University of Florida Muslims fear Koran burning may spark violence

GAINESVILLE -- Before she left her Miami home to return to the University of Florida this fall, Wajiha Akhtar's parents gave her some unusual advice: stay indoors as much as possible and, whatever happens, don't go near the Koran burners.

"I was fearful, " says Akhtar, 24, a graduate student in epidemiology who says she never had any concerns as a Muslim here until recently. "Will we get singled out?"

Far from Ground Zero, where debate over a proposed Islamic center is still roiling, a Gainesville church has aroused anger and tension among Florida's growing Muslim community and caught the world's attention -- from international headlines to rallies in Indonesia and India -- because of its pistol-toting pastor's plan to ignite a bonfire of Korans on 9/11 to protest what he calls a religion "of the devil."

Fearing violence, some Muslims are leaving town on the Sept. 11 weekend to avoid problems.

Last week in South Florida, 13 mosque leaders issued a call to the region's Muslims for nonviolence in anticipation of high emotions over the desecration of Islam's holy book. At UF, administrators have said they're afraid the protest at the small Dove World Outreach Center will mar the school's image, while international students and prospective foreign applicants have also expressed concern.

"Things have escalated, " says Ismail ibn Ali, president of the university's Islam on Campus student organization, which serves about 600 Muslim students in this city with 1,500 Muslims, a population that's slowly grown over the last 30 years.

The city's two mosques, already packed in recent weeks for the holy Ramadan month, have become the site of frequent discussions between Muslims about how -- or if -- to react to the church, whose pastor also plans to burn copies of the Talmud, a sacred Jewish text.

"We're hoping people will not protest because it might turn into a volatile situation, " says Ali, 21, a biochemistry student from Doral. "But people still want to do something to show the positive side of Islam."

The unexpected attention toward a city that's little known beyond its university and football team has caused an identity crisis. Gainesville, a relatively liberal and religiously diverse college town in conservative North Central Florida -- it elected its first openly gay mayor this year and has made strides in interfaith relations -- is trying to protect its image with mixed results.

Last week, 20 Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy gathered on the steps of City Hall to denounce the nondenominational Dove church, whose 50 members regularly parade through the UF campus with T-shirts and signs in red ink declaring "Islam is of the devil."

Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe has declared Sept. 11 as "Interfaith Solidarity Day."

Administrators and counselors have been asked to attend a special panel discussion at UF to listen to concerns of international students about church members, whom UF President Bernie Machen has called "purveyors of harm."

A ad-hoc group called Gainesville Muslim Initiative has planned several counter events, including an outreach to the homeless on Sept. 11, a "Koran 101" lecture at UF and "Know Your Muslim Neighbor" open houses at the city's mosques later in the month.

Muslims in South Florida and across the nation are planning similar efforts in reaction to what's happening in Gainesville and broader perceptions of anti-Muslim sentiment -- from the most extreme opposition to an Islamic center near Ground Zero to protests over mosque projects and attacks on Muslims elsewhere.

Despite those efforts, "overseas, the story is seen as 'Christian and Americans plan on burning the Koran, ' " says Hassan Baber, 21, a business student who has had several relatives from Pakistan ask him about what's happening. His experience reflects that of many foreign-born Muslim students interviewed for this report.

"They say, 'It's unbelievable the type of things going on there. You have to tell them the truth or do something, ' " says Baber, who will be staying in town on Sept. 11 to join Muslim students to feed the homeless.

On Saturday, 3,000 Muslim Indonesians rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta in one of six simultaneous demonstrations across the nation against the Koran burning, echoing a smaller protests in late August in that country and India.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference, a Saudi Arabia-based group representing dozens of Muslim states, has warned that Koran burning will stir up "anger across the Muslim world and provoke unrest."

"This city is flourishing. There are new initiatives in technology and research, but this is how we get on the map?" says Akhtar, the epidemiology student from Miami.

Since returning to school, she says she is less fearful and has been able to go on about her life as before. But when she talks to relatives in Maryland and California, "They say 'Gainesville? Are you safe there?' "

Most Muslims say Terry Jones, Dove Center's pastor, has a constitutional right to burn their holy book.

But, "people are feeling very overwhelmed with the amount of anti-Islamic rhetoric recently, " says Aisha Musa, an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Florida International University.

The stakes are high: five years ago, a Newsweek report caused a stir when it said that American interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet to rattle a detainee. The news, later retracted, set off days of deadly anti-American rioting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The same year, a Danish newspaper's printing of cartoons of Muhammad -- Islam prohibits physical depictions of its prophet -- also ignited protests in several Muslim countries.

Muslims fear Jones' church could spark similar alarm.

The Gainesville police department is preparing to beef up patrols on Sept. 11, according to a spokesman. The agency has been getting calls for weeks from concerned residents about the church and possible backlash.

At Dove Center, Jones also has received several death threats.

The city has denied the church a permit for the demonstration, saying burning books is against the city's fire code, and the church's insurance company canceled its policy in late July after Jones announced his plans.

Jones says he'll carry on.

"I'm not doing this because it's popular, " says Jones, who has lost about half of his congregation as his actions have become more extreme since he first put up "Islam is of the Devil" signs in the church yard last summer.

Despite the decline in Gainesville, the church -- its anti-Islamic thread went largely ignored outside Florida until this year -- has gained thousands of online followers.

Some Muslims believe there could be a silver lining to the controversy.

"People have been asking me lots of more questions about Islam, " said Mona Younas, a pre-med student from Kendall, after attending evening prayers recently at the Islamic Center of Gainesville, a mosque adjacent to campus that Muslims have used for 20 years.

On campus, she regularly helps distribute Islamic literature and fields questions on topics from the role of women in Islam to jihad and terrorism.

Sitting in the parking lot of the two-story building nestled between a gas station and a fraternity house, she expressed a cautious optimism for Islam's future.

"We've come far since Sept. 11. There's an understanding of differences, of faiths and at UF, you can be who you are without being afraid, " said Younas, 21, who had slipped on a silver head scarf over her typically uncovered hair to pray.

"But this Koran burning is exactly the kind of reason my parents would never let me wear the head scarf full time. As soon as you step outside of campus, the feeling suddenly changes. There is still an uneasiness."