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Islamic civil rights leader to speak at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. interfaith service

Hassan Shibly, CEO of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida, says the U.S. must learn from its past.
Church members hold hands and sing during the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service. [CHRIS URSO  |  Tampa Bay Times (2011)]
Church members hold hands and sing during the annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service. [CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times (2011)]
Published Jan. 16

ST. PETERSBURG – Hassan Shibly, CEO of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida, recalls what happened when he met for coffee with a group of Muslim businessmen in Tampa for the Republican National Convention in 2012.

Someone in the McDonald’s restaurant overheard them speaking Arabic and called police, who showed up at Shibly’s home and his CAIR office.

But times have changed since, he said. Shibly, 33, who leads Florida CAIR’s efforts to help non-Muslims understand Islam and promote civil discourse, said the organization trained nearly 5,000 law enforcement officers in the Tampa Bay area last year.

He added that about 25 percent of those who receive help from the civil rights group aren’t Muslim. “Somebody who is anti-Semitic, in my eyes, is anti-Muslim, as well," he said. "We have to fight all hatred together.”

Sunday, Shibly will be the keynote speaker at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service at First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg. This year’s theme is, “Vision for Humanity in 2020.”

Hassan Shibly, CEO of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida. [Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida]

“I think Dr. Martin Luther King’s message is needed now more than ever in the United Sates, at a time when our political leaders are trying to pit one human against another human, one American against another American, on account of race, or religion or national origin,” said Shibly, a civil rights lawyer who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y.

King taught that all people are equal in the sight of God, he said.

Sunday’s service, sponsored by Interfaith Tampa Bay, has been held at different houses of worship through the years. Most recently it was at Congregation B’nai Israel of St. Petersburg. The year before, it was held at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle.

Keynote speakers have included Dr. Roy Kaplan, former executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for Tampa Bay and author of The Myth of Post-Racial America. Another recent speaker was the Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches and whose interfaith work includes climate, healthcare, justice reform, refugees and civic engagement.

Related: Dr. Roy Kaplan is keynote speaker at 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. interfaith service.

Chair of Sunday’s service is Imam Abdul Karim Ali, whose father, Joseph E. Savage, organized the civil rights era sanitation strike in St. Petersburg and after whom the city’s sanitation complex is named.

Ali, who also is vice president of Interfaith Tampa Bay, said it is the second organization to sponsor the service and has been doing so since 2015. “We try to move it around throughout the city, because we feel that the message that was presented by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a message of peace, justice and fairness for everyone, so we feel that our job is to continue to promote that,” he said.

Ali also was part of that first sponsoring group, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Organization Inc., which holds an essay contest as part of the King events. The winner of the essay and oratorical contest will be presented during the interfaith service.

Shibly is the son of Syrian immigrants, who, his online biography states, instilled in him “a strong determination to enhance interfaith understanding and defend civil rights.”

It’s important to remember America’s “troubling past so we can learn from it and grow from it,” said Shibly, who has headed CAIR’s Florida chapter for about eight years. “America is a great nation because of the people who have spoken truth to power and called for equality of humanity.”

If you go

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service, 4 p.m. Sunday, First Baptist Church, 1900 Gandy Blvd. N, St. Petersburg.

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