“This is what Democracy looks like”

April 18, 2013 by  


5th Annual Florida Muslim Capitol Day a Success in Tallahassee  (Photos by Lena Jabar)

By Zeeshan Javed Hafeez, Esq.

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Photos by Lena Jabar

“This is what Democracy looks like!” exclaimed Reverend Charles Mckenzie—leader of the local chapter of the Rainbow Push Coalition—to a crowd of over 300 Muslim Americans from across the state of Florida peaceably assembled at the Historic Capitol Steps in Tallahassee—the seat of Florida government.

I had the privilege of leading a delegation of Muslims from Tampa to join a larger group meeting from across the state from ages 8 to 80 of all backgrounds: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and Arab. 

We met in Tallahassee for the 5th Consecutive year in an exercise of political activism and civic engagement. The goal every year is to engage elected officials and to let the leaders in Tallahassee hear the voices of Muslims from across the state.

The event itself was started five years ago by Ahmed Bedier and United Voices of America to get Floridian Muslims engaged with their elected officials. The problem was Muslims didn’t know their politicians, and politicians didn’t know Muslims. The solution was to bring the two groups together in a day of lobbying, political training, and activism. So Muslims came from across the state and lobbied the Legislature on Education and Healthcare.

IMG_4142Now 5 years later the event continues to grow larger, has the support of influential Muslim American Congressman Keith Ellison (DFL-MN), and has been replicated in other states as well as at the national Capitol.

This year the event was chaired by Manal Fakhoury who also led a delegation of Muslims from Ocala and Gaineville to the event. She welcomed the group to the Capitol in the morning session. The event started with the traditional pledge of allegiance led by a young sister from Panama City who was making her first trip to the Capital.

A special Multifaith Prayer and Moment of Silence for the people of Boston was held by two Christian ministers and two Muslim leaders. Some thought that the tragic events of the previous day would mean the event would be cancelled and many actually called the organizers to see if the event was still on. “Now it is more important than ever to be here in Tallahassee and have our voice heard,” said Bedier.

I personally prepared the delegation for the real challenge of the day, which was to defeat SB58/HB351 “The Anti-Foreign Law Bill” by individually meeting with legislators throughout the day to lobby against the bill. This is the 4th iteration of a bill that originally started as “The Anti-Shariah Law Bill” a few years ago and has been successfully beaten in the past.

Unfortunately, ignorant legislators—who went so far as to pass out Anti-Islamic literature at last year’s session—continue to sponsor this bill on a yearly basis. It has been up to us as responsible citizens to educate and call out the legislators on the issues.

The bill is problematic for numerous reasons.

First, it is a solution for a non-existent problem. There is no specific grievance this bill is responding to. In fact, the legislative aid of State Senator John Thrasher (R) I met with—when pressed on the issue to name a problem or a case involved—finally caved and said “Sometimes a representative passes a bill to express an opinion or a political interest.”

What is that interest or opinion? Given the foundation of this bill its pretty clear. And that is what our community is up against as similar bills have passed in states like Oklahoma (where the State Supreme Court later ruled the bill was unconstitutional) and have been proposed in over 30 states.

State Senator Tom Lee (R) was very receptive to a group of about 15 Muslim Americans I was with in his office. He said “The bill didn’t really do anything.” In his opinion it did no harm, nor did it solve any particular issue. When we introduced him to a constituent who was there because he and his family law contracts were directly being affected by the bill, his stance changed and he agreed to reconsider his position, especially when we added the point that this bill would be anti-business as it restricted the individual’s right to contract and do business in the state.

Finally, State Senator Geri Thompson (D) tried to make a fool of the Muslim community that was there in Tallahassee. The bill was supposed to have been dead in Committee, but it passed by a 5-4 margin.

The swing vote? A Democratic female African American Senator who sat on her County’s Affirmative Action Committee and was supported by Muslims in her election. Muslim community sctivist Shayan Elahi—who has also run for office—led a group of Muslims who helped her get elected. If ever there should have been a strong ally of the Muslim community this is the one.

But, she would fall prey to political horse trading.

Her price? A few days later it was revealed that the Republican State Senator Alan Hays (R), who was the sponsor of the bill, proposed and achieved a $150,000 pork barrel addition to the budget to go to her district. Thinking the Muslims there were simple-minded she explained, “I made a mistake. I voted the wrong way. I was misinformed.”

She claimed that she was under the impression that this bill would solve the problem (which doesn’t exist) of women wearing niqab in driver’s license photos. The statement was so absurd that she did not even realize the case she cited was solved by the courts and this underscored a further point that the bill violates the separation of powers by attempting to tell the judiciary how to do its job in interpreting laws. She voted this way after promising the Democrats and the Muslim community she was voting against the Bill.

It seems like in this case Malcolm X’s point on foxes and wolves still holds true, “One is the wolf, the other is a fox. No matter what, they’ll both eat you.” I’m sure he would be shocked to see a woman from his own race turning into a fox, but wouldn’t be shocked by wolves like Thrasher. The real lesson though is that there is hope still in the form of a new political animal and that is Lee, who as a Republican leader proved he was open to dialogue, communication, and education on the subject. Luckily, there may be many more Lees if we make the effort to reach out to them. So, the moral is that it is up to us to engage and make those friends.

The day was therefore a success in many ways: providing hope for our community, engaging in the political process, and developing young leaders for our community’s future. We came with allies from other faith groups and we rallied together.

The story of rally ended the way it started.

“This is what Democracy looks like!” chanted back the crowd of hundreds of Muslims on the Capitol steps. They yelled out what could be the summation of the day’s activity: “We are Muslim! We are American! We are Proud!”

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