Nezar Hamze of CAIR Florida provides safety training at Masjid Jamaat ul Muttaqeen in 2016. CAIR Photo
It was a Saturday evening in early May when the leader of a mosque in South Florida checked a 40-second voicemail on his cell phone from an unidentified number. He was out of town but was the emergency contact for the Masjid Jamaat ul Muttaqeen mosque in Pembroke Pines. That evening, the mosque was expecting about 200 people for a gathering to prepare for the holy month of Ramadhan.
The Ameer – Arabic for leader – figured anyone calling with a real emergency would leave a voicemail.
When he clicked on the message, a male voice growled out of the cell phone’s speaker: There was a bomb inside the mosque; the man had the detonator.
The Ameer’s next three calls were: to the Pembroke Pines police department, to a friend in town who would be attending the function, and to a Muslim civil rights organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“Where’s Allah now?” the man in the voicemail had said.
CAIR publishes an annual report on the status of civil rights for American Muslims, which serves as a benchmark of the data. This year the report is titled simply “Targeted,” and came out in April of this year. The 57-page document is considered to be the only of its kind and compiles statistics, testimonies and analysis of anti-Muslim incidents, hate crimes and Islamophobic rhetoric nationwide.
The CAIR report says that a national Islamophobic sentiment has emboldened people to express their anti-Muslim bias.
“Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, both prior to and during the course of his presidency…provided a veneer of legitimacy to bigotry in the public sphere,” it reads.
In just the last year, CAIR recorded a 15 percent increase in hate crimes targeting American Muslims, including crimes which target children, youth and families.
The group defines hate crimes as criminal acts which target a person based on his or her religion, skin color, sexual orientation, or other legally protected characteristics. These crimes against American Muslims increased from 260 nationwide in 2016 to 300 in 2017. The report does not delineate the totals for Florida specifically.
But other anti-Muslim bias incidents – prejudiced acts which are not criminal and can’t be prosecuted – have exploded in the past five years. Since 2015, the group says, anti-Muslim bias incidents increased by 84 percent nationwide, from 1,409 to 2,599.
Florida saw 145 anti-Muslim bias incidents in 2017 alone, coming in fifth behind California (871), Texas (395), New York (232) and Ohio (153).
Harassment was the most common bias incident recorded. The second was incidents in which someone was “inappropriately targeted and harassed by Customs and Border Protection,” according to the report. This is the first time Customs and Border Patrol ranked within CAIR’s top five anti-Muslim bias incidents, and the group says it may be due to President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban executive order.
Most of the people harassed were targeted because of their ethnicity, whether or not they were wearing specific attire, and the group recorded 279 national incidents in which a woman wearing a hijab – headscarf – was targeted.Most of the harassment happened in air, bus or train terminals, with the second-most common location being a person’s own home
Thania Clevenger is the civil rights director with CAIR Florida, the state chapter of the national organization. She examines how hate crimes have evolved. Clevenger said since hate crimes have noticeably increased since 2015, some communities’ responses have evolved to combat the fear.
“What changed with the (harassed) communities is, instead of being just victimized, they became prepared. They increased their security, they took safety and defense classes,” said Clevenger.
The first hate crime a community experiences is shocking, Clevenger said. The second is equally as evocative.
“By the time you get to three, four, five, six – you take steps to protect yourself, but also to stop the hatred,” Clevenger said.
The question, she said, is how do you educate people about diversity?
“If you’re looking at it from a different perspective, the positive side of it is we saw more outreach, we saw more ‘get to know your neighbors’ events come about as hate increased,” she said.
Brendan Lantz, an assistant professor at Florida State University whose research interests include hate and bias crime, identified three types of greater harm resulting from hate crimes.
“There’s the physical harm – some of these hate crimes are legitimately more violent. Then there’s the psychological trauma to the victim. And then the big one with hate crimes is the bigger harm to the community,” he said.
When hate crimes are isolated incidents, fear is the first thing to take over, Clevenger said, adding that communities tend to become more introverted to protect themselves from unknown threats.. Women might stop going out alone. Men might be quicker to become defensive.
“But the more (hate) becomes normalized, then you see people get empowered. They act to fix it,” she said.
Hate crime laws at the federal level exist mostly in response to two murders in 1998, Lantz said – the murder of Matthew Shepard, a man who was gay, and the murder of African-American man James Byrd, Jr. who was chained to the back of a truck and driven for miles by three white men. On the state level, hate crime laws differ.
Florida’s hate crime laws are not protective enough for victims, Clevenger said.
