Republican Rep. Tom Goodson presents a cyber revenge porn bill during Florida’s legislative session, April 24, 2015. (Photo: Steve Cannon/Associated Press)
Laila Abdelaziz is hardly a stranger to Islamophobia. As the director of legislative and government affairs for the Florida arm of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, her job is to advocate for the interests of Florida’s Muslim community in her state’s legislature. Over the past several years, that job has increasingly involved fighting against legislation that, she says, is designed to discriminate against Muslim-Americans like herself.
“I experience [Islamophobia] daily in Tallahassee,” Abdelaziz told Yahoo News. “It’s just never targeted personally at me.”
That was until this week.
Abdelaziz was leaving a hearing for a bill that aims to block refugees from entering Florida at the state House of Representatives, in Tallahassee, this Thursday when she says she found herself at the butt of one lawmaker’s anti-Muslim joke.
According to Abdelaziz, she and several legislators were making their way onto an elevator when one hesitated and said, “Oh, is it safe to ride the elevator with you?”
She described the experience on Facebook that evening.
“Everyone laughed,” Abdelaziz wrote in a Facebook post that has since been widely shared. “Every single one of them laughed (Democratic, Republican, white, black, old, young) as I was belittled with a wildly inappropriate remark that because I’m a Muslim this Representative should be afraid to ride in an elevator with me.”
“It’s not funny it hurts,” she wrote.
Perhaps more unsettling than the joke itself was the fact that not one of the Representatives in the elevator came to her defense.
“I think the acknowledgement that something wrong happened has to come from someone else in a situation like this,” Abdelaziz told Yahoo News. “It just kind of added salt to the wound.”
Abdelaziz admitted that she wasn’t particularly surprised by the comment, which she said came from Republican Rep. Tom Goodson. After all, the elected officials who Abdelaziz says laughed at her expense were all members of the House State Affairs Committee which — despite her efforts — had just approved a bill that would give the state government authority to conduct background screenings and even use military force to prevent refugees from Syria and other conflict zones outside the Western Hemisphere from resettling in Florida.
Following its approval by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee earlier this month, the ACLU deemed House Bill 1095 “unconstitutional,” “fear-mongering” and “dangerous.” The State Affairs Committee was the legislation’s last stop before making its way to a vote on the House floor, where Abdelaziz predicts it will pass.
The refugee ban is exactly the kind of government action Abdelaziz works to prevent on a daily basis, but this bill hits particularly close to home.
“I’m actually a refugee,” Abdelaziz told Yahoo News, explaining that she was born in Palestine and moved to the U.S. when her family was granted asylum status in the mid-1990s.
Abdelaziz argues that policies like those proposed in the House refugee ban, “blame the people that are front-line victims of terrorism.”
“What I was taught about American values is that we should be doing the opposite,” she said.
Though she declined to name any of the other Representatives who were in the elevator during Thursday’s incident, Abdelaziz pointed to the call made by Gov. Rick Scott in November to close Florida’s borders to Syrian refugees following the Paris terror attacks and the 2014 passage of a state ban on Sharia law as examples of what she sees as widespread propagation of anti-Muslim sentiments by many of Florida’s elected officials.
“It’s these kinds of policies that create isolated communities and encourage people to fear one another and discriminate against one another,” she said.
“When elected officials are saying Islamophobia isn’t real, Syrian refugees aren’t welcome … it makes people feel like it’s OK. It’s OK to ‘otherize’ Muslim-Americans, we can hate them and fear them,” she said, noting that just last month a mosque in Rep. Goodson’s district was vandalized by a man wielding bacon and a machete. “People look at these individuals who are supposed to be leaders and they follow their lead.”
In response to a request for comment on this story, Goodson’s office emailed a statement that the representative then posted on his Facebook page. In the post, which can’t quite be described as an apology, Goodson expressed regret that Abdelaziz took his “harmless comment” the wrong way and that, as a result, “the national ‘political correct’ police are now trying to make more out of this than it is or was.”
“Rather than spend all day harassing a legislator for a joking comment gone awry, they might consider spending more time bashing the terrorists who are responsible for the tension and emotional strain being placed on the good citizens of this country,” he wrote.
Goodson’s post surfaced after Yahoo News spoke to Abdelaziz, but she said she wasn’t waiting for an apology. Her motivation for sharing the hurtful experience, rather, was simply to raise awareness about the reality of Islamophobia.
“I felt what it feels like to be discriminated [against] and to be belittled in a way where you feel like you have no power,” she said. “It’s not a healthy feeling.”