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New study finds Florida is a hot spot for Islamophobia

Laila Abdelaziz, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, announces the findings of a new report on Islamophobia at a news conference in Tampa on Tuesday. [TONY MARERRO | Times]
Published Jun. 29, 2016

TAMPA — An Inverness gun store owner declares his shop a "Muslim-free zone."

A Seminole man calls two Pinellas County mosques and threatens to firebomb the buildings and shoot their occupants.

Critics who consider a high school textbook too favorable toward Islam spark a successful effort to change Florida law governing how books are selected.

These are some of the Florida examples in a new study that concludes hostility toward Muslims is on the rise in the United States. The state has emerged as a hot spot for Islamophobic activity, according to the study by the Center for Race and Gender at the University of California at Berkeley and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"For the mere fact of their religious beliefs, their names, their skin colors and whether they wear something on their head or not, people are being attacked," Laila Abdelaziz, legislative and government affairs director with the Council on American-Islamic Relation in Florida, said Tuesday at a news conference announcing the study's findings.

"Their safety is at risk and this causes individual trauma and community trauma."

The 80-page report, titled "Confronting Fear," tells of nine key findings, including these:

• There were 78 incidents targeting mosques in the United States in 2015, the highest number since record-keeping started in 2009. Five were in Florida.

• There are now 74 groups in what the report calls the "Islamophobia network," an increase from 69 in 2013. Several have roots in Florida.

• Anti-Islam bills have been passed in 10 states, including two in Florida.

The study defines Islamophobia as "a contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure."

CAIR opponents mentioned in the report counter that the group is using bully tactics to silence critics who are voicing valid concerns about the dangers of radical Islam.

"They want to destroy the capabilities in this country to defend ourselves from the fringe in their groups," said David Caton, founder of the Tampa-based Florida Family Association. "Rather than root out these people, they'd rather label and brand others."

The reported incidents at the mosques ranged in severity from a pig's head left outside one site in Philadelphia to the shooting and firebombing of a mosque in Coachella, Calif.

One widely reported case noted in the study involved Martin Alan Schnitzler of Seminole, who called the Islamic Center of St. Petersburg after the Paris terrorist attacks, threatening to firebomb the building and "shoot whoever is there in the head." Schnitzler made similar threats in a call to the Islamic Society of Pinellas County. He was sentenced to a year in federal prison after pleading guilty to obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs.

The study described a core network of at least 33 groups "whose primary purpose is to promote prejudice against, or hatred of, Islam and Muslims." Between 2008 and 2013, the groups had access to more than $205 million to spread their messages, the study found.

Among them is the Florida Family Association. Founded by Caton in 1987, the conservative group has launched campaigns throughout the country and is a frequent CAIR critic.

Caton made local headlines in 2012 when he urged Hillsborough County school officials to end visits by Hassan Shibly, CAIR's Florida director. Caton contended that Shibly is a defender of radical Islamic organizations and clerics, a claim Shibly denied.

The study concluded that the Caton group "employs email pressure campaigns in an effort to compel businesses to adhere to anti-Islam viewpoints." Caton said it merely urges Americans to speak up if they sense a threat.

"Many of my peers believe the point is to put a bull's-eye on people like me and others who are vocal about valid concerns in this country," Caton said.

The study targeted two Florida laws as examples of "religious ignorance and intolerance." Both were sponsored by Sen. Alan Hays, an Umatilla Republican, and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

The report includes an excerpt from literature that Hays distributed in the run-up to the vote on a bill that bars the use of foreign laws in family court.

"Our religious, political and peaceful way of life is under attack by Islam and Sharia law," the literature read. "Save my generation from this ideology that is invading our country and masquerading as a 'religion.' "

Hays, who did not return a message left at his office Tuesday, also sponsored a bill that would have eliminated the state's role in adopting school textbooks. The effort came after a divisive battle over a world history textbook in Volusia County that critics said had a pro-Islam bias.

The version signed by Scott made the school district board responsible for picking materials but left the option to select from a state-adopted list.

"Concerned citizens, I feel, deserve to hold us accountable for how their money is being spent and how their students are being educated," Hays said at the time.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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