Politics

america on edge

A Florida city that’s voting with fear

Mariam Harb, left, Ayah Elassadi, center, and Hanan Krijestorac, right, enjoyed a laugh during a lunch break at the Garden of Sahaba Academy, an Islamic school at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton.

Angel Valentin for the Boston Globe

Mariam Harb, left, Ayah Elassadi, center, and Hanan Krijestorac, right, enjoyed a laugh during a lunch break at the Garden of Sahaba Academy, an Islamic school at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton.

One in a series of occasional articles examining the unsettled American electorate.

BOCA RATON, Fla. — The notices arrived in June, tucked amid bills and junk mail, to hundreds of residents of this wealthy seaside community.

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Kathleen Kee, a home health nurse, stood at her kitchen counter, still dressed in scrubs, staring in disbelief at the voter information card from the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections.

There, in the upper left corner spelled out in bold uppercase type, was her new polling location: The Islamic Center of Boca Raton.

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A mosque?

Kee fumed to her husband, who agreed that a mosque was not an appropriate place to vote — not this year, not given the terror attacks exploding around the world, not in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando nightclub massacre, carried out by a gunman who once worshiped at a mosque an hour up the road.

“How do I know there’s not the same type of people in this mosque that grew that shooter?” Kee says. “Just because we’re here in beautiful Boca Raton doesn’t mean we’re safe.”

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Sun-splashed Boca, dotted with palm trees and pink buildings. Where valets park your car at the Publix supermarket as well as the beach club. Where snowbirds come to vacation or live out their days in perfectly manicured paradise.

But behind the good-life gloss lurks a layer of anger directed at Muslims that’s deepened across the country in the 15 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and boiled to the surface with fresh intensity, especially in Florida, after the June 12 shooting at a gay dance club in Orlando. In that frenzy of violence, an American Muslim killed 49 people and injured 53.

Stopping such lone-wolf attacks is proving to be one of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement officials. There are no easy solutions, but Americans nonetheless want action, and many have focused their ire on Muslims generally. A June 2016 Brookings poll found 55 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam — sentiments Donald Trump has actively stoked in his bid for president.

Republicans are more likely to connect Islam with violence and support greater scrutiny of all Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center. Another element in the volatile mix: Florida, a swing state critical to both Trump and Hillary Clinton’s prospects, is home to one of the nation’s fastest-growing Muslim populations.

So when election notices went out to Boca Raton residents just days after the Orlando massacre, those anti-Islamic feelings were suddenly and vividly on a collision course with the most fundamental rite of democracy.

Dozens of voters flooded the county elections supervisor with phone calls and e-mails of complaint, according to public records reviewed by the Globe. One anonymous caller warned that individuals planned to impede voting by calling in a bomb threat on Election Day.

Another woman interviewed by the Globe was under the mistaken impression that she would have to “cover up” to enter a mosque to vote. A Jewish man feared it was all a plot to get Jews to convert to Islam. Others voiced suspicion that their ballots would not be counted.

Kee, a Republican in her mid-60s, decided she would simply not cast her ballot in a mosque. She e-mailed the county requesting that her polling site be changed, saying she was “outraged to say the least. . . . Political correctness is killing our state and country.’’

Kee told the Globe in an interview that she had sometimes voted in a church — a Catholic church — and never had a problem with it.

“Frankly, I don’t know any Catholics that are looking to kill me,” she said.

***

The mint-green mosque ringed by mango and banana trees sprang up from a few acres of Boca Raton scrub four years ago. With its rise came a sense of belonging for a growing religious minority.

At the time, the biggest fear among local residents was about being awakened before dawn by the call to prayer booming from a minaret, even though leaders of the Islamic center promised there would be no such calls.

The number of Islamic worshipers in the community has increased more than tenfold since 1996, when Bassem Alhalabi, president of the Islamic center and a Syrian immigrant, moved to Boca Raton to join the engineering faculty at neighboring Florida Atlantic University. Back then, Muslim students and professors prayed in a university classroom, later moving services to a rented storefront in a shopping plaza.

Alhalabi estimates there are now about 1,000 Muslim families living in this city of 93,000, spread among three mosques, including the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, which is the largest. With the community’s growth came a growing feeling of unease among non-Muslim neighbors, stirred by a cadre of Florida-based organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as “hate groups.”

Leaders of these groups, through e-mail blasts, social media, and other publications, advance a narrative that radical Muslims are settling in America to engage in a holy war. A favorite target: Alhalabi and his mosque, which they accuse of terrorist ties despite what local authorities say is a lack of evidence.

Opponents continue to cite an anti-Semitic essay posted on an early version of the Islamic center’s website. Alhalabi said the link had been posted by a volunteer, and that he called for its removal once the offensive language came to his attention.

