A May 10 pipe-bomb explosion outside the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida did little in the way of physical damage. No injuries were reported in the small blast, which occurred around 9:35 p.m. during evening services. But the attack punctuates tensions surrounding Jacksonville’s Muslim community, coming as it did on the heels of the confirmation of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission’s first Muslim member, Parvez Ahmed.

For Ahmed, a Fulbright scholar and economics professor at the University of North Florida, the confirmation process was a rocky one, marked by controversial and divisive remarks from City Council members. During an April 27 meeting, Councilman Don Redman elicited gasps from the audience when he called on Ahmed to “pray to his God” and questioned whether Ahmed was offended by Christian prayers.

Another point of contention was Ahmed’s work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, for which he served as national board chairman for three years. CAIR has been accused in recent years of having links to terrorism, but Ahmed has repeatedly said that his work for the organization only had to do with civil rights.

Though Ahmed was eventually confirmed, a third of the council opposed his appointment and a few anti-Muslim groups are still active in their resistance to his placement on the commission. Even Ahmed admits these grassroots activists can yield a lot of power over public opinion, which is why their perceptions might be the ones worth changing. “These issues are often resolved or spoken out against on a leadership level when they are much more pronounced on a grassroots level,” he says. “Obviously, things can be done in schools, better cultural diversity programs, etc., but cultural diversity and acceptance need to be done elsewhere as well. We, as a community, need to promote the ideals of diversity on every level.”

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton, who backed Ahmed’s nomination from the beginning, tells The Florida Independent he has long believed the key to a successful city lies in cultural diversity and acceptance: “In Jacksonville, we strive to improve mutual understanding and tolerance by fostering healthy dialogue, taking action to eliminate discriminatory practices through the Human Rights Commission and celebrating our diversity.  Our city has made great strides in achieving our goals for cultural tolerance, and it is my hope we can continue those gains.”

Ahmed says that the vast majority of responses from the general public regarding his nomination were positive, with the intolerance relegated to a very small, public minority. He cites a disconnect between the conversations of politicians and those among the general public as a hindrance to the city. “My nomination was steeped in a lot of controversies and unnecessary rhetoric, which is unfortunate,” he says. “By and large, the communication among the interfaith community has been positive, but one negative instance set us back a bit. It just added another problem to the pile and drew negative attention to the city of Jacksonville.”

And though he finds the pipe-bomb incident to be “obviously disturbing,” Ahmed is quick to say that it doesn’t deter him from his work with the commission: “The work of a human rights advocate is a great challenge and a great opportunity. [An incident like this] doesn’t serve any purpose except to further our goals as activists. Anyone who believes in the ideals of equality will only further resolve to push their beliefs.”

Several city leaders, including the mayor, have spoken out against the May 10 attack as “unacceptable” and a hindrance to those trying to usher in an age of religious tolerance. For Ahmed, the amount of opposition to the attack serves to illustrate the willingness of the community to band together for religious and cultural diversity: “A lot has been done, a lot will be done and a lot can be done to combat these issues. Having so many city leaders speak out against the incident demonstrates how undeterred we will be from our goals.”

Photo courtesy unf.edu

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