TAMPA BAY NEWS As Z.J. Hafeez worked the room at a recent candidate forum in Tampa, he shook hands with a man who leaned in and peered at his name tag. “Z. J. Hafeez,” he read slowly. “That’s a funny name.”
Hafeez gets that reaction a lot as he campaigns for the District 67 state House seat that represents parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties. People often ask, “Are you American?”
“I tell them I’m American,” Hafeez said. “And then they ask where are you from, and I say the Tampa Bay area. And then they say, ‘No, no. Where are you from?’ So I say, ‘Okay. I was born in England.’ ” He said he knows what they’re really asking: What is your ethnicity or religion?
For the record, Hafeez, 26, is a Muslim of Pakistani descent. He moved to Florida when he was 3 years old with his parents, both physicians, who were born in Pakistan.
He describes himself as religious, attending a mosque at least once a week and following the Muslim tradition of praying five times a day. He also is a Muslim running for public office in Florida during an election season marked by seething anger over a planned mosque near ground zero and a controversy about burning the Koran.
Hafeez, a Democrat, has downplayed his religion for most of his campaign.
But that changed last week, when it seemed to Hafeez that a terrifying wave of Islamophobia was sweeping America. He released a statement that talked about America’s principle of religious freedom. He defended Islam, saying it is about “peace and brotherhood, not violence and radicalism.” (And now
“We must not blame Islam or Muslim-Americans for the actions of a small group of radical extremists,” he said.
Hafeez said he hasn’t experienced any prejudice on the campaign trail. “No one has spit on me, yelled at me. Nothing. At least not to my face,” he said.
At campaign events, he shakes hands, delivers talking points and answers questions about his “funny name.” Those questions typically lead to a positive discussion about religion, he said. Hafeez said he was motivated to get into politics, in part, because so few Muslims are.
If elected, he promises to promote the use of solar power, eliminate unnecessary sales tax exemptions, make education funding a priority and push for tort reform to limit frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits.
Despite his long chances, Hafeez said his candidacy should send a message to Americans wary of Muslims. (Yes, it will make Americans more wary)
But when Hafeez speaks to his co-religionists, it’s a different story… all about Islam, Islam, and Islam.
Unlvrebelyell “Close your eyes,” said Z.J. Hafeez, “and think of Islam.”
Hafeez is the first Muslim to run for the Florida State House of Representatives. He was invited by the Muslim Students Association of UNLV to give a presentation Thursday on the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in America, in an event entitled “Islamophobia 101.”
For 45 minutes, Hafeez was not just an aspiring politician on the campaign trail in Florida, he was a Muslim. And for him and many in the Islamic faith, the rise of perceived “Islamophobia” poses a threat not only to Muslims in the U.S., but also to believers abroad.
Hafeez discussed the rise in attacks against mosques and individuals of Arab descent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as well as what he sees as a tendency in the media to focus on the actions of violent Islamic groups while ignoring the moderate ones.
A lawyer and an alumnus of Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Hafeez brought his experience with policy groups on Capitol Hill to bear while working for the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland — an experience that was soured slightly, he admits, by the decision of the Swiss electorate to place a ban on the construction of minarets, a key element of the mosque and a symbol of Islamic architecture.
While the controversy over Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and the Islamic community center near Ground Zero continues to rage on in the mainstream U.S. media, Hafeez said that he finds himself preoccupied with another problem.
In his opinion, Muslims seem to be missing from communities across America. He referred to a study that claims that less than 30 percent of Americans know a Muslim personally. To Hafeez, this is unacceptable.
“We, as Muslims, have a duty to educate,” (Here it comes, the re-education of the infidels) he said, encouraging Muslims in the audience to get involved in their communities, to welcome new neighbors, improve interfaith cooperation among churches, synagogues, temples and mosques and to highlight similarities between denominations.
And despite his stated opinion that the resurgence of Islamophobia forms a threat to religious dialogue in America, Hafeez said he remains optimistic about the future for Muslims in the United States.
MSA Vice President Fatima Khan said she was excited to have a prominent Muslim speak on the rise of “a fear, a hatred, a misunderstanding of Islam.” “Islamophobia is all over the news,” she said. “The whole world’s looking at Islam.”