The Unwanted Spotlight: What It's Like To Be A Muslim In Southwest Florida
Worshipers gather at Masjid Ibrahim in Fort Myers for Friday prayers.
We grieve along with Florida and the rest of the world over the terrible tragedy in Orlando. As part of our mission, Gulfshore Life takes great interest in the peoples and organizations and conditions that make life here what it is. Several months ago, we sent senior writer Jennifer Reed out to find out what it’s like to be a Muslim in Southwest. Florida. We heard from many voices in the Muslim community—imams, students, businesspeople and more—and the emerging theme is best captured in the headline for the story—“The Unwanted Spotlight.” People felt that every time there’s violence from Muslim extremists, the community had to go on defense and explain what they deplore and have nothing to do with. As we were on press with the story for our July issue, that kind of violence erupted again with Omar Saddiqui Mateen killing 49 innocent people in an Orlando nightclub. We are releasing our story ahead of its scheduled appearance in the hope of providing some insight into the lives and concerns of our Muslim neighbors here. And we also checked in with the prime sources from our story in the wake of this horrific slaughter. Jennifer Reed’s report follows the original story.
--David Sendler, Editor in Chief
Lately, conversations between Sarina Bajwa and her friends might circle around to the internment camps. You know, the ones they’ll be sent to after the surveillance push, the creation of the national Muslim registry and the stamping of their passports with the big “M.” Will they be regional, they wonder. And critically, will they have WiFi?
Yeah, they are joking. But not really.
Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, Ted Cruz’s call for surveillance, Ben Carson’s Syrians-as-rabid-dogs analogy, news reports screaming of “Islamic terrorism” have left Bajwa with a growing sense of unease. “It almost feels like I’m not being respected as a human, or I’m not being heard. How many times do we have to apologize for something we had no connection to?”
Ever since a former student of mine wrote an essay about growing up with the last name Hussain in a post-9/11 world, I’d been wondering about what it means to be Muslim in America. Like many Americans, I knew nothing about Islam aside from headlines painting Muslims as gun-wielding, airplane-bombing maniacs.
So for a couple of weeks this spring, I visited living rooms and coffee shops, workplaces and mosques, meeting with area Muslims who explained to me their faith and its teachings, their anguish over terrorism, frustration of having to answer for sins they did not commit, distress over being pushed toward society’s margins, concerns for the future. I’ve spoken to everyone from imams to high school students to business professionals, educators and small-business owners—people like Bajwa who might otherwise blend into our multicultural fabric if it weren’t for the spotlight on Islam.
By and large, they tell me, Southwest Florida is a tolerant place. “We have not faced anything. We love it here,” says Faria Choudhury, who manages the practice of her husband, Dr. Asif Choudhury, a Fort Myers-based gastroenterologist. The couple, originally from Bangladesh, came to Fort Myers in 2000 by way of New York. “I have never had any negativity directed toward me,” says Ike, a native of Turkey who married an American and settled in south Fort Myers nearly 20 years ago. The couple’s teenagers, likewise, report no incidents with peers at school—aside, perhaps, from their friends’ surprise when they discover the family’s religion. Nevertheless, the family asked their last name not be used due to the “unknown political atmosphere in the next few months.”
That speaks volumes. For all their kind words about Southwest Florida, residents here have faced both subtle discrimination as well as open hostility—potential clients walking away, potential donors rescinding offers, headscarves ripped from heads, muttered insults, dirty looks, commands to “go home” even if home has always been right here. If that narrative sounds familiar, it is—a story repeated throughout history with a changing cast of characters, a literary archetype that humankind refuses to let go. Today, we’ll flip narrators and consider the story from a different point of view.
Sarina Bajwa volunteers at the Quality Life Center in the Dunbar neighborhood of Fort Myers.
