FORT PIERCE, Fla. — In the Fort, as many call this old Army post, some Muslims last week prayed in an unmarked building, while others worshiped at another nearby mosque where some recent passersby yelled “Murderers!” Sheriff’s and police cars have been patrolling outside both.
Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, lived in the Fort, where other Muslims also raise families and work in hospitals and run businesses. Now, in the aftermath of last weekend’s mass shooting, they worry about what might come next at a time when some of their neighbors support Donald Trump and applaud his call to ban travel into the United States for anyone of the Muslim faith.
Abdul Raoof Shaddani is a cardiologist who came to America from Pakistan in the 1970s. He is also the imam at the Muslim Friends of Florida mosque. His organization had ordered a new sign for its two-story building, which is still being renovated. The sign was late and still not yet ready when the Orlando killings happened, and now Shaddani thinks that may be a “blessing in disguise.” People here can still gather to break their Ramadan fast at sundown free of harassment, he said; there is some safety, they feel, in the anonymity.
In the tense days since the shooting, a few non-Muslim residents have started to yell obscenities at people going in and out of the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, the better-known mosque in town, where Mateen attended. The FBI visited it Friday to interview one of its members, said Omar Saleh, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations’s Florida chapter, which has offered free legal assistance to the Muslim community in which Mateen lived.
At the Muslim Friends of Florida, children who usually play soccer in the parking lot in the evening are now told to stay indoors.
About 1 percent of the 44,000 people in this working-class town are Muslims. Many immigrated here decades ago, and their children are American-born. But the rise of the Islamic State in a war-torn Middle East and the current debate about banning Muslims from entering the United States as part of the fight against ISIS have left American Muslims on edge and the Muslims here unsure how to react.
“We need to have Muslims and non-Muslims interact,” said Bedar Bakht, a restaurant manager who has volunteered to cook the daily iftar meal for his fellow congregants at the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce. “We have to introduce ourselves to people — tell them, ‘Look, we are normal people. I watch movies. I listen to music.’ ”
Bakht used to cook the meals, eaten after sundown during Ramadan, in the mosque’s kitchen, but he now does so at home to avoid the TV cameras. These days, the mosque is often locked. Several people said they did not know anyone who had reached out to the Mateen family because no one wants to be associated with an act of such horror.
“For me, honestly, if I call him, what am I going to say?” Bakht said of Mateen’s father, Seddique. “He lost his son, but his son did something so horrific — so do you express sympathy or do you curse him?”
Linda Hudson, the mayor of this old citrus-producing town, described the Muslim community with the same words that several others used: “almost invisible.” She said neither of the town’s mosques has reached out to her. “If someone said, ‘We want your help,’ I would do it in a heartbeat,” she said. Hudson said that she used to know a librarian who was Muslim but now she doesn’t run into a single Muslim, at least that she knows of.
But many Muslims explain that they are invisible because they are so much part of the fabric of the community. They’re “established,” they said. They blend in; they are part of the routine.
The day before he shot more than 100 people in Orlando, Mateen paid his utility bill, Hudson said: “People think someone who walked among us hated us.”
As early as the 1970s, immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries began settling in this area famous for its orange groves. An old Christian church on busy Midway Road was converted into the Islamic Center, and today about 150 Muslims, including Mateen’s family, pray there.
The average household income in Fort Pierce is $26,000, half the national average. Many are poor and working-class. A bacterium traced back to Asia has decimated citrus and agriculture, but the Tropiciana juice plant remains a big employer. There are lovely waterfront homes and a quaint downtown.
Maria Martinez, 37, a mother of four who lives on the same street as Mateen’s parents, said she is voting for Trump and it’s not because she likes everything about him — she doesn’t. “The only reason is I think he’s tougher on terrorism. I do agree with the temporary hold on refugees,” she said.
An elderly man, who flies an American flag from his porch, has a deer mounted on his wall and a Trump campaign sign near his front door, said there have been too many incidents of violence from Muslims, including those in San Bernardino, Calif., Paris and Orlando.
“When you have this little-bitty mosque in our out-of-the-way town” linked to a mass shooter, maybe it’s time to look at who is coming in the country, he said. Mateen, however, was born in the United States, the 29-year-old son of Afghan parents who arrived 35 years ago.
Two years ago, another American who occasionally attended the Fort Pierce mosque left his car there before flying to Syria. There, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who lived in a city north of here, drove a truck loaded explosives into a restaurant full of people.
