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Feds work to build trust with Muslim community

The trilling chant of the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, rang out Sunday afternoon at the humble little white house behind a green fence that is South Florida’s oldest mosque. Inside, a dozen men and one boy — shoes left outside as a cleansing gesture — quietly recited prayers and bowed to Mecca.

There was a single stark change in the ancient ritual this time — the longtime spiritual leader of Miami’s Flagler Mosque was not there to lead it.

Dozens of federal agents appeared at early Saturday morning prayer to arrest Hafiz Muhammad Sher Ali Khan, the frail 76-year-old imam, and two of his sons, one who led the Masjid Jamaat Al-Mumineen Mosque in Margate, on charges of funneling money to the Pakistani Taliban to buy weapons and support militant training. All three are scheduled to make a first appearance in federal court on Monday.

A day after the raids, members of the mosque as well as South Florida’s Muslim community remained stunned and concerned. Some fear ugly backlash. Nezar Hamze, executive director of the Council on America-Islamic Relations, said two hate calls had been directed at the Miami mosque and one at Margate mosque. For others, he said, the case – built largely on bank records and taped phone calls — rekindled the sense they’re being singled out for secret surveillance.

“The FBI has a very important job to do and we support it,’’ said Hamze. “However, their job sometimes crosses the line and interferes with the rights of peaceful Muslim people.’’

But in at least small ways, the South Florida arrests also signaled a subtle positive shift in dealings between federal law enforcement agencies and the Muslim-American community it has monitored closely since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The raids were conducted under new national rules of engagement intended to show more sensitivity toward religious practices and tamp down the flames of haters after a series of outreach meetings in South Florida this year among federal law enforcers and Muslim leaders.

When U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer and FBI John V. Gillies, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Miami Office, announced the arrests they both stressed that other mosque members and the rest of the community should not be branded by the alleged terrorist actions of a handful of its members. Ferrer, in a phone interview Sunday with The Herald, reiterated that message.

“They are as American as apple pie,’’ he said. “They are just as concerned about terrorist attacks as anyone else. They do not want to live in fear.’’

Ferrer said the outreach programs were initiated last year by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to address concerns over increasing tensions and hate crimes – including a pipebomb explosion last year at a Jacksonville mosque – and law enforcement tactics that some Muslim leaders have criticized as heavy-handed, including planting undercover agents in mosques.

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