“Some states, if you make a derogatory reference in the middle of a battery, that’s going to be reported as a hate crime. In Florida, unless (law enforcement) has some form of tangible proof…crimes don’t get reported as hate crimes,” she said.
Lantz of FSU echoed Clevenger’s assessment of Florida laws.
“Hate crime laws aren’t uniform in who they protect. Almost every state protects race, religion, national origin, ethnicity,” Lantz said.
Other vulnerable minority groups face a patchwork of laws. Some states protect sexual identity, but not all of them do. Some states protect gender or gender identity. Florida does not. Lantz said there have been efforts to protect people who are targeted for harassment or violence due to their political affiliation, but have so far been unsuccessful in Florida. Florida does, however, protect homeless populations.
The bomb threat at the Pembroke Pines mosque is being prosecuted at the federal level, Clevenger said, since it targeted a federally-protected institution. The man who issued the threat pled guilty and will be sentenced in September.
In fact, “all the cases we’ve seen prosecuted have been prosecuted under federal statutes, not under state statutes. And that’s because they are religious facilities,” she said.
Florida does have a law noting that a perpetrator “evidences prejudice” if a crime was “based on the race, color, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, homeless status, or advanced age of the victim.”
But the statute says the perpetrator must have perceived, known, or had “reasonable grounds to know or perceive” the targeted individual was “within the class delineated in this section.”
Clevenger said it is one thing to have a state law mention prejudice or bias, but another to see what happens in practice.
“(The laws) are just not strong enough. And that’s why you see hate crime after crime, whether it’s against Muslims or African Americans or people of other religions or national origins,” she said.
It’s the main reason she believes so many hate crimes go unreported.
“The reaction from law enforcement in this state doesn’t match what people are experiencing,” Clevenger said.
In the U.S., people experienced an average of a quarter-million hate crimes each year between 2004 to 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But people who work on hate crime issues say most victims don’t report because they are afraid to, or simply desensitized to ongoing violence against their minority group.
Complicating matters is the fact that different agencies – including the Federal Bureau of Investigation – define hate crimes or bias incidents differently, and have various methods for counting them. Some agencies put the onus on the victim to identify an incident as a hate crime, and others leave it up to law enforcement officers to define it.
“Ultimately, it is up to the judgement of individual law enforcement officers and agencies to determine whether a particular incident constitutes a hate crime and is therefore reported as such to the state,” said the annual hate crimes status report by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office.
One example: The Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando was not classified as a hate crime by the Orlando Police Department and thus the number of victims are excluded from the data.
Lantz said that the confusion over hate crime reporting data has critical consequences that can affect victims.
“It’s important because the measurement decides all sorts of things. It decides the sort of resources we put towards victims. And if we’re not accurately measuring, and in the case of hate crimes we are undercounting, we’re probably not putting enough resources towards dealing with the issue,” he said.
The Ameer of Masjid Jamaat ul Muttaqeen cannot say for sure if the bomb threat affected attendance, but he did note a drop in attendance at the mosque during Ramadhan.
The Pembroke Pines mosque can accommodate 400 people for each of the five daily prayers. Ramadhan is the holy month that Muslims believe was the time that God revealed their religious text, the Quran. Muslims who are able fast from approximately dawn to dusk during the month.
Before the May bomb threat, there was no security around the building, no fences stood sentinel. Now, the mosque will have fencing around it and be open only during prayer times since it is volunteer-run with no full-time employees. The board members are also considering installing cameras around the building.
“Our community is kind of unsettled in the sense that, because of the Islamophobia that is spreading, it’s not very comfortable for us. But we are God-fearing people. We go about our business as best as we could, although the threat caused us to be a little more apprehensive and watchful,” the Ameer said.
He said his community is a peace-loving one, contrary to negative portraits in the media or national consciousness.
“Every ethnicity, every religion has exceptions. Islam has its exception. It’s sad. But we are being singled out. All we ask people to do is to understand that we go about our daily business just like any other religious or ethnic group in the community. Our children go to school just like any other ethnic and religious group in the community. They participate in all the activities that all other ethnicities or religious groups participate in,” he said. “The rhetoric is poisonous against Islam and this is very, very sad.”
Clevenger said the goal of the movement now is to wake people up to the challenges many communities face.
“If you look through our history, every one of these historical moments that we look back at – internment camps for Japanese, the Civil Rights movement and desegregation – they all hit a public head where, as a country we said, ‘Enough, this is not OK.’…We’ve done this before, so we will recover, but what we need people to do now is get engaged: learn. Learn about the facts… Now is the time to stop saying, ‘It’ll get fixed,’” she said.
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