Gainesville continues to be the battleground for a debate about Islamophobia and free speech in the United States, thanks to the Dove World Outreach Centre, which has its headquarters in the Florida city. Pastor Terry Jones first brought international attention to the centre when he threatened to burn a Koran on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2010. More recently, the centre has been involved in a court case against the Alachua County school board, after student members of the church were sent home for wearing T-shirts saying “Islam is of the devil”. According to Senior District Judge Stephan Mickle, the decision to send home the students does not violate their First Amendment rights, and he said that the message was “confrontational” and “not conducive to civil discourse on religious issues”. On the other hand, Pastor Wayne Sapp was surprised by the ruling, saying he felt that the case was a clear violation of the rights of the students.
The Dove World Outreach Centre actually seems to be a small group of attention-seeking loons, not unlike the Westboro Baptist Church. My attitude towards both organisations is the same: let them express themselves.
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I was a hijab-wearing student at an American high school. In the few days following the attacks, I remember a few of us complaining about students wearing anti-Osama Bin Laden T-shirts because we were afraid of backlash against Muslim students. Rather than questioning our fear, the administration made the students change their shirts. Looking back, I disagree with the teenage version of myself. I did not feel safer when “controversial” perspectives were not brought up in class and I watched my school become more segregated and tense. Instead, my school should have made more of an effort to create a dialogue and, more importantly, make students like myself feel safe enough to be normal students free to express our opinions.
Gainesville will not have to worry about the Dove World Outreach Centre casting a negative light on the town for much longer. The centre is relocating from the 20-acre property and 20-30 younger members of the church will be moving to a different county. So Gainesville can return to being well known for university football and Gatorade rather than a man with a handlebar moustache and threats to burn Korans.