NATIONAL NEWS

A Florida hotel cancels a Muslim conference, citing security concerns after receiving protest calls

Jan 12, 2024, 1:25 PM | Updated: 8:28 pm

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A South Florida Marriott Hotel canceled a Muslim group’s conference at the last minute after a protest group claimed the coalition was promoting Hamas, terrorism and antisemitism.

The South Florida Muslim Federation, a coalition of about 30 mosques and Islamic groups, said Friday that it was told by the Marriott Coral Springs Hotel and Convention Center that its conference was being canceled because of security concerns after it received 100 calls demanding it bar the group. This weekend’s second annual conference was expected to draw more than a thousand people.

Hotels in Arizona and Virginia have also canceled Muslim conferences since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel, which sparked Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip and the ongoing war. Florida has also barred a pro-Palestinian student group from public universities.

Marriott’s decision “came out of nowhere and was a shock to the entire South Florida Muslim community,” federation President Samir Kakli said. He said numerous Muslim groups and families have held large conferences, weddings and other events at the Coral Springs Marriott without incident.

Kakli said that even before Marriott raised security concerns, his group hired Coral Springs police officers and private guards for protection. He said he told Marriott that the federation would hire more, but was rebuffed.

The hotel is just west of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and Kakli said hotel management raised the specter of the shooting at the Parkland campus that killed 17 six years ago.

“They said it just takes one person like what happened in Parkland,” Kakli said. He said the group is looking to have the conference soon at an alternate venue.

“We are going to stand up and keep doing the work we have been doing, which is to practice our right to freedom of religion and gather as a community with our peaceful, family events,” he said.

The Coral Springs Police Department said Friday that while it had no knowledge of threats, it expressed concerns about conference security during a meeting with Marriott officials.

“Due to the current political climate, it was our recommendation to completely secure the hotel to provide for a safe event, which would take a tremendous amount of resources based on previous experience,” the department said in a statement. “Due to the resources required, we would not be able to guarantee that every position recommended could be staffed for the 36 hours of coverage. Ultimately, it was the Marriott’s decision to cancel.”

Neither the Coral Springs Marriott nor the hotel chain’s corporate offices returned phone and email messages Friday seeking comment.

Joe Kaufman, who organized the protest against the conference, accused Kakli and groups that are part of his coalition of supporting terrorism, including the Hamas attack. He said some of the conference’s planned speakers have made antisemitic comments and called for the destruction of Israel.

Kaufman, a longtime protestor against some Islamic groups, insisted he has nothing against Muslims, just anyone he believes promotes antisemitism.

“Our concern is not just with the speakers. Our concern with the organization itself and its leadership,” Kaufman said Friday.

Kakli denied that he or his group supports terrorism or antisemitism. He said those accusations are often made against Muslims who criticize Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its treatment of Gaza to strip them and their arguments of legitimacy.

“These are words that have been used by (Kaufman) for 15 years. They are anti-Muslim tropes that are no different than tropes that are used against other communities of color. They are shamelessly used to label our entire community as terrorists,” Kakli said.

Wilfredo Ruiz, spokesperson for the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Florida, said such attacks and Marriott’s decision to cancel the conference are part of a “holistic effort” in the state both by Gov. Ron DeSantis and private businesses to shut down criticism of Israel.

He pointed to the state’s recent barring of the group Students for Justice in Palestine from public university campuses and Florida hospitals firing Muslim doctors who expressed support for Palestinians.

“This is not the way we are supposed to live, where our speech is protected by our Constitution here in America. It’s like we are in a different country,” Ruiz said.

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A Florida hotel cancels a Muslim conference, citing security concerns after receiving protest calls