Who? Ahmed Bedier, 33, is the executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Sphere of influence: Bedier heads up the second-largest CAIR group in the nation. The media regularly quotes him on Muslim-related events, and religious groups frequently tap him for educational lectures on Islam. Bedier also co-hosts True Talk, a weekly radio program that covers Arab and Muslim issues on 88.5 WMNF.
How he makes a difference: Since becoming a CAIR director in 2003, the Egyptian-born Bedier has acted as the voice of Muslims locally and across the state. He has built relationships between other religious leaders and civil rights activists. Evens critics praise Bedier for his willingness to enter into dialogue on sensitive issues.
CL: Why are you seemingly the only voice for Muslims in Tampa Bay?
Bedier: There is a great deal of fear [in the Muslim community]. There are a lot of people who work with our organization and volunteer on many levels, but when it comes to being a public face and commenting on sensitive issues, people are not comfortable enough to do that yet. Especially after 9/11, there is a lot of sense of 'let's stay under the radar and not rock the boat' kind of attitude. Especially when you're talking about the people who are already established and older and have their professions. They're afraid that being a public face will hurt their business or their career. For the youth, parents are reluctant for their kids to speak on issues so it doesn't affect their future careers. And they're worried for their safety. That's always been the challenge — to really empower the community and [CAIR] members to feel comfortable enough and have the courage to go out there and speak on these types of issues and be ambassadors of the community themselves. I think we're making headway. We have several programs in the works right now training public speakers as well as people for media-type activities.
Do you feel compelled to answer any public comments concerning Muslims?
We don't feel like we have to answer every single one. Sometimes we have to choose our battles. Sometimes no response is an option if the person is not effective. We don't want to bring any more attention to a person who doesn't already have attention. But for the most part, we always feel like we have to document all anti-Muslim rhetoric.
What is the biggest issue facing the Muslim community in Tampa Bay?
The biggest issue right now is just the rise in hate directed at Muslims. And it's both in speech and in action. It's really concerning the amount of anti-Muslim rhetoric repeated over, for example, the airwaves. Even though it's national syndication radio that's creating a lot of this rhetoric, it's having an impact locally. Also we're noticing a rise in houses of worship using hateful, anti-Muslim sermons and other things. That is a pressing issue for us because we feel that is translating into hate crimes and putting our community in danger.
Do you feel your efforts have been successful in making Tampa Bay a more tolerant place for Muslims?
I think it is becoming more tolerant. There are positive signs and negative signs. Obviously these arson situations are disturbing. [Bedier explains there have been two Muslim victims of arson in the past year.] But overall, I think we're moving forward to becoming a more diverse community. ... At the same time, the minority, who is critical, is speaking louder and louder. We can't allow them to steer the progress in a negative way.
Critics frequently accuse CAIR of not taking a stand against Muslim extremism and terrorism. Is this true?
That's not true. If you look at our website, we have a dedicated section on our stance against terrorism. In 2004 and 2005, we coordinated the campaign "Not In the Name of Islam," an international campaign against terrorism in the name of Islam. We've even produced television commercials that reiterate our stands against terrorism and that terrorism has nothing to do with the faith, and those who carry out terrorism are criminals. Out of all the Muslim organizations, we've been the most outspoken against acts of violence against innocent people and acts of terrorism.
How do you get your message across?
The most important thing is building those relationships and not just simply be a grandstander who makes comments when the TV cameras are on. By building those relationships we've been able to build bridges in many communities and reach out to all segments of the society, even places where there wasn't dialogue before. We're starting dialogue with the Jewish community, for example. We don't have to agree on all the issues, but just simply that we're talking about issues is a great start.
Who are some non-Muslims in the Tampa Bay area that support your message?
Rob Lorei from WMNF and the progressive community in Tampa has been supportive of Muslim issues. Also progressive Christians, those who are into justice. Pastor Warren Clark of the Methodist Church of Tampa, he has been a big supporter. There is a group called H.O.P.E., an organization of pastors and clergy. So those are the kind of circles we oftentimes go to for support and to get the word out there.