Capitol Muslim Day Balances Concern and Hope

A group of Muslim activists from across the state is working very hard to help bring Florida's Islamic community into the political process by educating young people and teaching all Muslims how the political process works and giving them opportunities to directly engage in state and local government. No one plays a bigger part in that effort than Ahmed Bedier, formerly with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and current director of United Voices for America, one-time slander target of U.S. Senate candidate Adam Hasner, and key organizer behind Muslim Capitol Day this past Tuesday. More than 100 activists and students joined Bedier and other organizers for a day-long event that involved education, camaraderie, interaction with legislators, good food and activism. Others have written about the specifics of the event, so I wanted to focus on the political aspects.

The overall theme of the event seemed to be a double focus on concern and hope. There was much concern over two bills working their way through the legislature at the moment. The anti-Sharia copycat bill, SB 1294, was offensive to most of the attendees and speakers because of its origins as a bill that specifically targeted Muslims as an "enemy" and as a group to be singled out, despite constitutional assurances to the contrary. American Civil Liberties Union speakers and others in attendance pointed out that the bill, as currently written, would go well beyond attacking Muslims and could have detrimental effects on people of all religions and on basic things like contract law and individual freedoms, including the way people dress and eat.

The other legislation that brought much concern to the Muslims and allies in attendance were the copycat bills based on the Arizona anti-illegal immigrant law. Most pointed out that these bills were likely to increase racial profiling based on skin color and appearance and that that would likely have an additional impact on Muslims, particularly those that wear traditional clothing and headgear.

At the same time that concern was expressed over these bills, many of the speakers and attendees were hopeful. Bedier announced that Rep. Daryl Rouson was going to recognize Muslim Capitol Day from the floor of the Florida House, something that had never happened before, and a far cry from a few years ago when Hasner tried to stop Muslims from even having a day at the capitol. Bedier was also thorough and encouraging when constantly reminding the activists on hand to visit their legislators and lobby them and made sure that any legislator that came in the room was lobbied as well. A bipartisan, but Democratic-leaning, group of legislators stopped by to visit and speak to the group.

-Rep. Jim Waldman (D): Said he was proud to be a Jewish man supporting Florida's Muslims. He encouraged activists to go talk to legislators about Islam and issues that are important to Muslims. Waldman came out against SB 1294.

-Rep. Daryl Rouson (D): Was recognized as someone who had attended the event in the past and fought on behalf of Muslims in the legislature. Rouson greeted the attendees with a traditional Islamic greeting and did it with sincerity. He said the fact that the group showed up at the capitol excited him as a great example of the diversity that makes America great. He did also suggest that "assimilation" is a beautiful thing as well, which I found very questionable.

-Rep. Dennis Baxley (R): As the former head of the Christian Coalition of Florida, I thought it was strange that Baxley was in attendance, what with his former organization's unfriendliness to Muslims. Baxley's speech made no specific reference to Muslims or Islam or any of the bills that concern Muslims. In fact, I'll wager he's a supporter of both SB 1294 and the immigration bill. So while it was honorable of him to make the symbolic appearance at the event, it'd be much more honorable for him to oppose bills that will harm the community he's speaking to.

-Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D): Thompson rushed in and had to leave quickly because of legislative duties. She gave encouragement to the attendees to lobby and have their voices heard, but her speech was short and generic.

I also spotted Rep. Hazelle Rogers at the event, but she didn't get a chance to speak while I was there. Earlier in the day, Gov. Rick Scott was there, but from what I understand (I missed his speech), he gave his traditional "jobs" stump speech and said little to nothing about Muslims, Islam or the bills of concern.

The overall point seems to be that while the legislature is starting to take Muslims more seriously, there is still a long way to go and those on th left are more likely to reach out to Muslims and more likely to oppose legislation that would harm Muslims. That's something that everyone should remember on election day.

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