Fatima Ait Rami lives more than 2,457 miles away from San Bernardino, California, where two weeks ago 14 people were killed by a couple alleged to have been inspired by the terrorist group ISIS. But the Tuesday after the massacre, she felt afraid to wear her hijab outside in Orlando.
"I was very worried to get out of my house in the morning," she says. "My daughter, who also covers her head by her own choosing, was worried about going to college. But we have to go out and move on with our lives. We cannot hide. We didn't do anything wrong."
She didn't see anything out of the ordinary that day, but remembers the phone call the Islamic Center of Orlando on Ruby Lake Road received the day after terrorist attacks killed at least 130 people in Paris.
"We got a voicemail from a man saying he would come to take his revenge," she says. "That's why we're trying to reach out more and show people there's nothing to fear from us. We want to live happily and peacefully as a community with everyone else."
Ait Rami and Mohammad Akhtar, president of Muslim Council of America, helped organize a panel earlier this month to speak to Muslims and non-Muslims about perceptions of Islam and terrorism.
"Islam means peace," Akhtar told about 100 people who came to the panel. "Islam allows no killing no matter what. ... Why do we make a problem with some Muslims a problem with Islam?"
The forum happened before presidential candidate Donald Trump made national news last week calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," according to a campaign press release. Although his specific remarks were widely condemned by other Republican presidential candidates, the sentiment behind them has been ever present in national and state politics.
Gov. Rick Scott joined other state governors to ask that Congress refuse to allow any more Syrian refugees to enter the United States after one of the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks made his way into Europe by posing as a Syrian refugee. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said American aid toward refugees should be geared toward Syrian Christians. Forty-seven Democrats, including Florida Democratic U.S. Reps. Gwen Graham and Patrick Murphy, voted for a bill in the House of Representatives that would restrict the admission of Iraqi and Syrian refugees to the United States by requiring extra security procedures. Late last week, California Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez said "between 5 and 20 percent" of Muslims "have a desire for a caliphate and to institute that in any way possible," including the use of terrorism, according to BuzzFeed News. Sanchez later retracted her statements and said she believes "the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not support terrorism or ISIS."
Over and over again, Muslim Americans are asked to prove their humanity and denounce terrorists who happen to be Muslim, when the same isn't asked of other religions, says Rasha Mubarak, the Orlando regional coordinator for the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Florida.
Mubarak references the shooting that happened directly before San Bernardino at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado. Described as having extreme anti-abortion views, Robert Dear Jr. is alleged to have shot and killed three people at the clinic. At his first appearance in court, the New York Times reported that Dear told the court, "I'm guilty. There's no trial. ... I'm a warrior for the babies." Christians, she says, were not asked to condemn Dear.
"People are tired of trying to always condemn any kinds of acts by people who happen to be Muslim," she says. "What's exhausting is it's still not good enough. When shootings like this happen, we just want to send our condolences and mourn with other Americans, but we're put in the position of having to represent our religion."
Her community is frightened, Mubarak says. She gets calls daily, mostly from women who cover their heads, about bullying or hate crimes that happened in their schools, workplaces or neighborhoods.
"What Donald Trump believes is very toxic," she says. "It's hazardous and putting people's lives at risk. ... There's nothing American or patriotic in what he's saying or the biased media coverage of Muslims."
Back at the forum, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and other faith leaders were in attendance. Demings says people should get to know their neighbors and report any suspicious activity to law enforcement. Grayson says ISIS and other terrorist organizations are trying to create a sense of terror that divides people and vilifies the Muslim community.
"Why are we allowing anti- Muslims to dictate the narrative of Muslim Americans?" Grayson asks. "The [Republican presidential candidate] race looks like a reality show, but instead of The Biggest Loser, we're on The Biggest Bigot. President Obama never descends to inciting fear or hatred."
Maha Figueroa was a toddler when 9/11 happened, and at 17 years old, she's only ever lived in a world where Islamophobia is a constant presence.
"What people don't understand is the people who are committing these acts have a twisted view of the true religion of Islam," she says after the forum ended. "But people really think all Muslims are for this or that we have a secret agenda. We don't. I was born and raised here, and I think it's just horrible."
At her school, she says, it's hard to make new friends because people make assumptions about her before meeting her.
"It hurts," she says. "I hope in the future when I grow older, I can just look at this as something that happened in the past. I won't have to worry about my future kids dealing with this like I did."
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