Ted Seymour, a 77-year-old Donald Trump supporter, in his Boca Raton home. He believed that a local Islamic center had connections with extremism.

Angel Valentin for the Boston Globe

Ted Seymour, a 77-year-old Donald Trump supporter, in his Boca Raton home. He believed that a local Islamic center had connections with extremism.

Alhalabi, a 55-year-old professor with a graying beard, and his wife, Maha, have reached out to other religious leaders for support in the face of such attacks. Their congregation has also joined forces with Christians and Jews to perform community outreach, serving meals to the homeless, tutoring children, and reading to elderly people.

And so, when the county elections supervisor, Susan Bucher, asked Alhalabi in April if the Islamic center, with its prominent location and plentiful parking, would serve as a polling site, he immediately agreed.

“I said, ‘Of course. It would be our honor,’” Alhalabi said. “We built it as a landmark to serve the community. What could be more democratic?”

It was to be the first mosque in Florida to be named a polling location, though mosques serve as voting sites in other states, including California, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, according to the Associated Press. The Palm Beach County electorate also votes in about 80 churches and a handful of synagogues.

Alhalabi was so excited he began planning a lunch and dinner menu, arranging for a shawarma food truck to feed voters on Election Day. The county elections office reminded him that this would not be a party and said that cold water would do just fine.

***

Ted Seymour, 77, a local Republican committee member with a Trump bumper sticker on his Mazda SUV, frequently drives past the mosque. He chatted with Bassem Alhalabi and his wife at an interfaith event just outside of town, and they invited him to visit the Islamic center, but he has yet to find the time to stop in.

It’s not that he doesn’t like Muslims, he says, describing himself as a Christian missionary. He has befriended many Muslims during his travels to Dubai, Egypt, and Lebanon. He even speaks enough Arabic to stumble through greetings.

But Seymour says he believes rumors that the Islamic center has connections with extremism. So when he received word that the mosque would be his new polling site, he recoiled and immediately contacted the county’s GOP leaders.

“It’s an uncomfortable place to vote with all that’s going on,” said Seymour, a retired salesman. “Just common sense would tell you that with all the radical Islamic terrorism happening and the hatred of Jews, it doesn’t make sense to have a polling place at a mosque right in the middle of an Orthodox Jewish community.”

Other voters echoed similar sentiments in calls and e-mails to Boca Raton’s mayor, Susan Haynie, a Republican who ended up urging the county to find an alternative polling site — somewhere “more familiar to voters.’’

“They were mostly fear-based concerns,” Haynie told the Globe. “I’m not going to judge whether their concerns were founded, but any location that would have a negative impact on voter turnout should be rethought.”

***

It is not hard to find anti-Muslim activism in this part of Florida. Two hours north of Boca Raton, in Viera, a security guard stood posted at the entrance of a government building. Inside, as thunder boomed and lightning illuminated the night sky, Roger Gangitano kicked off a local chapter meeting of ACT for America, an organization that claims 1,000 chapters across the country and bills itself as the “NRA of national security.”

Before him sat more than 50 graying citizens, including about a dozen veterans. Also in attendance: a county commissioner and a candidate for City Council in a neighboring town. One man, a retired economist, wore a bright red Trump T-shirt beneath a tweed blazer.

The Gatlin Brothers played over the sound system. Gangitano playfully danced by the lectern, as members passed a collections basket around the room. Then he delivered the invocation.

“Dear God,” said the Long Island transplant, “teach us not to be judgmental.”

He proceeded to accuse “almost all Muslim organizations in America” of being front groups for the Muslim Brotherhood. Muslims, he said, are waging a “settlement jihad” in the United States.

“By 2020, they will probably be putting up a presidential candidate,” Gangitano warned.

A woman in the crowd gasped. “Oh God!” she said.

Gangitano seized on the Boca Raton mosque controversy to illustrate why its members must remain vigilant against the encroachment of Islam into American civic life and “defend our Democratic values.”

Tony Verzi, a longtime member seated in the front row, stood to update the group on refugee resettlement — “one of the best-kept secrets in American history.” He urged them “to be on the lookout” and attend county commissioner meetings to make sure Syrian refugees aren’t being let into the county.

Tony Verzi spoke during an ACT for America chapter meeting at the Brevard County Government Complex in Viera, Fla., last month.

Scott A. Miller for The Boston Globe

Tony Verzi spoke during an ACT for America chapter meeting at the Brevard County Government Complex in Viera, Fla., last month.

“Unlike the Polish, the Germans, and the Italian immigrants, they are coming in most cases not to be American. They are not coming to join the cultural fabric,” Verzi said in an interview.

The Islamic State has no doubt infiltrated the refugees trying to enter the United States, Verzi said. “We have a fear, but it’s a fear justified by current events and justified by history,” he said. “The problem is nobody talks about it.”