Bajwa settles into an oversized armchair in the Fort Myers home she shares with her mother Najma and father Khalid, a retired civil engineer. She’s relaxing for a few weeks in between the end of an extended visit to Pakistan and the start of graduate school at Columbia University. Bajwa joined her parents and sister in Fort Myers after earning her bachelor’s degree and working for an organization in Washington, D.C., but she found Southwest Florida to be isolating for someone like her: young, professional, progressive—and Muslim. Even though Southwest Florida’s Muslim population is growing, it’s still dwarfed by other faiths. A precise number is unknown—the U.S. Census does not track religious affiliation—but faith leaders report some 120 families affiliated with the Islamic Center of Naples and about 400 people who attend Masjid Ibrahim in Fort Myers, the two largest places of worship.
Unlike the more homogenous populations you might find in, say, a Christian church, the Muslim community is made up of immigrants from around the world who hold various interpretations of Islam, their American-born children and grandchildren, converts from other faiths, white-collar professionals and business owners and low-wage workers (the middle class, I’m told, is underrepresented).
Growing up in the large, thriving, well-established Muslim community of New York and New Jersey, faith was positive, Bajwa says. Being Muslim was fun.
“We grew up learning if you are good and do good things, then good things will happen to you.” With a zeal for social justice and education, Bajwa intends to become a school psychologist. Her older brother is a doctor; her big sister a pharmacist. “We were raised with the idea that you were born to do something useful,” she says.
Then the Twin Towers went down on 9/11.
“It was on (TV) all the time and then it turned into the Muslim thing. This was a really weird identity crisis. It had always been such a positive thing in my life, and now it was being portrayed as something negative,” she remembers. Her dad worked about a quarter-mile away (he made it home the next day). Later, trucks carrying Ground Zero debris rumbled through her New Jersey town.
“I almost felt responsible—that I’m part of something wrong or I need to fix this image or it’s my job to be better for the sake of proving we’re not all bad,” she says. If Bajwa were writing her story, surely this would be the theme. She later confided she hates talking about herself and agreed to do so only because she thought she was serving a greater good.
Plenty of Muslims distanced themselves from Islam following 9/11. Bajwa grew closer to it.
“I think I really wanted to identify as Muslim because it was so positive for me. ... It was, to me, a comfort,” she remembers. In high school, she noticed older girls wearing the hijab, the headscarf, a sign of modesty within the faith—and a pronouncement to the outside world of religious status. She wanted to join them.
I need to digress and talk about Muslim women. I’ll confess: My predominant image of an Islamic woman is a shadowy robed figure trailing demurely behind a husband. Bajwa and others insist the Quran makes no such mandates, that their faith instead elevated the status of women in the ancient world and is supposed to protect them in the modern one. The Saudi bans on women driving, Iranian crackdowns on dress codes, the Taliban’s targeting of school girls, are aberrations of politics and culture, they told me.
“Dress modestly,” the Quran demands. Women interpret that in a whole spectrum of ways, which is why I saw variations from Bajwa’s wrapped hair to Choudhury’s bare locks, from loose-fitting tunics to blue jeans. A delightful grandmother named Suhalia Ibrahim, who took me under her wing at the Islamic Center of Naples, favors the robe-like dresses and colorful scarves of her native Jerusalem. The attire of the Virgin Mary, she points out.
That may be true, but “Mary” is not the association made today when a non-Muslim sees a hijab.
“I picked a random day in March,” Bajwa continues. “I remember my mom dropped me off at school and up until that point she kept saying, ‘Please don’t do it. You don’t know what’s going to happen.’ But I was like, ‘I’ve got to do it.’ And so I wore it. It was five days before my 15th birthday.” In Spain that day, an al-Qaida-inspired terrorist cell detonated 10 bombs on Spanish commuter trains, killing 191 and injuring 2,000. An inauspicious start.
Bajwa held firm. Muslims, she wanted the world to know, could be “cool.” A supportive best friend, example-setting older girls, a diverse student body and a band teacher who used humor to promote tolerance made high school a largely positive experience for her.
In the outside world, though, Bajwa remembers as a teenager flying home from visiting her sister in Fort Myers seated next to a woman who peppered her with questions about where she was born (New York), where she lived (New Jersey), where she got her pants (Old Navy), what she was reading (Harry Potter) and where her parents were from (Pakistan ... Bingo!). She once stood in line for a Frappuccino and heard another customer hiss, “This girl better be happy she can live in America.”
Such episodes are not uncommon.
