Ever since 14 people were killed in what President Barack Obama characterized as “an act of terrorism” in Southern California, Pinecrest physician Sabriya Ishoof’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Friends want to make sure she’s OK, and remind her, a practicing Muslim, to remain vigilant.
In Pembroke Pines, attorney Yasir Billoo is equally concerned about the anti-Muslim backlash. He has asked his wife, Sanober, to stop wearing her traditional Pakistani clothes in public — typically loose trousers with a long-sleeved shirt.
“It’s been surreal,” Billoo, 37, said of the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric engulfing the country in recent weeks, punctuated Monday by comments uttered by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
Trump, already known for his eyebrow-raising anti-immigrant statements, called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the country until leaders “can figure out what’s going on.” The statement has drawn praise from supporters and condemnation from critics, including top Republicans and religious and immigrant leaders.
There is a fear.
Yasir Billoo, Pembroke Pines attorney
For followers of Islam, however, Trump’s statement and subsequent applause in some quarters were just the latest reasons why they’re feeling an intense fear.
“It’s like I am listening to a national conversation about someone else, and then processing that it’s about my family and me,” Billoo said. “Right now Muslim leaders are telling the average Muslim to be vigilant and to be careful, to try not to stand out. There is a fear.”
The heightened fears come not just from Trump’s rhetoric but follow last month’s Islamic State-led terrorist attacks in Paris, and the mass shooting last week in San Bernardino, California, by a Muslim husband and wife. The attacks have led to growing anti-Muslim sentiments that South Florida leaders say overlook all the good deeds they’ve done.
We take one step forward and then something happens and it takes us two steps backward.
Shabbir Motorwala of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations
“In South Florida the Muslim community has done so much good work, starting free clinics and feeding the homeless,” said Shabbir Motorwala of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations. “It takes one person for all that good work to be lost.”
After the San Bernardino attack and the reactions, Motorwala wondered in a frustration-filled email whether all their efforts to tell the world about the good side of Islam, sometimes at the expense of their families, were worth it. His organization has strong bonds with local law enforcement organizations.
“We take one step forward, and then something happens and it takes us two steps backward,” he wrote in an email.
Motorwala and Imam Zakaria Badat of the Islamic Association of Tri-County in Davie said that while there is fear in the Muslim community, there have been no reports of anyone being physically harmed.
North Palm Beach Police did arrest Joshua Killets this week for allegedly breaking several windows at the Islamic Center of Palm Beach. In Philadelphia a pig’s head was found at a mosque’s doorsteps, and last month protesters holding rifles held an anti-Muslim demonstration in front of a mosque in Irving, Texas.
There is a distinct difference, the leaders note, between Islamist militants of the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and those who have no ties to extremism and are followers of Islam. Still those differences are often lost with Americans as they hear about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, commonly refereed to as ISIS or ISIL, commit acts of violence in the name of Islam.
“ISIL is not an Islamic organization; they’re a bunch of thugs,” said Badat.
The United States shouldn’t be a place for divisive rhetoric.
Brian Siegal, regional director for the American Jewish Committee
Following the Paris attacks, Obama proposed resettling some fleeing Syrian refugees after lengthy background checks. Dozens of state governors, including Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, denounced the plan. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a GOP-authored bill restricting admission of Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
“Singling out any ethnic or faith group is very dangerous,” said Brian Siegal, regional director for the American Jewish Committee. “The United States shouldn’t be a place for divisive rhetoric.”
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said anti-Islamic sentiment in the country is worse than it was after Sept. 11.
“It used to be that Islamophobia was at the fringes of society,” he said. “Trump and [Republican hopeful] Ben Carson are bringing it into the mainstream. There is a real fear in the American Muslim community as to where we are going, and what our place is.”
After the San Bernadino attacks, the Muslim community raised more than $100,000 for families of the 14 dead and 21 wounded.
Daniel Alvarez, director of the Center for Muslim World Studies at Florida International University, says the political rhetoric is disturbing: “It legitimizes some of the hatred and xenophobia. It plays into the hands of the terrorists. It’s the West against Islam. Here is Trump serving them on a silver platter.”
Alvarez says Muslims and non-Muslims need to speak out more, and compares Trump’s words to those used against Jews in Nazi Germany.
“It’s very dangerous to go down that path of fear and ignorance,” he said. “Stand next to a Muslim and say, ‘We will not allow this person to be harmed.’ ”
Ishoof, an obstetrician-gynecologist, sees the fear playing out at home and at work. A few days ago she delivered a boy to a mother from Dubai, who was too scared to say her child’s name was Mohammad.
Even Ishoof’s son Hamzah, 11, comes to her with questions.
“It’s been a nightmare,” she said. “He’s asked me two times in the past two weeks ‘Why do they say Muslims are bad people?’ I see him in the family room playing with his Legos and look up at the news . . . and have this little pensive look on his face.”
Ishoof, 42, says she tells her son that people who hold anti-Islamic views are ignorant, and he should be proud of his faith.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said it’s time for cooler heads to prevail. Last week, Wenski wrote to Scott objecting to his opposition to Obama’s proposal to resettle Syrian refugees.
“This is not the right thing to do, to scapegoat refugees who are fleeing from terror and labeling them terrorists,” Wenski said. “The Christian thing to do, the humane thing to do, is to give protection to those who are fleeing from imminent danger.”
As for Trump, Wenski warned against creating “a lynching mentality that causes innocent people to suffer.”