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CAIR chief says criticism rooted in misconceptions

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 10:57 AM
TAMPA -

The head of a local Muslim organization, Hassan Shibly, found himself fielding questions about two radically different events Tuesday.

On Monday, with the aid of Shibly and local Muslims, the FBI arrested a local man suspected of terrorism.

Later that day, Shibly and the Hillsborough County school district came under fire from David Caton and his American Family Association for a high school program on Islam.

Shibly, head of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations, argues that the two events aren't so different. He says they both stem from the idea that Islam can't be part of a democratic society.

The man arrested Monday, Sami Osmakac, had reproached local Muslims, saying they were infidels because they didn't condemn democracy, Shibly said.

In Caton's challenge, he does not directly attack Islam, but he argues that its teachings don't belong in a U.S. classroom.

The separate events exemplify the fluid nature of current Muslim-American relations, with two extreme ends pulling against a moderate, often beleaguered, middle.

Caton is criticizing Sickles High School teacher Kelly Miliziano for inviting Shibly to a daylong program in November with her Advanced Placement World History students, and he's calling on his supporters, whom he says number up to 35,000, to demand the program be stopped.

Caton's American Family Association website published several emails he had requested concerning Miliziano's program. In one to the Islamic council, known as CAIR, Miliziano noted that other CAIR representatives had visited students over the years and suggested that Shibly should cover topics such as CAIR's mission, stereotypes and misconceptions, and human rights and Islam.

Caton says Shibly is more radical than he appears, quoting on his site from Shibly's statements concerning radical clerics and organizations. His primary complaint is that he and CAIR promote a religion, however.

"Just look at the name, CAIR, Council on American-Islamic Relations. Islam is a religion," he said. "It would be the same thing as having the Catholic Conference or the Southern Baptist Convention coming into the school."

If the district doesn't stop the Shibly visits, it should bring in other groups to counter the Islamic message, he said.

Hillsborough County school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said Miliziano does present other religious views.

Miliziano "has done this for several years, bringing in a representative of Buddhism, Hinduism. … She's had a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister."

More importantly, he said, she's following the official state guide, the Sunshine State Standards, which specifically call for comparative religious studies.

School board Chairwoman Candy Olson said students "need to hear from a whole lot of different points of view." She also faults Caton for not giving them enough credit.

"It's a real underestimation of them to think someone could come into a class for one day and brainwash them."

Shibly said he's spoken to hundreds of high school and college students in the past several months to explain Islam and try to dispel misconceptions.

"Ignorance leads to fear, which leads to hatred, which leads to violence," he said.

He blames ignorance for the Osmakac episode.

Osmakac, 25, of Pinellas Park, alarmed Tampa Muslims with his extremist, separatist views, Shibly said. He fought with members. "He called us infidels because we weren't anti-American."

He was banned from two local mosques, and Shibly and others began advising fearful members to report their concerns about him to law enforcement.

On Monday, federal agents arrested Osmakac on charges of planning terrorist attacks in Tampa.

Shibly called Osmakac a "lone wolf," angry and misguided, like a lot of violent people. He fears the damage people like Osmakac do to Islam.

"My kids are going to grow up here. We don't want to grow up in an environment where people hate or fear them because of their religion. But Osmakac promotes the stereotype they have of Islam."


lpeterson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834 Twitter: @TBO_USFetc

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