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Tampa's Muslims brace for backlash

They fear Americans will take out their frustrations on Islamic schools and community centers in the bay area.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2001


They fear Americans will take out their frustrations on Islamic schools and community centers in the bay area.

TAMPA -- The 300 children at the Muslim school on Sligh Avenue were long gone Tuesday afternoon when a middle-aged woman steered her Chevy Impala into the parking lot.

Two U.S. flags fluttered from the roof of her car. Two handwritten signs were propped in the windows.

God Bless USA, read one.

The other said, Death To Terrorists.

"She said she got caught up in everything on the news," said Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Edmond Anctil.

Anctil, earlier dispatched to the school in anticipation of trouble, stopped the woman. He took her flags and her signs and her name, then sent her home.

"There were no weapons," Anctil said.

"In the past, people have taken their frustration out on us," said Yahya O'Keeffe, a spokesman for the school, the Universal Academy of Florida, and its mosque, the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area.

The prekindergarten through 11th-grade students were sent home about 10 a.m., two hours after arriving.

A few miles away, at the Islamic Academy of Florida in Temple Terrace, administrators decided not to close early. About a dozen parents picked up their children anyway. A sheriff's deputy was posted at the entrance and mosque members walked the grounds.

In "an excess of caution," today's classes were canceled, said administrator and University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian. Employees also taped cardboard over the word "Islamic" on the school buses.

"We are worried about the children, and our reputation (as Muslims), about people rushing to conclusions," said his wife, Nahla Al-Arian, a teacher at the school.

For Tampa's Islamic community, the anxiety is heightened because two of the founders of an Islamic school and community center, Sami Al-Arian and Mazen Al-Najjar, have been linked to known terrorists. Neither man has ever been charged with a crime. "I am sad for every reason, for what happened to the victims, for what happened to the world. It is horrible," said Al-Najjar, who was held for three years by the Immigration and Naturalization Service after he was accused of associating with terrorists. Al-Najjar was released last year when a judge ruled the government had no evidence to continue holding him.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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