Trump, meanwhile, “is basically the first politician to really discuss this blatantly in public,” he said. “He realizes what’s happening.”

***

Tom Trento wages his battle against the threat of Islamic jihad from a secret television studio in Lake Worth about 20 minutes north of Boca Raton. Secret, he said, because he fears his words will invite retaliation.

Trento, founder of The United West, recently broadcast a half-hour investigation into the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, arguing that the mosque should never again be considered as a place to vote. In the piece, promoted on Breitbart News, he accused Bassem Alhalabi of holding “an extreme hatred of Jews” and alleged that the Islamic center was founded on the “chopping off your head kind of jihad.”

Trento has attacked the mosque before on his show “Enemies of the State,” which aired daily over Facebook and on commercial radio for three years, but recently shut down after Trento ran short on money.

Trento said he found a wider audience for his views as the community seethed over the polling center controversy.

“Donald Trump comes along and says there’s a problem there, and it’s gotta be fixed. And boom,’’ he said, “there’s a connection to what you know viscerally, intellectually, philosophically with what some guy is yelling about politically.”

Trento works closely with a coalition of other anti-Islamic groups. The network has mounted national campaigns to get states, including Florida, to pass laws forcing courts to disregard Islamic religious principles and school districts to change world history textbooks that the groups say are “Islam-tainted.”

By many accounts, such activity is having an effect. The percentage of Americans who feel Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers has doubled since 2002, according to the Pew Research Center; 68 percent of Republicans feel that way, compared with 30 percent of Democrats.

“The sentiment that Muslims are all extremists is a mainstream view now. That’s the real sinister part,” said Chris Bail, a sociologist at Duke University whose 2015 book, “Terrified,” examines how such fringe organizations have been normalized. “These groups are a legitimate voice in no small part because of Donald Trump.”

Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

***

Prayers for the Eid ad-Adha holiday had just finished at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton when Bassem Alhalabi received the news.

Shortly before midnight on Sunday, Sept. 11, a man on a motorcycle had pulled up to a mosque an hour north of Boca Raton and set it ablaze. The arson was the culmination of a series of escalating attacks in recent months against the mosque, located in the small coastal town of Fort Pierce. It was where the gunman who committed the June Orlando nightclub massacre occasionally prayed.

Now images of its charred remains were all over the news. Police arrested a suspect several days later and classified the arson as a hate crime, noting anti-Islamic comments on the 32-year-old man’s Facebook page.

“I was scared. We were all scared. I know people say Donald Trump would never say go burn down a mosque, but where did [the arsonist] get this idea from? From politicians insinuating it,” Alhalabi said. “Hating Islam and Muslims is becoming easy. It’s becoming OK.”

Alhalabi’s wife, Maha, said her friend was cornered and verbally harassed by a man in the greeting card aisle of a Boca Raton supermarket in February because she was wearing a headscarf.

The man yelled at her to remove her headscarf and to go back to her country, according to the police report on the incident; he said Muslims have not done anything positive in the United States and indicated that he would be voting for Trump.

The officer who responded determined that the incident was not criminal and said that the man who accosted her was entitled to his beliefs.

Maha Alhalabi said she follows a careful daily routine to avoid attention, patronizing the same stores for 20 years, so that her headscarf does not arouse suspicion.

Science class at the Garden of Sahaba Academy, the Islamic school at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton.

Angel Valentin for the Boston Globe

Science class at the Garden of Sahaba Academy, the Islamic school at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton.

“Wherever I go, people have memorized me,” she said. “I don’t look anybody in the eye when I’m driving because when my friends do, they have gotten the finger.”

Her community is on edge, she said, just like the rest of the nation. Accustomed by now to hate groups labeling her husband a terrorist sympathizer, she said it’s not the organizations she worries most about — “It’s the average Joe out there.”

Average Joes like the anonymous caller who raised the specter of an Election Day bomb threat to disrupt voting at the mosque.

Palm Beach County officials responded swiftly to the groundswell of demands to move the voting site.

“Looks like this is becoming a bigger problem than I thought,” Bucher, the elections supervisor, had written in a June 29 e-mail instructing her chief deputy to scout alternate locations.

By mid-July, voters in the precinct received new cards in the mail. Their polling site had been moved to a library just outside the precinct boundary.

In a letter to Bassem Alhalabi, Bucher, a Democrat, said she made her decision “in the best interest of the community.” Bucher told the Globe she would have made the same decision for any voting location that had received a bomb threat.

Bigotry, Alhalabi said, had won.

“Maybe we were pushing our community a little too fast,” he said.

In November, Alhalabi and his wife will still proudly cast their ballots — at a Catholic church a half-mile down the street from their home.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.
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