In Tampa, conservative activists have been up in arms at the school board, angry that Hassan Shibly of the Tampa office of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) was allowed to speak to students at Steinbrenner High School on the topic of Islamic beliefs, religious diversity and misconceptions about the religion.
And in early May, a group of self-proclaimed "patriots" protested in front of the Hilton Tampa Airport-Westshore on N. Lois Avenue, which was hosting a meeting of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
Days later, GOP political consultant and commentator Chris Ingram took to his column in the Tampa Tribune to denounce the protestors, labeling them a "bunch of knuckle-draggers." That comment infuriated a man named Tom Trento, President of something called The United West. Trento says that once he heard that Ingram was a fellow Republican, he became infuriated (his word) and decided he wanted to debate him.
And so the two men met on Wednesday afternoon at Maestro's Restaurant inside the Straz Performing Arts Center in Tampa, at an event hosted by the Tampa Tiger Bay Club and also streamed live on Trento's website. It was actually their second debate in three days. On Monday, the two had squared off on Rob Lorei's show on WMNF-FM.
Ingram responded that he'd been called worse. He says the enemy is Al Qaeda, and not the millions of Muslims who live and work in the U.S.
The fun began during what was called the "cross-examination period," when Trento asked Ingram if he would agree that the Muslim Brotherhood and Sharia law were "dangerous and deadly and destructive to the United States."
Ingram started by saying Sharia was an interpretation of Islam, but before he could continue he was interrupted by Trento, who said Ingram was trying to filibuster Trento's five minutes by not answering the question. Ingram protested that he hadn't finished answering the question in the first place. It was all a bit childish.
Trento, co-author of a book called Shariah: The Threat To America, labels himself modestly on his website as "one of the leading academic activists in the United States." (Ingram questioned that title.) His central contention is that the Muslim Brotherhood has a destructive plan for the U.S.
Citing a study done two years ago by researchers at Duke and North Carolina Universities, Ingram said the the terrorist threat posed by radicalized Muslim-Americans was greatly exaggerated by Trento. "They want to assimilate here," Ingram said.
It should be noted that Ingram is a Christian, not a Muslim, and said he didn't necessarily believe in the teachings of Islam, "But as an American, I respect and will continue to advocate for their right to practice their believes, their faith, despite the efforts of those like Mr. Trento, who would like to trample all over their rights to freedom, religion and free speech, and label them something that they are certainly not."
The question and answer session was relatively tame, with arguments about whether Sharia Law has actually ever been used in Florida courts.
The most interesting exchange came from one of the "patriots" who rallied against ISNA in May. He angrily denounced Ingram for calling him an "airhead" in his Tribune column. Ingram denied that, saying in fact the term he used was "knuckle-draggers," which he stood behind.
The gentleman, reading off a piece of paper, denounced CAIR (The Council on American-Islamic Relations) as not being a "trust-worthy organization." He said all Muslims are in America not to be free, but to ultimately take over the country. "If they don't want to obey our laws, then get the hell out of here."
Another source of discontent between the two was the 2008 court case in Texas regarding the Holy Land Foundation, which was found guilty of providing millions of dollars in funding to Hamas and other Islamic terrorist organizations in 2008. Named as “unindicted co-conspirators” in the trial were CAIR and ISNA.
But so were 243 other groups.
A federal appeals court removed the label for all those groups and sealed the list on Oct. 20, 2010, ruling the designation was the result of "simply an untested allegation of the Government, made in anticipation of a possible evidentiary dispute that never came to pass."
Did anybody come out of the exchange feeling more informed or persuaded? Judging by some of the questions posed by Tiger Bay club members, it didn't seem that way. Were people illuminated by the discussion? Hard to say, but it all seemed relatively depressing, especially as we approach the 11th anniversary of 9/11 attacks.