South Florida's Muslims have decided it's time to raise their profile.
For the first time, Muslim leaders from Broward, Palm Beach and other southern Florida counties will gather for a summit that will allow them to socialize, share safety concerns and find ways to make their voices heard in local civic life. Muslims from Miami, Homestead, Key West, Fort Myers and Naples are expected to be among those who attend.
Twenty-eight Muslim leaders are expected for the brunch meeting today at Pembroke Lakes Country Club in Pembroke Pines. The leaders will fill out a survey that will answer questions about their mosques, their schools, their interfaith activities and voter registration drives. The meeting, organized by the local branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, is intended to motivate Muslims to increase their participation in public life.
"We are encouraging people to get more involved in their communities," said Altaf Ali, CAIR's executive director for Florida. "This is a good time for the leaders to express if they feel isolated."
Ali plans to send the representatives home with a census to distribute to their congregants, with questions such as: How many people live in your house? What is your profession and your income? Do you usually vote Democratic or Republican? Who is your presidential pick?
He wants the questions returned before November's elections to get a better understanding of how many Muslims live in South Florida and what their political leanings are.
CAIR's headquarters in Washington, D.C., called the meeting "a pioneering effort." Spokesman Ahmed Rehab said he has not heard of similar meetings in other parts of the United States.
"It will help us better gauge our civic engagement," he said.
Roland Foulkes, chairman of the Broward County Commission's Diversity Advisory Council, will be among the speakers exhorting the participants to raise their visibility. He said he will urge them to volunteer for county and city boards, create community newspapers, oppose racial profiling, apply for grants and run for office.
"All the Muslims I have met are busy with their jobs, their businesses, their faith and raising their kids," Foulkes said. "As a result, they do not have a whole lot of time to be active in these volunteer positions."
That is the situation Haroon Sulaiman, president of the Muslim Community of Palm Beach County, a West Palm Beach mosque, finds himself in. He said he used to be deeply involved in several community organizations, such as the Florida Atlantic University Alumni Association and SunFest. But now that he has three kids, runs a real estate company and leads the mosque, his public involvement has decreased.
Still, he said he encourages local Muslims to participate in public life.
"These are our homes now. We are part of the local community and part of the Muslim community," said Sulaiman, who will attend the Sunday meeting. "Our children are growing up here. It is definitely a healthy move to get more involved."
Ali said the last South Florida Muslim census was done in 2000, when CAIR counted about 40,000 Muslims in Miami-Dade, 20,000 in Broward and 10,000 in Palm Beach County. He said he is certain these numbers have increased dramatically.
Many mosques have been built or expanded in that time in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and there have been conflicts as well. In 2006, some pastors and residents opposed a move by the Islamic Center of South Florida into a predominantly black neighborhood in Pompano Beach. They organized protests and hurled insults.
"If our community was more engaged, if there was a commissioner who was a Muslim, there would have been fewer stereotypes there from lack of understanding," Ali said.
But Imam Hasan Sabri, who leads the mosque and will attend today's summit, said he is not sure political involvement is the solution to neighborhood conflicts such as the one his mosque experienced.
"It was not a political issue; it was an issue of discrimination by some," Sabri said. "I'm proud of the City Commission and grass-roots organizations that were supportive."
Sabri said he sees the meeting more as a chance to discuss ways to counter negative images of Muslims in society.
"I would give that a high priority," he said. "But if the minimum we accomplish is meeting each other and sharing our experiences and challenges, that is an accomplishment in itself."