Across the country over the past few years, and particularly after following in the steps of President-Elect Donald Trump in the past year, national, state and local politicians have amplified anti-Muslim rhetoric by making increasingly more inflammatory comments and proposing wildly impractical new laws. It’s led to a wave of incidents violence, harassment and general unkindness toward Muslims not seen since the days following the attacks of September 2001.
Muslim women have had hot coffee thrown at them. Fires have been set at mosques. Children have been verbally and physically harassed. With the horror at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, carried out by a Muslim, the outlook can seem less than hopeful.
And with Donald Trump’s election victory two weeks ago, there have been even more hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities being reported across the country.
In Flagler County, however, there’s been none of that. While the exact number of Muslims in the county isn’t known (there’s no mosque in Palm Coast or surrounding areas in the county), Muslim families who’ve lived here for a long time say they’re happy to report that they’ve always been welcomed with open arms and friendly words.
“We’ve never had one problem in the 16 years we’ve lived here,” said Palm Coast’s Muhammad Tariq. “My children, my wife, we have never seen anything but kindness and friendliness toward us. It’s been a wonderful, welcoming place.”
Tariq owns two gas stations, a Sunoco and a Marathon station on U.S. 1, and said his customers and friends have “treated me just like everyone else.” His three sons, 9-year-old twins Amir and Asim, and 7-year-old Qadir, have never experienced any prejudice, either.
“If the price of gas is too high for them, or they get angry about something else, they might make some kind of silly comment,” Tariq said. “But that’s very, very rare.”
Khalid Muneer, another Palm Coast resident, is the President of the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, and has lived in the area since 1991. He said some relatives lived here and when they came for a visit in 1990, they liked it so much they decided to move.
“One of the main reasons I moved here is because it’s a small community, and you can keep an eye on your children,” said Muneer, who has put five children through college, three at the University of Florida (which has a thriving community of Muslim students), and one each at Stetson and UCF. “The people of Palm Coast have always been such welcoming people, and my activities in the community have always been positive.”
Muneer, who works as a real estate broker, said his children have had lifelong friends they’ve made through the Flagler school district and have never mentioned any problems with harassment from other students.
A tiny community of Muslims speaks of open arms and even protectiveness.
There are no reliable numbers stating the exact number of Muslims in Flagler County; Data compiled by the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) in 2010 listed 1,550 Muslim adherents in Volusia Co., and 5,787 in Duval Co., but did not have figures for Flagler. Muneer said he believes there are 11 Muslim families living in Palm Coast currently (“that’s the most we’ve had in a long time,” he added), but wasn’t sure about the surrounding area.
Jumana “Gigi” Alkhatib, a Palm Coast-based attorney who teaches a college criminal justice course at Florida Technical College in Orlando, expressed similar sentiments. Alkhatib admits that the timing of her family’s arrival in Flagler made for a rocky beginning. It was 2001. You can almost guess the rest.
“I was in 9th grade and a few weeks into my first school year, 9/11 happened,” she recalled. “It was horrible for a little while; people would make not so nice comments.”
Alkhatib, whose parents are both engineers, said maybe the most offensive thing she heard was when the school bus dropped her off one day.
“Some boy said ‘How’d your parents get that house, did Osama bin Laden buy it for them?'” she said. “But within a few months, everything had calmed down, and since then I’ve had no problems.”
Muneer said the few weeks after 9/11 were also the only trouble spot for his family; he kept his children out of school for three days after the attacks,
Alkhatib, who is tri-lingual, said she has a significant Arab client base but that most of the problems her clients describe occur in the larger communities of Daytona Beach or Orlando.
“The worst thing I see here is when I’m walking with my uncle’s wives, I’ll get a double-take,” Alkhatib said.
When it comes to relations with law enforcement in Flagler and surrounding counties, all three Muslims interviewed said they’d had only positive interactions.
Tariq said that shortly after 9/11, police officers from Bunnell came to him at one of his stations and told him they were looking out for him, and to immediately report any trouble that occurred.
Alkhatib said she’d worked with Flagler County law enforcement and surrounding counties numerous times and applauds the outreach efforts that have been made.
“There’s still the occasional comment from a law enforcement person like ‘oh, there’s a Muslim woman over there, maybe I should only talk to the man,'” she said. “I want to go over to them and say, ‘come on, it’s 2016!”
All three Muslim families interviewed who live in Flagler County said they worship at the Islamic Center of Daytona Beach, and said they have always felt welcome there and have had no problems with protesters. (Several messages left for Imam Belal Shemmam Alzuhiry of the Islamic Center of Daytona Beach were not returned.)
At the Northeast Florida Islamic Center in Jacksonville, spokesperson Ashraf Shaikh said the community there had always been friendly and offered very little harassment or problems.
“About six or seven years ago some idiot put a pipe bomb outside the property, but it went off and no one got hurt,” Shaikh said. “That’s been about it. Overall, the support we’ve received from the Jewish and Christian communities has been tremendous. Almost everyone here has the common sense to know that millions and millions of Muslims are not terrorists.”
As for the hostile and unconstitutional notion put forth by Trump (and recently not ruled out by his new chief of staff, Reince Priebus) that he would put a temporary halt to Muslims entering the U.S., only Tariq expressed real concern.
Tariq said his father and other relatives live in Pakistan and visit occasionally, with the last time being around six months ago.
“It is something I’m a little worried about, because we do have family abroad, but I don’t know that anything like that would actually happen,” Tariq said.
“Our community definitely sees it as just rhetoric,” Muneer added. “What a lot of people don’t realize is the economic impact that banning Muslims would have on the economy. Florida is heavily dependent on international tourists, and passing a law like that would really hurt the state.”