When Parvez Ahmed is nominated to the Human Rights Commission in Jacksonville, Florida, some allege that the professor has links to terror; others argue this is a matter of “guilt by association.” How will Ahmed – and other civic and religious leaders – respond?
The full case is comprised of an (A) Case and a (B) Case.
The Jacksonville Human Rights Commission (JHRC) rarely made the news, let alone the headlines. Few in the sprawling city of Jacksonville, Florida seemed to know what the JHRC did. But in April 2010, the nomination of Dr. Parvez Ahmed to a volunteer position on the JHRC was featured on local newspapers and newscasts, debated online and in city hall, and became the subject of significant ‐‐and heated‐‐ email traffic. Some questioned Ahmed’s ties to the Council on American‐Islamic Relations and made allegations of links to terror, and a few publicly asked whether a Muslim should be allowed to hold public office; others were dismayed that the professor with a long history of interfaith involvement was subject to “guilt by association.”
Optimistic by nature, Parvez Ahmed is quick to smile and direct in his gaze; his accent carries faint traces from his birthplace of Kolkata, India. Although he admits to a fondness for Bollywood movies, his own temperament is not prone to dramatic or emotional responses: the professor of finance is more likely to take an analytical approach. When Ahmed heard that he was nominated to the City of Jacksonville’s Human Rights Commission, he recalled, “I was happy; this is something I wanted to do… I hoped that it would set a good example for members of the Muslim community that have often expressed grievances about being excluded from public life.” As the controversy over his nomination to the volunteer post began to grow, Ahmed, who taught at the University of North Florida and had been active in interfaith work for nearly a decade, was surprised:
I’m not a person whose views are really a secret. I write, I speak, I’m in private dialogues with people, I’m in public dialogues with people, I’m in churches, I’m in synagogues, I’m in schools, I’m in mosques, how come none of the people who ever interacted with me ever came up with this viewpoint?
Ahmed’s op‐eds appeared in conservative newspapers like the local Florida Times-Union as well as more liberal papers like the Miami Herald; within the Muslim media, he is among the few whose views find a home in mainstream Muslim publications such as Islamic Horizons and The Message, as well as the progressive blog AltMuslim. Before his nomination, Ahmed wrote about the importance of civic engagement and expressed his views on extremism:
Despite the many setbacks on civil liberties, America remains a land of the free. Muslims must use this freedom to effectively respond to the vigorous challenges to some of their deeply held beliefs. While speaking out against perceived affront to their religion or way of life they must uphold the right of others to offend without backing down from seeking ways to defend their own rights. This, of course, entails an unequivocal commitment to the rule of law. Citizens have the right to protest unfair treatment; and when they believe the law is unjust, they should work to change such laws. Promising integration lies in civic participation and political mobilization. Random violence targeting innocent civilians is immoral and ineffective. It can never be justified no matter how severe the underlying grievance. This message needs to be reinforced from the mosque pulpit to the kitchen table.
On April 10, 2010, Ahmed learned of a growing controversy over his nomination when a local reporter asked him to comment on concerns from a group called ACT! for America (ACT). In late March, he encountered ACT for the first time at a screening of the film What a Billion Muslims Really Think. When Ahmed arrived, he found picketers outside: as he walked through with his young children, he felt a mix of fear and surprise. Some held signs; others held cameras. “It was intimidating.” The picketers, who identified as members of ACT, later made “aggressive and accusatory” statements during the question and answer period. Although he considered most of their claims “incoherent,” it was still “troubling.” When Ahmed returned home that night, he Googled “ACT for America” and quickly recognized the rhetoric and references: the anti‐Muslim narrative was all too familiar.
One of the protestors from the film screening, Randy McDaniels, contacted the Mayor and City Council of Jacksonville with an email on April 9: “I respectfully request you review the attached intelligence brief on the candidate Parvez Ahmed. It will [be] very evident as to why this man should not be considered for this position and may also raise questions [on] additional positions he holds in the community.”[One of the protestors from the film screening, Randy McDaniels, contacted the Mayor and City Council of Jacksonville with an email on April 9: “I respectfully request you review the attached intelligence brief on the candidate Parvez Ahmed. It will [be] very evident as to why this man should not be considered for this position and may also raise questions [on] additional positions he holds in the community.” His email identified him as the chapter leader of Jacksonville ACT. The footer of his message included a quote from Edmund Burke: “All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Later that evening, McDaniels sent a second email with a corrected copy of the intelligence brief and a new message at the end: “First comes Saturday; then comes Sunday!” A note explained: “Islamic saying meaning: First we kill the Jews; then we kill the Christians.”
To Ahmed, ACT was clearly a hate group. Why, he wondered, were some members of the City Council listening?
1. Ahmed was “surprised” about the controversy over his nomination to Jacksonville’s Human Rights Commission. Why do you think he was surprised?
2. At the time, Ahmed hadn’t heard of the group ACT! for America, which was leading the opposition. What does he—and others in Jacksonville—need to know about ACT? Based on your own research, what is the mission of this group?
3. For some observers, this is a case of “guilt by association,” with a hate group making false claims. Would Ahmed risk dignifying their claims by refuting them? What would he risk by staying silent?
4. How, if at all, should City Council members interrogate the quoted “Islamic saying” included in the email opposing Ahmed’s nomination?
5. What challenges do hate groups and hate speech present for pluralism? How do we distinguish hate groups and hate speech from legitimate forms of criticism?