslim has being elected to statewide or national office from Northeast Florida - or anywhere else in the Bible Belt.

If the recent hullabaloo surrounding Parvez Ahmed's appointment to the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission didn't confirm that, maybe this does: Observers of Southern politics and religion can't recall a single Muslim candidate running for major office.

"I thought about it, and I couldn't come up with any names," said Ken Wald, a political science professor and expert on religion and politics at the University of Florida.

"Of all the places, the South is the least likely for that to happen," Wald said.
The reason: The region is dominated by evangelical Protestantism, "a religion that has intellectual difficulties with religious diversity."

Not that the rest of the country is welcoming Muslims into public office with open arms.

There are just two Muslims in Congress. The first, from Minnesota, was elected to the House in 2006. The other is from Indiana. Both candidates caused consternation among conservatives nationwide.

"Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies," commentator Glenn Beck asked then Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "I'm not accusing you of being an enemy, but that's the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way."
Sadie Fields, executive director of the Georgia Christian Alliance, said similar questions would plague any Muslim running for office in the South.

"The real stumbling block would be the trust factor," she said. "In light of the threats to our national security that occur on a semi-regular basis, I think it would be very difficult for a confessing Muslim to convince Christians to vote for them."
Evangelicals in particular feel that way about Islam, which relegates Jesus to mere prophet status, as well as Mormons, who have added to the Bible with the Book of Mormon.

The latter explains why Mormon Mitt Romney had to repeatedly speak about his faith during his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2008.

"Some Christians are concerned that Mormons describe themselves as Christians," Wald said. "You used to hear the same thing about Catholics from evangelicals, who more or less felt the pope was the Antichrist."

But unlike Catholics, Mormons and Muslims have yet to enjoy the political clout that comes with being the largest single religious group in the nation, Wald added. Both groups typically rank well below other religious groups - but still above atheists - in political polls.

In Florida, a Muslim running for governor would have trouble raising money or getting their message past the accusations of connections to terrorist groups.
"If you had a Muslim who was born and bred in the United States, achieved success personally and had a record as a military hero, that is what it would take to dispel some of the images that are out there," Wald said.

Questions of national loyalty

Mario Piscatella doesn't think it would take that sterling of a resume for a Muslim to win office in Florida or anywhere else in the South.
It's about convincing voters a candidate is best qualified to improve their communities, said the political consultant and veteran Democratic campaign manager from St. Johns County.

"If the candidate got into the race to spread their Islamic faith, that's probably going to be a tough race," Piscatella said. "If it's because roads are in disrepair, then that's what they should be talking about."

One piece of advice he'd give a Muslim candidate is to give up trying to win over evangelicals and others who are convinced all Muslims are terrorists. "Those folks who were against Parvez were never his to get."

That means not trying to emphasize values Muslims share with conservative Christians, like viewing gay marriage, divorce and abortion as immoral.

Stick to the main issues

If questions of national loyalty and terrorism are raised, the candidate should answer them and then move the discussion back to the economy, taxes, roads or whatever a community's main issues are, Piscatella said.

"If you have done those things right, the majority of the people aren't going to pay attention to the fact that you're a Muslim or a Jew or a black guy in a white district," he said. "They want to know what you can do for this country, this community or whatever you are running for."

Issues or not, a Muslim would have almost no chance getting elected in Duval County at the moment, said Marcella Washington, a political scientist at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

"That's not going to fly here in Jacksonville," she said. "The city has always been on the cusp of being extremely conservative when it comes to religion."
Washington is convinced the difficulty Ahmed faced resulted in part from his dark complexion and the fact he isn't American born.

"Any Arab-American can now sympathize with the plight of African-Americans," she said.

Coupled with the belief of some that "every single Muslim is an enemy" because of 9/11, getting elected to the mayor's office or City Council in Duval County "would be an uphill battle," Washington said.

'Going to take time'

Former Jacksonville mayor and state legislator Tommy Hazouri got a little taste of that when running for office in the 1980s and '90s.

Seeing the firestorm that engulfed Ahmed "brought me back to thinking of when I ran for mayor," said Hazouri, a Christian of Lebanese descent.

An opponent claimed an Arab could never win the mayor's office, a fact proven wrong by his 1987-1991 stint in the mayor's office and another 12 years in Tallahassee.
On another occasion, opponents doctored photographs of Hazouri, a current Duval County School Board member, to make him resemble former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"I would have hoped that we would have taken a giant step forward," he said. "I don't think we've come far enough."

"In an evangelical region, like the Bible Belt is, I think it would be very difficult for a confessing Muslim to get elected to office," said Fields of the Christian Alliance.

Such a candidate would at a minimum have to admit that 9/11 and the Fort Hood shootings were terrorist acts and then go a step further by publicly condemning them, Fields said.

The Rev. Larry Lowry of Jacksonville said evangelicals would also have deep concerns about that candidate's intentions, if any, to infuse legislation and government with Muslim values.

Conservative, born-again Christians will also want to know if the candidate "has any ties to any type of terrorist groups, and how do they feel about those kinds of things?" said Lowry, a local pastor and bishop of the Church of God of Prophecy's
Northeast Florida congregations.

One Muslim leader said the ongoing War on Terrorism has helped put all Muslims under a microscope that makes it hard for them to even be appointed to office as the Ahmed case demonstrated.

"Our only exposure in the media has been as terrorists," said Mohammad Ilyas, Southeastern president of the Islamic Circle of North America and a member of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. What's needed are education efforts and interfaith dialogue to chip away at the myth that all Muslims are extremists, he said.

In the near future, Muslim candidates for public office should include that kind of information in their campaigns.