“Our president said he will open the door to them,” the elderly man said, referring to refugees from the Middle East. “Trump said he will stop them from coming in.”
Fort Pierce is exceptionally diverse. There are as many blacks as whites and a growing number of Latinos. But many of the non-Muslims interviewed said Muslims tend to keep to themselves and speak less-familiar languages such as Urdu and Dari. But Muslims interviewed said that they are working in the community like everyone else, as doctors, real estate agents and businessmen. Mateen’s sisters worked at a hospital and at a beauty salon. His father was a relatively successful financial planner who drives a Mercedes-Benz.
Physicians run both the Islamic Center mosque on Midway and its sister Muslim Friends of Florida congregation in the unmarked building about 11/2 miles away.
Shaddani, the cardiologist who moved to the United States in 1975, wears traditional Pakistani dress at the mosque. He raised a doctor, a dentist-in-training and a math teacher — all of them daughters.
Fadi Odeh, 33, a Palestinian immigrant who help runs his family’s Valero gas station and deli, a local fixture where police officers and firefighters hang out, said he feels at home here, but he acknowledged a new unease after the Orlando attack and all the talk of “Muslim radicals” on the news.
Some people, he said, “think just because you’re Muslim, you’re a terrorist.”
A steady flow of regular customers who call Odeh “Freddy” come in for sandwiches and the daily gossip, and a few crack jokes about him being a Muslim. He knows they don’t mean harm, but it’s frustrating that they don’t seem to get why it’s offensive, he said.
“A guy who lived with us for a while said, ‘Freddy, why’d you let your cousins do that?’ ” in reference to Mateen, he said. “ ‘Freddy, when you gonna plan your next operation?’ ”
Odeh said he tried to smile at the time, but couldn’t.
“People don’t get that it’s a sin” to commit violence in Islam, he said. What Mateen did, he said, “is not Islam.”
“I honestly worry about my mom,” because she wears a headscarf, he said.
Others have similar fears. One man recently insisted on driving his wife to her volunteer job at the library so that she would not be alone. A Pakistani American woman said she was unnerved to see a white couple taking pictures of her when she was stopped at a traffic light; she thought that they were doing it only because she wore a headscarf.
Several Muslims interviewed at the mosques said that they think Mateen did not kill because of religion but because he was emotionally disturbed. They think he may have pledged allegiance to ISIS to make himself famous.
Many non-Muslims here said they wonder whether the vilification of homosexuality by some Islamic scholars — they had heard Islamic extremists even killed gay men — played into Mateen’s murder rampage at the gay nightclub.
But Muslims interviewed here say radicals are not Muslims and that while Islam doesn’t condone homosexuality, it absolutely condemns violence.
A Pew Research Center study of American religions recently found that Muslims were split on homosexuality. The poll found that 45 percent of American Muslims thought homosexuality should be accepted and 47 percent thought it should be discouraged. Muslims are less accepting of homosexuality than most religious groups in the study — 66 percent of mainline Protestants, 70 percent of Catholics and more than 80 percent of Jews and Buddhists say gay relationships should be accepted. But it puts Muslims ahead of evangelical Christians and Mormons, 36 percent of whom say homosexuality is acceptable.
At a vigil in nearby Vero Beach for the Orlando victims that drew 1,000 people last week, Victor Begg, a local Muslim activist, talked about Muhammad Ali — a hero and a Muslim, a man who fought bigotry and hate.
“Ali was a winner. Omar Mateen was a loser,” he said to applause.
“ ‘Muslims don’t speak out against terrorism’ is what we often hear,” he told a crowd of 1,000. But he urged them to go online and search for any major Muslim organization and said they would find condemnations of recent attacks.
“Whoever kills a person, it is as if he has killed all of humankind,” he said, quoting the Koran.
But a few in the crowd did not welcome his presence. Three walked out when he started talking, and at one point when he spoke, a man in the crowd said, loud enough for people around him to hear: “Sit down.”
When Begg ended by saying: “Salaam, shalom, shanti, peace,” a woman in the crowd muttered to her friends: “How about, ‘God bless America.’ ”
Ahmer Raza, who owns a gas station in Vero Beach, was one of the few Muslims who went to the vigil. When Lee Olsen, the manager of the popular Waldo’s restaurant, asked people in the crowd to introduce themselves to those next to them — and hug them, too — Raza’s Pakistani American friends and family turned to strangers and embraced them.
“Come here, buddy,” one man said, clapping one of Raza’s relatives on the back.