Published: July 30, 2006

In Eyes of Our Muslim Neighbors


The Muslim community in Hernando County was pulled into the vortex surrounding the Sami Al-Arian conspiracy case three years ago when one of their own, Hatem Fariz, was accused of aiding a terrorist organization.

Affluent Muslim men and women, who were previously welcomed in Brooksville and Spring Hill, were largely surprised by the backlash of religious intolerance.

So after the case ended with Fariz pleading guilty to lesser charges last week, I wanted to check in with Hernando's Muslims to see how the case had changed their outlook, given the ongoing war on terror and recent events in the Middle East. I called Dr. Adel Eldin, a cardiologist and one of the more high-profile Muslims in Hernando.

Eldin was interested. He invited me to Friday prayers at the mosque in Spring Hill. I could listen to the half-hour sermon, then talk to members as they left.

Why not? This would be my first Muslim service. It was a perfect educational opportunity. If, as pundits say, we are in a struggle between Islam and the West, I needed to do a better job of understanding the other side.

American Muslims, people trying to practice an ancient faith in our modern, materialistic society, surely hold some of the answers to solving this conflict. It was an invitation I couldn't pass up. This could be the start of an important relationship.

What I heard, during the sermon inside and from members as we spoke outside in the parking lot afterward, was frustration - frustration that people in the Islamic world had failed to live up to the ideals of the prophet Mohammed, hence the dictatorships that rule much of the Middle East; frustration that their faith had been co-opted by those who would harm the innocent; frustration that as American Muslims they had so little influence in shaping the way this country views and treats the nations of the Middle East.

The speaker, Dr. Imad Tarabishy, read from the Koran and the prophet Mohammed's saying, switching from Arabic to English to accommodate his audience. Among the failures of Muslims, especially in the Middle East, he said, is their treatment of the poor. God would prevent water from heaven if you don't give to the poor, he said. And nobody does a better job of lining our pockets than God. That kind of message is universal.

But when he saw me taking notes, he interrupted his sermon and asked me to stop. I hadn't asked for his permission. After being told that I was a guest there to ask questions, he retorted that the mosque is no place for politics. That was an awkward moment.

After the service ended, I was told that Tarabishy was suffering from media fatigue and, like other Muslims, was tired of the backlash that seems inevitable whenever Muslims speak out against injustices.

Still, others wanted to say their piece, not about Fariz and the case of Al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor, but about the war between Hezbollah and Israel, the killing of civilians in Lebanon, American favoritism of Israel.

And they wanted to defend their religion from the extremists Americans see on TV, to affirm their stake in America.

"I'm indebted to this country," said neurologist Dr. Tarek Bakdash, a native of Syria.

Bakdash said this is home for him, his wife and two children. That's the same way Noureddine Mathlouthi, a Tunisian native and army veteran, felt.

Mathlouthi could easily pass for Hispanic. After 9/11, he said jokingly, he wished that he could speak Spanish. Still, as a Muslim and an Arab, he's unapologetic about his faith and his place in America.

"I'm here to stay," Mathlouthi said.

If Bakdash and Mathlouthi are going to be living among us, then I need to get to know them better- and so do you.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is

[Last modified July 29, 2006, 21:35:52]

© 2006 Tampa Bay Times