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Friday, March 7, 2014

Mulberry Organizers Against Religious Intolerance Invited to Washington Forum

Last Modified: Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 11:17 p.m.

MULBERRY | What began as a simple stand against intolerance in Mulberry last year is bringing three Polk County residents a voice today in a forum at Washington's renowned Brookings Institution.

MULBERRY | What began as a simple stand against intolerance in Mulberry last year is bringing three Polk County residents a voice today in a forum at Washington's renowned Brookings Institution. Butch and Curtis Rahman will join Suzanne Carter today in speaking at a forum on religious intolerance in Washington.


"I don't think any of us imagined it would turn into what it has," said Suzanne Carter, a Mulberry resident who was outraged when Florida pastor Terry Jones said he planned to burn 2,998 Muslim holy books in Mulberry last Sept. 11.

"I just didn't want to see that in my town," she said, "and I felt like I needed to do something about it."

Last summer, Mulberry resident Bill McKinney offered to let Jones, pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Bradenton, stage the Quran burning at his home. Soon after Jones announced those plans, Butch Rahman and his son Curtis, then 17 years old, were working on their rental property down the street from McKinney's home.

"I wanted to know what he was thinking," said Curtis, a senior at George Jenkins High School, "so I went to his house and asked him. We had a good discussion, but we didn't agree on much. I just didn't think it was right."

Then Mike Ghouse, president of the Dallas-based World Muslim Congress, heard about Jones' plan and the community's effort to counter it, and he decided to take a stand of his own. His group had staged a Unity Day ceremony annually on Sept. 11, honoring the memory of those killed in the terrorism attacks on the United States on that date in 2001, and he decided to bring that ceremony to Mulberry.

As one group learned about the other's efforts, they began to converge into a singular event celebrating diversity.

It's that effort, said Joelle Fiss, senior associate with the Human Rights First organization in Washington, D.C., that is bringing them to the global table at Brookings today. The Brookings Institution stands among the leaders in public policy research.

"Terry Jones was trying to provoke a division within American society," said Fiss, an organizer of the round ­table. "Instead, these folks managed to unite the society in Florida and celebrate diversity.

"They realized that although what he was doing was legal, it was really offensive to many. They used their right to freedom of expression to fight that."

The Mulberry contingent, including Ghouse, will join academics, experts and government representatives, including those from the State Department and the Department of Justice, in a discussion about the ways government and society can fight religious intolerance while respecting freedom of expression.

Fiss said they will be among about 20 representatives from the public to join the discussion.

Butch Rahman, an executive with Florida Traditions Bank, said he hopes to convey the need to ignore people like Jones.

"I'd like to get to the point where he goes wherever he is going, he burns his books and nobody pays any attention," he said. "I'd like to educate those who are the most riled up that this is one man who is speaking out. He isn't representing this community or the government. He's just one person, and brush him off."

Carter, marketing director for Florida Comedy Traffic School, said communities need to learn to come together, and she's hoping to impart the power of the average person taking a stand on a global issue.

"We could have protested," she said, "but we wanted to take a different stand in response to his hate. We wanted to pull the attention away from him."

Fiss said Mulberry's reaction to Jones was an excellent example of combating religious intolerance.

"It's not unique, but it's an excellent example of a community coming together in a peaceful response," she said.

Within days of Sept. 11, McKinney withdrew his offer to allow Jones to burn the Qurans on his property, forcing Jones to relocate the event to a county park. He was within three miles of that park when he was pulled over and arrested for unlawful conveyance of fuel while pulling a cooker on a trailer filled with kerosene-soaked Qurans. He also was charged with openly carrying a firearm. Those charges are still pending in Circuit Court.

[ Suzie Schottelkotte can be reached at suzie.schottelkotte@theledger.com. ]

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