Javed Kapadia works with a client at his State Farm Agency in Naples.
Javed Kapadia and I barely settle into his office, a State Farm agency he operates in North Naples, when he delves into a spiel about the barrage of assumptions he faces. It’s not a rant—anger is not his demeanor—it’s more of an impassioned plea for logic.
“This is a democracy, but it’s basically founded on Christian principles, right?” he says. I nod. “So it’s pretty much a Christian nation, but isn’t it against Christianity to have premarital sex? Why are all these people having children out of wedlock? Isn’t it against Christianity to kill people? Then why do we have more murders in this country than any other country? Isn’t it against the Christian religion to rape and molest children? Why do we hear about priests doing this to children?
“Then this religion must be a horrible religion, right? Maybe we should stop letting them into this country until we can figure out what’s going on.”
He pauses, ever so briefly, and then hammers home the point I heard in every interview I conducted: “When (violence) happens in this country, we don’t blame the religion.”
Our conversation stretched into lunch and a trip to the Islamic Center of Naples, a humble storefront for Collier’s tight-knit Muslim community. Like many of the discussions I had, it shifted into the realm of geopolitics, economics and land. Religion is the default lens for explaining conflicts: Christians vs. Muslims, believers vs. infidels. The real context, of course, is nuanced, deep and historic: old turf wars, friction between democracies and dictatorships, the West’s favoritism toward non-Muslim countries. You have to consider America’s role in Middle East uprisings, its arming of factions, its military presence or lack thereof. And oil.
Yes, it is true that Islam allows Muslims to fight back when attacked, Kapadia and others acknowledge. They know the verses that extremists cite in carrying out atrocities. But they know the lines that preceded and succeeded the quotes in question—and those, they say, shift meanings entirely.
“So many people in this country think that ‘Muslim’ means ‘terrorist,’ and when you have (1.6) billion Muslims in the world, are there some terrorists? Absolutely. Are there extremists? No doubt. And that occurs in every single faith,” Kapadia says.
Kapadia, 35, was born in Canada, raised in the United States and is married with a toddler. He’s been recognized for his community contributions. He loves sports, plays golf, travels every chance he gets. But for all that mainstream Americanism, mainstream America keeps him at arm’s length. If you fear terrorism, that’s what you should worry about. Time and again, the profile of mass murderers, ISIS recruits and jihadists includes a sense of marginalization, isolation, anger. The more you create an “other,” Bajwa had noted, the more of a monster you’ll yield.
Kapadia has had to instruct his mom to delete a congratulatory message she left on his business Facebook page. She’d ended it “mashallah,” which to Muslims roughly translates “because of the will of God” and to non-Muslims, translates “terrorist.” “Just say ‘congratulations,’” he begs his parents.
On occasion, his staff fields calls from potential clients who ask, “Where’s Javed from?” or “Where was he born?” or “Where are his parents from?” And when the caller hears “Pakistan,” his parents’ homeland, the staff hears a “click.”
“Any time there’s a bombing, I shake my head. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what backlash are we going to receive?’ We’re the ones that suffer more than anybody. We’re the ones who get singled out. We’re the ones that get slurs and get treated differently.”
Direct discrimination isn’t the only problem, I learned. Your neighbors can love you, your colleagues can respect you, but when anti-Muslim rhetoric infuses social media, political speech and influences news coverage, it messes with your psyche.
Sorry to keep sending you stuff,” Bajwa says in one of her follow-up emails. She’d been thinking more about a question I’d asked about whether she’d been openly attacked. She hadn’t really faced direct harassment since that guy in the Starbucks line years ago. But the indirect messages were troubling her. In the past few weeks, she had noticed hateful or angry slogans on T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers. She’s noticed herself avoiding eye contact or circumventing situations that could be unpleasant. “I’ve noticed myself being extra alert,” she writes.
Her message reminded me of the conversation I’d had with Choudhury, the medical administrator, a week earlier.
“It is extremely frustrating to me,” Choudhury says. “We are peaceful, loving people. When we see people going off with suicide bombs and all that, it is not Islam. It makes me so mad. They are giving my religion such a bad name. It is giving us such a bad name.”
