Hundreds of Muslims gathered in the Florida Capitol Thursday, to lobby and engage in the political process. The event is part of an annual Muslim day of advocacy, but this year is different: it’ s an election year.
During the legislative session, citizens and groups from across the state come to the Florida capitol to lobby their lawmakers and make their voices heard. Usually those groups don’t have to hire a cop to protect them as they walk the halls. Thursday was Florida Muslim Capitol Day, an annual day of advocacy for Muslims from across the state. Here’s Ghazala Salam giving the group the safety spiel.
"So what are you going to say if someone is following you or you feel you aren’t in a safe place?" she asked.
"Stop harassing me," the crowd yelled.
"Good. You have to say it loud. Can you say it louder again?" she said
"Stop harassing me!" they yelled.
According to the Pew Research Group, most Americans know little or nothing about Islam. Tamim Chowdhury is with the advocacy group Emerge Florida. He says this is an opportunity to put a face to the word Muslim.
“You may be the only Muslim that the actually meet all year. Or you might be the first Muslim that they actually really communicate with or had a conversation with this year, or ever to be quite honest. You are ultimately serving as a representative of not just yourself, you’re representing as a member of the entire ummah,” he said.
Organizers say every legislative session is another opportunity for Muslims to get engaged in the political process. But Wilfredo Ruiz with the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations, says this year is different: it’s an election year, and a year when xenophobic rhetoric is taking center stage.
“It’s like a zombie, like a dead man walking, this xenophobia. It seems to be dead for some time, and then especially during electoral years, it kind of resurrects. And there it goes, xenophobic discourse and Islamophobia that unfortunately appeals to a small sector, but a very voiced sector of our society,” he said.
But Ruiz says the rhetoric of politicians like Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, is motivating.
"The negative rhetoric we’re listening to, against immigrants, against women, against Muslims, that really have been a motivator for our community to come out of houses and precisely participate in this kind of events," he said.
After breakfast the group walked through a brief training session, a sort of How to Speak with Your Lawmaker 101. And then they split into small groups and took to the halls. But Angeles Ruiz is worried that lawmakers won’t care, and won’t listen.
“I don’t want to say stuff that they’ve already heard. Like it’s obvious that it’s persecuting people, it’s obvious that it’s discriminative, like they already know that, you know?” she said.
At least one lawmaker was listening, Senator Dwight Bullard of Miami. Bullard met with the group Thursday, and was quick to call out Donald Trump.
“If he checks his history books like I check my history books, he’d know that when Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State is when he received his first copy of the Koran, on his travels abroad. So we’ve had a presence of Muslims in America, an interwoven part of the American tapestry, since the 1700s,” he said.
Wilfredo Ruiz says xenophobia is just a part of the Muslim experience in America. But he hopes his community remains engaged, whatever happens this election season.