Photo of Muslims Praying on Beach Sends Florida Town into Frenzy

An image of Muslims praying on a local beach has led to a heated small-town debate over freedom of religion and the rights of minority faiths.

If you’re in the Florida panhandle, driving southeast on County Road 372, past several miles of wetlands and single-story homes, you eventually hit Mashes Sands Beach, where the sand is blindingly white, the water is peaceful, and the fishing is plentiful.

You might say it’s a little slice of paradise. But for some local residents, it’s become the harbinger of sharia.

It all started two weeks ago when Wakulla County Commissioner Ralph Thomas, a Republican, posted an innocuous photograph to his Facebook wall. While on a fishing trip at Mashes Sands, Thomas noticed a group of Muslim men bowing in unison during sundown prayers on the beach.

“Walked up on this at Mashes Sands this evening!” he captioned the image. “First time seeing this in Wakulla County.” And while the commissioner seemingly marveled at the presence of religious minorities in his hometown, his Facebook commenters took a decidedly negative tone.

“So much for the beach being beautiful and peaceful,” a female resident wrote. “These fucking Idiots are here now,” said a man from neighboring Franklin County. “You better learn to defend yourself!” Another man added: “Must be where the poop in the water is coming from.” A vocal minority expressed disgust at comments like those.

The image was shared more than 300 times and turned into a local firestorm when conservative radio host, self-described “pirate hunter,” and potential Wakulla County Sheriff candidate Will Dance called upon his listeners (whom he affectionately calls “Pirate Nation”) to show up at that week’s county board meeting and voice their concerns about creeping Islamic influence.

And show up they did.

“While I’m all for prayer meetings, I think, for me, the issue is the particular group represented,” Crawfordsville resident Greg Marr said, before spouting off statistics about 17 percent of Muslim-Americans support suicide bombings. His numbers are directly contradicted by Pew studies finding just 1 percent believe that such violence “often” justified; another 7 percent consider it “sometimes” justified.

Nevertheless, Marr continued, “I think that this was a group that a significant margin of them represent a threat—in their own words—to our culture, to our country, and to our community.”

He then made a comparison that sounds an awful lot like a call for legislative action.

“They bear scrutiny just as we would scrutinize the mentally ill having firearms or convicted felons in our community.”

“This is not a criticism or a wish to deny people a right to worship freely,” Marr concluded, completely without irony.

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Several residents expressed disgust with the anti-Islamic sentiment of their fellow residents.

Local Democratic activist Nikki Barnes offered an impassioned defense of Muslim Americans as high-income, highly assimilated citizens. Another woman, Dana Peck, briefly invoked the Bible, remarking, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” She was there to talk about oyster farming.

The big man Will Dance eventually showed up to take the microphone. His main point, whether or not he admitted it: Public religious expression is perfectly acceptable, so long as it’s not Muslim.

“If this was a [Muslim] doctor and his wife and his children having a barbecue, this wouldn’t be a conversation,” he asserted. “If this was an Arab man and his two boys kids casting nets… then I would not be here.”

(In artful self-contradiction, he also told local media that “It’s not about singling them out. It’s not about xenophobia. This is not anti-Muslim.”)

“There’s a reason I’m running for sheriff,” he proclaimed in a bombastic talk-radio voice. “My daughters use that beach, my wife uses that beach. And, gentlemen, under sharia law, the cut-off shorts and T-shirts that my family wears on that beach are considered offensive under sharia. And any Muslim man may carry out what he feels is fit punishment.”

Much like several politicians at the national level, stoking fears of a sharia-based insurgency has become something of a platform for Dance as he looks to expand his listenership and launch himself into elected office. Since bringing the beach photo to a wider audience, Dance took one day off his radio show because of alleged death threats; a photo of Dance with the caption “#I Stand With Will Dance a.k.a. The Pirate Hunter” has been circulated by supporters; and his Facebook page has become something of a soapbox for anti-Muslim rhetoric.

One popular post boomed that “Islam is not compatible with the U.S. Constitution.” Another included a “politically incorrect” photoshop of a U.S. border sign warning entrants, “You are now entering a sharia-free zone. Please set your watches 1,400 years forward.” A link to video of a public beheading, presumably from an Islamic country, scolds the county board for not worrying enough about the insurgent threat.

The public debate over the photo has also led to soul-searching for those lawmakers. The Tallahassee Democrat reported that this is the third time in a year the Wakulla County board has had to deal with touchy religious issues.

In late 2014, vandals sprayed “KKK” on three predominantly black churches, leading to two separate anti-discrimination proclamations. A few months later, the board put its code enforcement officer, Steve Cushman, on probation for allegedly anti-Semitic remarks about Commissioner Howard Kessler. (Cushman was also one of many to express horror at the Muslim beach photograph.)

In light of the photo controversy, Kessler brought up the board’s recent decision to inscribe “In God We Trust” on its meeting room wall—a measure the registered Republican voted against.

“I don’t support ‘In God We Trust’ in our government,” he told his colleagues. “Do you get the difference between having religion in government and separation of church and state?”

And a thoughtful Commissioner Thomas discussed his decision to publish the beach photograph in the first place.

“I’ve lived all over the world, I’ve seen plenty of Muslim prayer services,” he said. “It’s the first time I saw it in Wakulla County. I didn’t say anything negative, no indictment against them, nothing derogatory against their religion.”

“Now when other people make [negative] comments on Facebook, those people own those comments,” he concluded. “I don’t own those comments.”

Indeed, people like Will Dance will happily own their comments, especially if it expands their platform.

“This was young men claiming Wakulla County for Allah,” Dance confidently declared on the day of the board meeting. “Now let that sink in.”