After one recent attack—she can’t remember if it was Paris or Brussels—Choudhury feared reprisals. She called the Fort Myers mayor, a friend, who called the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, which dispatched a couple of deputies to watch over Friday prayers. She was grateful—and saddened all at once.
“(The mosque) is in the middle of a residential community and it’s so open. You just need one person with a disgruntled attitude to do something,” she says.
I have to admit to an ignorance of Islam, probably as egregious as most any non-Muslim American. My childhood catechism classes ignored other faiths, public schools won’t touch God, and I’d never gotten around to a comparative religion course in college.
Choudhury is right: To be ignorant leaves you vulnerable to rumor, assumption and succumbing to the loudest voice in the room.
My first stop had been to the Islamic Center for Peace in Fort Myers, which is run by Imam Mohamed Al-Darsani and his wife, Paulette Roberts, an American woman who converted to Islam (and, no, not under duress).
Al-Darsani had invited me to one of his weekly lessons, delivered to a small group over a potluck meal. The imam led a talk about decision-making and the importance of relying both on learned people and the word of God for guidance. Before I left, Al-Darsani loaded me up with videos and books explaining the fundamentals of Islam.
I’m not going to pretend to be a religious scholar, but what I read, watched and gleaned from hours’ worth of conversations made me feel that Islam—at its core—isn’t all that different from the catechism lessons I remember: honor God, care for one’s neighbors, respect one’s parents, do not kill, do not steal, uphold peace. “Islam,” I was told a dozen times, means “peace” in Arabic. If anything, Al-Darsani, a native of Syria, told me, America’s principles of tolerance, equity and justice align with his reading of Islamic ideals. “The Constitution, the laws, the social values we have—they fit 100 percent,” he says.
I knew that the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, share commonalities. What I didn’t know is Muslims don’t see the faiths as simply coming from a shared root; they believe it’s one religion, handed down by the same god to prophets throughout the centuries. We say “God.” They say “Allah” (Arabic for “god.”). They believe in Adam and Moses and Jesus. They accept the Torah and the Bible, but believe the Quran came last, the final iteration of an ancient faith.
“In the eyes of Allah, there is only one religion. Call it ‘Christianity.’ It doesn’t matter. It’s terminology. We have one religion. God’s religion,” says Abourrahim “Apo” Ozturk, a Naples resident who immigrated here from Turkey. God sent it to teach us to live in this world peacefully.
What is it about religion that makes us so inclined to fight—over the interpretation of one’s own faith, over the “superiority” of it to other traditions, of who’s going to heaven and who to hell? How many times will we twist the words of our holy books to justify our sins?
But I like Ozturk’s optimism, and I like how he’s trying to put that message of tolerance into practice.
Abourrahim Ozturk relaxes with his wife, Tuga, and children, Sevval, 6, and Mehmet, 2, in their Naples home.
We had met in a Starbucks in east Naples. Ozturk owns a convenience store nearby and a gas station in San Carlos Park, just south of Fort Myers. He finished school in America, at Lely High, where he begged his guidance counselor to pull him out of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes and put him into regular ones with American kids to speed his English acquisition.
Ozturk has a ready grin and the kind of presence that makes a stranger feel like an instant friend. He uses humor and hospitality to break down the differences between cultures, faiths and national origins. As a teen, other students would ask him where he was from, and he’d answer “Turkey. Gobble, gobble!” beating them to their own silly refrain—and winning over people in the process.
“We just make fun. We make fun with Trump, we make fun with ISIS. ... It’s not fun, but we make fun,” he says. It diffuses tensions. It eases fears.
He’s part of a growing Turkish community in the Golden Gate area. He and his fellow countrymen get together regularly to socialize and pray. They like to welcome non-Muslims into the fold. “It’s really important to establish that personality, that character, so people aren’t scared of us,” he says. They meet in a home in a residential area now, but he’d like to find a more publicly accessible place for worship and to host community events—again, to encourage an intermingling of faiths and cultures.
Ozturk has seen the good—like a man from Connecticut whom he met at the Naples Pier and engaged him in a long and thoughtful conversation about faith and politics—and the bad, another man at the Naples Pier who started screaming, “Go back to where you came from.” He prefers to focus on the former.
