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Wilfredo Amr Ruiz: Florida says 'no' to religious bigotry

By Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, For Special to the Sun, On 19 April 2016, Read Original
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An anti-Islam message was recently posted on a billboard along Seashore Avenue in St. Augustine. In the blink of an eye, there were dozens of local, state and even international media reports.

Why does this message resonate so much that it is reported around the globe? In a nutshell, this message may be defined as a constitutionally protected major eyesore — a wounding, insensitive hate statement with the clear intent to polarize the residents of Florida.

This unfortunate story went viral on the same day that little coverage was given to the University of Miami’s initiative to add an ablution room for the Muslim students’ cleansing practice before praying. This contrast exemplifies that what is truly going on in Florida’s streets among its culturally and religiously rich communities is not necessarily reflected in our information outlets.

I am sure that it brought tears to many eyes to witness news reports about the billboard story portraying many non-Muslim neighbors openly and clearly rejecting religious bigotry. One woman stated, “Everyone has a right to practice their own religion, and I don't think that should be on a billboard."

One brave man stood next to the billboard with a sign that read: “Locals for Tolerance” and an equally brave man in a firm tone stated his dislike: “I find this sign very offensive. I didn’t go to Afghanistan and fight for our country to have this kind of thing. I have friends that practice this religion and I fought for them just as equally as I fought for everyone else.” The one thing they all had in common was that they were true Americans.

Unfortunately, there are and will always be bigots, racists and haters but they are not us — honorable Floridians. These haters are clearly not the Jews from one of our county synagogues who kindly invited members of the Muslim community to share their Shabbat celebration. They are not the Muslims from the same county’s Islamic center that invited the Jewish community to their mosque to share a meal, engage in dialogue, and observe the prayer service.

They are not the Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim law enforcement officers, first responders, and other men and women in uniform who will protect all of us, including the bigots, without giving a thought to their beliefs and practices.

I have had the pleasure of serving on various Miami government and nonprofit boards that included Christian pastors, Jewish rabbis, agnostics, etc. and we were all unanimously moved to offer our time for the common good and well-being of our state.

That is our true Florida, not the one we need to aspire because it is real and tangible. We just need to discover it, recognize it, highlight it and defend it. The intolerant bigots are and will always be the exception. We are called to keep them always like that: the rejected exception.

Each day I live proud to have honorably served in uniform as a naval officer for our nation. We are certainly very fortunate to live in a country where the norm is to respect freedom of speech but above all to stand tall against religious bigotry. God bless America!

Wilfredo A. Ruiz is communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations—Florida. He is an attorney, chaplain and international columnist on Islam, Christian-Muslim relations and foreign policy in the Muslim world.

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