But history, Ilyas said, proves this situation won't last forever. There was a time when Jews and blacks were considered largely unelectable in some parts of the country, but that is no longer the case.

For the time being, Muslims with political ambitions may have to aim low, seeking seats on school boards or city councils.

"It's moving forward," Ilyas said, "but it's going to take time.", (904) 359-4310

Perception of intolerance may carry economic price

Jacksonville leaders fear perception of intolerance may carry economic price

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By Deirdre Conner

In the room when the Jacksonville City Council debated the appointment of Parvez Ahmed, a Muslim scholar and university professor, there were a lot of people holding their breath.

Ben Warner, deputy director of the Jacksonville Community Council Inc., said he heard from many who said they just hoped the story wouldn't "get out" of Jacksonville.

"Everybody is just praying, 'Keep it off Drudge,'" he said, referring to The Drudge Report, a news aggregation site with a national following.

So far, the story hasn't gone national. But those fears illustrate a broader concern about the price of perception. If Jacksonville develops a reputation as being less tolerant, could it have deeper economic ramifications?

Throughout the Ahmed controversy that culminated in the April 27 meeting, many wondered whether it would tarnish the city's image. Already, the story had locals buzzing after Councilman Clay Yarborough told Times-Union columnist Mark Woods he would prefer gays not hold public office, and he wasn't sure whether Muslims should either.

Then, during the meeting, another councilman, Don Redman, called Ahmed to the podium and asked him to pray to his God, leading some in the audience to gasp audibly and sending a city attorney rushing to speak with Redman privately before he went any further.

Ahmed was confirmed on the city Human Rights Commission - though a third of the council opposed the appointment - leaving some to wonder whether they could exhale.

If the city wants to develop an international reputation to build economic engines such as the port or the Mayo Clinic, a welcoming face is necessary, said Matthew Corrigan, political science chairman at University of North Florida.

"There's a moral reason, but there's also an economic reason," he said.

Stories such as the Ahmed controversy or the failed renaming of Nathan B. Forrest High School can portray the city in a negative light. Whether it's fair or not, cities competing for businesses and talent can use that against Jacksonville, Corrigan said.

"You could argue there's more important things going on at Forrest High than the name right now," he said. "But from an outsiders' perspective, having it named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan is going to be used against us."

Perceptions of intolerance and crime are listed as a possible threat in Visit Jacksonville's most recent strategic plan: "Crisis communications issues such as ... race relations are negatively impacting the perception of the city as a safe and welcoming destination."

Yet Lyndsay Rossman, spokeswoman for Visit Jacksonville, said race relations "never come up" as an issue for visitors.

"We don't look at it as deterring people from coming to Jacksonville," she said.

Rossman said the issue was included in the plan simply to be sensitive to Jacksonville's past. She pointed to an initiative that recruits multicultural groups to hold conventions in Jacksonville. Bookings by such groups through the visitors' bureau jumped from eight in 2005 to 46 in 2008. There were another 18 groups booked for 2009, after the economic collapse, and 29 groups are set for this year.

"We just haven't been seeing race relations ... being an issue," she said.

One of the chief questions for cities is how race relations and economic prosperity are linked - and which causes which, said David Denslow, an economist with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Florida.

"You can look at places in the South that have dwelled on these issues," he said. "Do they stay tied up in race because they are poor? Or does it make them stay backward?"

For his part, Denslow sees Jacksonville becoming a more progressive place.

Still, recent events have some locals worried.

Diane Brunet-Garcia, president of Brunet-Garcia Advertising, which does a lot of multicultural marketing work, said she is concerned about recruiting creative professionals to the city and keeping homegrown talent.

"I look at the young people who I think naturally are more tolerant," she said. "They see issues like this happening in their hometown, and why would they want to stay here?"

She said she followed the Ahmed appointment closely and compared it to a small-scale version of the uproar over the immigration law in Arizona, which has been decried as racist and led to the call for boycotts of the state.

"I fear for the same kind of situation for Jacksonville," Brunet-Garcia said. "It does have a very negative effect on our brand."

And with the rise of the Internet, such issues have a longer shelf life and a wider reach.

When Redman asked Ahmed to pray at the podium, local tweeters - those using the social media site Twitter tend more toward the young and well-educated - reacted with horror. Two days after the meeting, dozens of tweets could be found on Twitter's search engine calling the incident embarrassing or shameful. Liberal and conservative blogs picked up on the issue, weighing in on both sides.

Redman later apologized for his actions, but did not regret his "no" vote.

The recent Ahmed controversy had Brunet-Garcia, who has worked extensively with the local Hispanic chamber, feeling disheartened after what she called many years of progress in making Jacksonville more progressive and tolerant.

"The degree of polarization and anger really took me by surprise," she said.

UNF President John Delaney called the Ahmed appointment a teachable moment. On the one hand, there are uglier elements, he said, such as a cartoon circulating that depicted Ahmed as a terrorist and his City Council supporters in burqas.

On the other hand, there was a time in Jacksonville when Ahmed would never have been nominated to the Human Rights Commission, Delaney said.

"I think it's going to blow over," he said of the story.

Even if it does, effects of the past linger. Perceptions of race could have an impact on tourism or recruiting minority business owners, said Carlton Robinson, president of the First Coast African American Chamber of Commerce.

"There are some things of a historic nature that maybe our region has not been able to shed," he said.

But Robinson said he's also seen more people working to help Jacksonville shed that perception, such as greater cooperation among chambers of commerce and efforts to increase civic engagement.

Ultimately, Robinson said, such discussions are needed, especially when asking whether race plays a part in decisions.

"Many times race may be a secondary or third factor ... but if we don't get an explanation, we're left to assume," he said., (904) 359-4504