If Ozturk had a motto, it might be “Win them over with kindness.” Be more generous, more honest, more trustworthy than anybody else. Once, a regular customer tossed aside a lotto ticket that he believed to be a loser. An employee, a fellow Turk, saw that it was worth $2,000. He returned it to the customer, who was flabbergasted.
“What is supposed to be normal is abnormal these days,” Ozturk says. “This is why it is so important for the good people to come out. To community, to family, to employees, set a good example, regardless of your faith, regardless of your religion, regardless of your culture, your ethnicity. ... When you do that, you’ll serve your religion (and) your ethnicity, too, because people are going to question you: ‘Hey where are you from? What are you?’ And then, you’re gonna teach them: We’re not any different.”
I told you that my interest in this story stemmed from a student essay, and it’s really the young people who intrigue me the most as they try to navigate adolescence while coming to terms with their faith.
So I was delighted to encounter two high school students, sisters Safina and Sima Muneer, one afternoon at Masjid Ibrahim, the mosque in Fort Myers. They were dressed for Friday prayers in black abayas, traditional robe-like dresses, with intricate silver beadwork. They looked, I thought, like princesses.
There was no starker image depicting the paths American-Muslims take than these sisters. I caught up with them at a coffee shop a few days later. Safina, a high school senior, hid her hair and neck under a floral scarf. She wore a long-sleeved tunic and loose-fitting pants. Sima, across the table from her, sat cross-legged in jeans and a T-shirt, eyeballing her cellphone so she wouldn’t be late to pick up their 8-year-old brother.
Of the two, Sima, a sophomore, has had the harder time as an American Muslim. It could be, in part, her nature: She admits to being more brooding and quick-tempered than her cheerful and gregarious sister.
“I did have issues,” Sima says. “In elementary school I’ve been called a terrorist. People used to say bin Laden was my uncle.”
A history teacher of hers once swore if he were in the military he’d bomb Mecca—making his declaration as the girls’ parents happened to on a pilgrimage to the holy city. “I actually cussed him out. That hurt me the most,” she says.
She’d tried wearing the hijab at the start of high school. The second day, a girl ripped it off her head. She hasn’t put it on since. “I’m really lost in my faith and confused about what to do,” she admits.
Sima, wanting to avoid trouble, didn’t report the incident. Her sister did; the oldest of seven, she’s the family watchdog. “She supports me every day,” Sima says.
Safina is more tied to her native culture and her faith. She remembers wearing shorts for the first time—she felt naked, and changed into less revealing clothes. In middle school, she started wearing the hijab, occasionally at first, and in defiance of her parents who worried about their daughter’s safety. Kids teased her, but Safina was undeterred. By sophomore year, she wore it daily.
“I was scared. I was nervous. What will people say? What will people think? Yet, as I walked in (to school), I just kept walking, walking. I know I had a lot of people stare at me and kind of give me the look, but I did it.” Now, she says, she won’t leave home without it. “It’s part of me. It’s my identity. ... No one is forcing me—it is my connection with my god.”
Safina pulled out her phone and showed a snapshot of her high school yearbook page that includes her photo and a quote.
“The only reason I’m wearing it is to give you females a chance,” it reads. Safina laughs. Her classmates interpreted it as her joking about her good looks—and loved the humor. What she actually meant: She wears it as an example, so that other girls can feel free to express themselves, too.
After our conversation ended, Safina texted me a picture of a certificate a teacher had given her, recognizing her for her tolerance of others. “She said that I forgave others and I accept their differences.”
Isn’t that what all faiths teach?
Our Muslim community is frustrated with Western portrayals of their faith and one-sided perspectives on global events. But they’re not apologists for ISIS or al-Qaida or Boko Haram or the suicide bombers, the kidnappers, the rapists or anyone else committing atrocities in the name of god. Those people are not Muslim, they say. They are, in fact, slaughtering more Muslims than they are people of any other faith.
