We have an African-American mayor and the owner of our NFL team is from Pakistan. Yet, for whatever reasons, Jacksonville seems to go out of its way to carry a brand of intolerance like a badge of honor. Perhaps other cities are faced with similar issues and we just seem to find a way to receive most of the attention. I don't know whether they do or not, but it really doesn't matter. We just seem to be caught up in the game of "gotcha" an awful lot.
The most recent case in point was an attempt through legislation by City Council member Matt Schellenberg to reduce the number of members on the Human Rights Commission from 20 to 11.
Schellenberg says he thinks 20 members are just too many for the commission and he thinks the number somehow promotes inefficiency. (The inefficiency of many other City boards, including whether we need 19 Council members or a lesser number, is another topic that could be addressed.)
Schellenberg professes he was not really trying to block Parvez Ahmed, a Muslim, from continuing his service on the commission through Mayor Alvin Brown's reappointment. If enacted as an emergency measure like Schellenberg initially proposed, the bill would have done just that along with blocking two others from reappointment and one person from being appointed.
Thank goodness some Council members, maybe still stinging from the Council's rejection of the expansion of the human rights ordinance, persuaded Schellenberg to back off the emergency nature at the last minute.
Now Council member Clay Yarbrough, chair of the Rules Committee, has again delayed the Council's action on Ahmed's nomination, along with two other appointees, to the commission.
Yarborough says he wants the committee and the Council to act on Schellenberg's bill to reduce the size of the commission before acting on the mayor's appointments.
The number of commission members was established long ago when Hans Tanzler was mayor. Even during the 1970s when racial unrest and intolerance was still a way of life in many places in Jacksonville, Tanzler believed the best way to fight intolerance was through inclusion a blueprint that should still be followed.
But, back to Ahmed. He is an associate professor of finance at the University of North Florida and was named a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, established under legislation by the late U.S. Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas, for 2009-10.
He's a researcher whose work has appeared in major finance journals and he has co-authored a book, "Mutual Funds: Fifty Years of Research Findings."
He also is passionate and prolific in sharing his insights about Islam and the American Muslim experience. He writes a blog and his articles have been published in several leading newspapers including the Orlando Sentinel, The Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, New York Newsday, The Seattle Times, The Florida Times-Union, Charlotte Observer and many others.
Given this latest round of ugly controversy pointed at Ahmed, I think his writing below, from an article titled "Muslims Abroad Should Respect the American Tradition of Free Speech as They Debate Their Own," is very telling and has a place in this debate.
"Understanding is a two-way street. Muslims should not be so quick to complain when others demonstrate their lack of respect for Islam if they fail to make any real progress towards understanding the societal norms of other nations, in this instance the complexity of free speech rights and traditions in the United States.
"The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects both freedom of speech and free exercise of religion. In other words, a Muslim's right to freely practice his or her religion in America is derived from the same constitutional clause that protects the right of others to express their anti-Islam views."
Ahmed is no wolf in sheep's clothing. He's not a terrorist disguised as a teacher.
Instead, he's a thoughtful and loyal American citizen who loves both poetry and football.
He is respected by Christian ministers and Jewish rabbis because he has worked long and hard to promote understanding and tolerance among all people.
In an interview from 2008, Ahmed said, "I am passionate about universal human rights. I find the advocacy of those rights intellectually quite challenging, as it requires addressing prejudices and stereotypes in creative ways."
He has been stereotyped and seen more than his share of prejudice in his own home town. Through it all, Ahmed has remained a responsible citizen of our city and a role model for decency, despite being treated in a most irresponsible and indecent way by some of our leaders and residents.
It's past time for us, his neighbors, to stand up and say, "enough."