Local Muslims, school officials criticize 'Islam of the Devil' shirts

Dr. Mohammad Taqitalks with Alachua County School Board members on the acts of discriminatory harassment of Muslim students in the public school system at the Kirby-Smith Center on Tuesday.

Aaron E. Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 8:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 8:40 p.m.

Dr. Nausheen Khuddus has four children in the local public school system -- three in elementary school and one in middle school.

A member of the Muslim faith, Khuddus said her young children experienced "bigotry and prejudice" for the first time after a few other school children who are members of Dove World Outreach Center church showed up for the first week of school wearing shirts with the message "Islam is of the Devil."

Tuesday night, Khuddus was among approximately two dozen members of the local Muslim community who showed up at an Alachua County School Board meeting and they were among five speakers who thanked the school district for sending home children who wore the shirt bearing the anti-Muslim message as a violation of the district's dress code.

"There should be no room for this type of hate speech, whether it be directed at Islam or any other religion or creed," she said.

Dr. Rizwana Thanawala said she has two children in the public school system and "when my kids heard about this, their faces fell."

"I feel even more shocked that the church would use children to spread a misguided message," she added.

Yousif Mohamed, 16, a junior in the International Baccalaureate program at Eastside High, said parents and students should "enforce the principle of tolerance in our community" and not criticize or condemn those who have different religious beliefs.

Located in the 5800 block of Northwest 37th Street, the Dove World Outreach Center began drawing attention, and some protesters, in early July when the church posted a sign reading "Islam is of the Devil" on its property.

Since public school started on Aug. 24, at least one elementary, one middle and two high school students from two families who are members of the Dove congregation have shown up to school with shirts with a Gospel passage on the front and "Islam is of the Devil" on the back.

When these students declined to change the shirts, they were sent home for violation of the school dress code, which prohibits clothing that school officials conclude would "disrupt the learning process" or cause other students to be "offended or distracted."

Nancy E. Dowd, director of the University of Florida Center on Children & the Law, said the conflict over the shirt pits the First Amendment rights of the parents and children and the rights of the school, which are designed for the well being of all children.

"Students have First Amendment rights, but they are more limited" than those of adults, Dowd said in a phone interview prior to the meeting.

Wayne Sapp, a member of the Dove Center congregation, released a statement from senior pastor Terry Jones Tuesday night that stated, in part: "We are clearly within our constitutional rights of freedom of speech."

The statement from the Dove Center went on to say that the church wanted to send a warning about a "very dangerous and brutal religion."

Alachua County Superintendent Dan Boyd told the crowd at Tuesday night's meeting that school district officials feel "embarrassed by what happened" with children wearing the anti-Islam shirts to school.

"I want you to know this kind of behavior will not be tolerated," Boyd added.

School Board Chairwoman Tina Pinkoson said the anti-Muslim sentiments were not widespread in the public schoo system.

"i just wanted to say we can't let -- and I don't want -- one family to have the power to make people feel, to make you feel, that you are threatened or that there is intolerance in our schools," Pinkoson said. "And I believe one family, one small sect, has started a very nasty and very ugly trend."

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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