Sarina Bajwa's father, Khalid
“Any time a thing like this happens, believe it or not, it hurts Muslims more than anybody,” says Khalid Bajwa, Sarina’s father, during a conversation at the mosque one morning. “I would be the first, if I found out someone was out to hurt someone or cause any problems, to turn them away. ... I will be the happiest person when every terrorist is caught or killed.”
What troubles me is that we keep repeating the same sad story over and over again, Muslims merely being the latest target.
I think back on a conversation I’d had with Abdul’Haq Muhammed, who has been cast in this story twice—as a black man and as a Muslim.
“Most human beings,” he told me in his office at the Quality Life Center, a nonprofit dedicated to serving at-risk children, “are not going to rise up and oppose an injustice by others unless they are the target of the injustice.”
I’d been worried that no area Muslim would wish to speak to me, out of fear of reprisals. The opposite was true.
They wanted to share their experiences so they could encourage their non-Muslim neighbors to think before they applaud hate speech or repost anti-Muslim slogans, or stand idly by when a passer-by unleashes venom on a veiled woman or a robed man.
“We can make fun of the internment camps, but at the end of the day, people need to realize this does create an upswing in hate crimes, and it’s scary to normal people,” Sarina Bajwa says. “The fact that they have to live with that fear is harmful. It’s harmful to a society’s health.”
I’ll leave you with the words Ozturk used to end our conversation: “We have ideas, but we have no information. ... Inform yourself. Then have an idea.”
Grief and Fear: Our Interviewees React
Updated 6/13/16: Southwest Florida’s Muslim community is as shaken and saddened as the rest of us following Sunday’s attack, but also dealing with a different emotion: Fear.
The shooter, Omar Mateen, pledged allegiance to ISIS as he carried out his rampage. Area Muslims are pleading with the community to understand that ISIS is not Islam, that they denounce the group and its campaign of terror—whether or not Mateen was truly part of it.
“We are in turmoil right now. We are scared,” says Faria Choudhury of Fort Myers. “There is so much hatred. It scares us. I guess (people) are confused, too. They don’t know what extremists are. They don’t know what ISIS is. They don’t know what our religion is.”
It is the holy month of Ramadan, and Choudhury doesn’t know if she will visit the mosque on Friday out of concerns for safety.
Javed Kapadia of Naples did visit his mosque, the Islamic Center of Naples, on Sunday evening. The imam there led a small group in prayer and expressed solidarity with the LGBT community.
Kapadia cringes, though, every time he hears the door open while the group kneels in prayer. Is it a late arrival, he wonders, or a threat?
Kapadia acknowledges the rise of the extremists.
“There is a serious, serious, serious problem with these radical people. There is a problem with ISIS and these other extremist groups. We can’t deny there is a problem,” Kapadia says.
A week ago, the world’s attention was on the funeral of boxer Muhammad Ali, celebrated by a spectrum of faith leaders who focused on his humanitarianism.
“What is the real Islam? Muhammed Ali, who was about peace and bringing people together, or this terrorist who killed 50 people? Do you want to unite us or divide us?”
Mohammed Usman, president of the Islamic Center of Naples, offered condolences to victims and their families.
“We are deeply saddened by the senseless killing in Orlando yesterday. We stand alongside with our fellow Americans in these trying times,” Usman says. “We are extremely, extremely, extremely disappointed and saddened.”
Sarina Bajwa, the young woman who opened our piece, expressed heartbreak. And confusion.
“It’s not helpful to say, ‘Islam doesn’t teach this because it keeps happening,’” she says. “If (our faith) is being hijacked, how do you reclaim it? If there are issues in our community, how do we deal with it? What is the proper response? Whose duty is it to respond?”
On Facebook, friends are circulating messages about personal safety and protecting mosques.
“It overwhelms me. I just want to grieve as a human, an empathetic human,” she says.
And that’s what we need to focus on, Kapadia says. Mourning the victims, who he thinks are getting lost in a political back-and-forth between liberals shouting for gun control, conservatives attacking Islam and candidates lambasting each other.
“We’ve forgotten the victims—50-something people died. We’ve barely heard their names. We don’t know their stories,” Kapadia says. “Imagine how difficult it is for their families. Now it’s all the finger pointing going on, and it goes on both sides of the political aisles.”
-- Jennifer Reed