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Muslim candidate for state House tackles religion issue head-on

Z.J. Hafeez, left, campaigns at the Forest Hills Community Center in Tampa. His campaign focuses on a range of Florida issues.

JANET ZINK | Times

Z.J. Hafeez, left, campaigns at the Forest Hills Community Center in Tampa. His campaign focuses on a range of Florida issues.

TAMPA — As Z.J. Hafeez worked the room at a recent candidate forum in Tampa, he shook hands with a man who leaned in and peered at his name tag.

"Z. J. Hafeez," he read slowly. "That's a funny name."

Hafeez gets that reaction a lot as he campaigns for the District 67 state House seat that represents parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

People often ask, "Are you American?"

"I tell them I'm American," Hafeez said. "And then they ask where are you from, and I say the Tampa Bay area. And then they say, 'No, no. Where are you from?' So I say, 'Okay. I was born in England.' "

He said he knows what they're really asking: What is your ethnicity or religion?

For the record, Hafeez, 26, is a Muslim of Pakistani descent. He moved to Florida when he was 3 years old with his parents, both physicians, who were born in Pakistan.

He attended public schools, earned a law degree at Georgetown University and now works as a lawyer for a health insurance company.

He describes himself as religious, attending a mosque at least once a week and following the Muslim tradition of praying five times a day.

He also is a rarity: a Muslim running for public office in Florida during an election season marked by seething anger over a planned mosque near ground zero and a controversy about burning the Koran.

• • •

Hafeez, a Democrat, has downplayed his religion for most of his campaign.

But that changed last week, when it seemed to Hafeez that a terrifying wave of Islamophobia was sweeping America.

He released a statement that talked about America's principle of religious freedom. He defended Islam, saying it is about "peace and brotherhood, not violence and radicalism."

"We must not blame Islam or Muslim-Americans for the actions of a small group of radical extremists," he said.

Hafeez said both Muslims and non-Muslims pressed him to speak out about the issue.

Was it the right move?

Ahmed Bedier doesn't think so. He's the founder of United Voices for America, a group that encourages all minorities and immigrants, particularly Muslims, to get involved in the political process.

Coming from a Muslim, Hafeez's statement merely stated the obvious, Bedier said.

"He's already facing challenges. Don't exacerbate that by calling more attention to them," Bedier said.

Still, Bedier said he is delighted that Hafeez is running for office.

Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population. Most of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants who came from countries where democracy is not the norm, Bedier said.

"Traditionally, immigrants, they're more concerned about their individual future and financial stability and surviving before they start thinking about public policy," he said. "Running for office is not something they aspire to do."

It's unclear how many Muslims hold elected office in the U.S. The two best known are U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Andre Carson, a Democrat from Indiana.

Their candidacies were helped by their Anglo-sounding names, Bedier said. That's not the case with Hafeez, whose initials stand for Zeeshan Javed.

"He has a unique name, which adds to the challenge," Bedier said. "It's not like his last name is Johnson."

• • •

Hafeez said he hasn't experienced any prejudice on the campaign trail.

"No one has spit on me, yelled at me. Nothing. At least not to my face," he said.

At campaign events, he shakes hands, delivers talking points and answers questions about his "funny name." Those questions typically lead to a positive discussion about religion, he said.

Hafeez said he was motivated to get into politics, in part, because so few Muslims are.

That has been noticed in Muslim and Pakistani communities. He has raised about $70,000 for his campaign, with most of the donations coming from people who share his cultural background.

But his platform addresses issues important to all Floridians.

If elected, he promises to promote the use of solar power, eliminate unnecessary sales tax exemptions, make education funding a priority and push for tort reform to limit frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits.

He knows, though, that he faces a tough election in November, regardless of his ethnicity.

Hafeez has two opponents. John Studebaker, 38, is running with no party affiliation and has raised about $3,300. Republican Greg Steube, 32, has raised nearly $250,000.

They're running in a district where 46 percent of registered voters are Republican — a 16 percent edge over Democrats. The seat has been in Republican hands for 24 years.

Despite his long chances, Hafeez said his candidacy should send a message to Americans wary of Muslims.

"Hopefully, I will be a positive example and show we are positive productive members of society that want to make a difference like anyone else," he said.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Muslim candidate for state House tackles religion issue head-on 09/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 5:53pm]
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