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Being Muslim in Greater Orlando

With national hysteria running rampant, local followers of Islam find an accepting home in Central Florida

Fatima Ait Rami and Imam Tariq Rasheed of the Islamic Center of Orlando

June 12, 2016, will not easily be forgotten by Greater Orlandoor the world, for that matter. It was, after all, the night on which 49 people lost their lives and dozens more were wounded at the hands of a killer who professed allegiance to various radical Islamic organizations before taking his own life. It wasn’t the first attack on U.S. soil by a Muslim, and sadly, it likely won’t be the last. As always in these cases, reactions near and far ran the gamut from sorrowful to angry—but in Orlando’s Muslim community, the most common emotion was fear.

“We were kind of frightened,” says Fatima Ait Rami, outreach director for the Islamic Center of Orlando (ICO). “We were thinking there might be some backlash. But the county, state, the local law enforcement—everybody came forward and they provided us with protection and assurance that they are there. And then, the citizens of the county, they would come to our mosque and they would assure us there’s nothing to worry about, that they were not going to blame the Muslim community. For that, we’re very grateful.”

Indeed, against a national backdrop of misinformation, hysteria and blind hatred for followers of Islam, it seems that for local Muslims, the City Beautiful truly lives up to its name. Rather than finding themselves shunned, threatened or worse as they do in other areas, Orlando’s Muslim community mostly encounters acceptance, understanding and opportunities from their fellow citizens—a favor they try to return whenever possible as they carve out their own slice of the American dream.

Finding Acceptance

According to official U.S. Census Bureau figures, Orlando’s Muslim population climbed from just shy of 2,700 members in 2000 to more than 27,000 in 2010, and the number has only grown from there. This increase has caused great consternation among followers of such far-right news sources as Breitbart and InfoWars, but it stands as a testament to our city’s welcoming nature.

“I would say that it’s a joy to be a Muslim here in Orlando,” says Imam Tariq Rasheed, director of the ICO and author of numerous books on Islam. “Muslims have been living here for the last 40, 45 years now. We have been enjoying our stay here due to weather, business opportunities, due to—everything. It has been a very nice experience.”

“We thank God that we live in an area that’s openminded,” says Rami. “Whenever we have an open house or an interfaith event, we have a lot of people that show up to show their love and support. So, we’re very blessed and thankful.”

It’s not just community leaders who have found this to be the case, either. “I don’t see that much negative being directed toward us,” says Umar Faridy, a teenaged religious-studies student, of his Orlando experiences. “A lot of it is really positive, friendly people. Of course, there are always small parts where you witness it, but for the most part, I feel it’s been very friendly for my family and for all my friends. I don’t think we’ve ever been treated in such a really negative way.”

“I don’t know about other people, but I’ve been treated good,” says Orlando resident and mother Naseem Alhai. “I’m here almost 20 years. I like it. I’ve never had a bad experience.”

Members of our Muslim community also reported positive relationships with local governments and politicians. “I think they’ve been very accommodating,” says Rami. “[U.S. Congresswoman] Val Demings came here; people from the Orange County government show us their support and talk about unity and working together with the Muslim community.”

What’s more, that appreciation is a two-way street. “As a community, Orange County is deeply committed to embracing diversity and inclusion for all—including our beloved Muslim brothers and sisters,” says Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. “In fact, fostering a genuine sense of belonging—the belief that Orange County is truly ‘home’ for families and people from across the globe—has been one of my top goals as mayor.”

“I am proud that Orlando is a welcoming and inclusive city that embraces diversity and respects people from all walks of life and religious beliefs,” says Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. “As a city, we remain committed to continue working together to embrace diversity, equality and fairness for everyone in Orlando no matter religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”

Promoting Peace

A recent Interfaith BBQ at the Islamic Center of Orlando

While Muslims in Orlando are appreciative of the largely welcoming interactions they have with their fellow citizens, many of them are also proactive in building bridges—and bridges make for better neighbors than walls.

One of the ICO’s most effective outreach programs is their Interfaith BBQ, a recurring event that invites the center’s neighbors and people of all faiths from throughout Greater Orlando to share an afternoon of companionship, conversation and great food.

Mike and Renee Jones, who belong to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and live near the ICO, are regular attendees. “We believe very much in strong interfaith, standing up for people that are being marginalized, being attacked, so we wouldn’t be anywhere else,” says Mike. “They’re an excellent neighbor. … The people are wonderful. It’s a great organization.”

The barbecues have also been successful in changing perceptions. “Two, three years ago, we had another interfaith dinner here, and lots of Christians and Jews came,” says Rasheed. “One particular lady said, ‘No offense, but I used to think that this mosque was another place that belonged to Osama bin Laden.’ She said just that.

“She came, she heard, she saw the presentation, asked questions, ate with us, laughed with us. She finally learned that we are people. … [Now,] she brings bread—she works at Publix in the bakery—and every day in the morning, she brings bread to the mosque.”

It’s a great example of the successes ICO members have enjoyed through their educational efforts—and Tariq adds that education is important for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Outreach isn’t something that local Muslims expect their leaders to shoulder alone, either. “I want to be an example to the younger people and everyone in general that we’re not what a lot of people lead you to believe, and that this is our true character,” says Faridy. “That’s what it means to me, to be an example for my religion and my family—to show who we really are.”

“People say [Muslim] women are oppressed—we’re not oppressed,” says Alhai. “Covering my hair is not oppression. It’s a modesty.”

“Muslim, Christian, Jew—we all pray to the same God, and God is love,” says Rim Ibrahim, who came to Orlando from Dubai. “The more we understand that about each other, the more we can come to accept each other and live in peace. And that’s what any true Muslim, or true Christian, or true Jew wants: peace and love.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s May 2017 issue.