ORLANDO -- Will Coley calls himself a redneck and answers his phone with a drawled-out "as-salaam alaikum." Three years ago he converted to Islam, and he's taken up the often-thankless task of uniting Muslims with the tea party movement. That's how he met Todd Long, one of the Republicans running for the right to challenge Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) -- Long spoke at a "religious freedom" rally and Coley showed up to invite him to an interfaith charity event for the homeless in a Muslim community center here.
Long arrives early, takes off his shoes, and enters the mosque. He wears a bright blue shirt with the title of his book, "Conservative Comeback," stenciled on his left breast, and he stands six or seven inches taller than most of the women, clad in headscarves, bringing in food. He is completely at ease.
"They told me: No religion, no politics!" He wags his finger to emphasize just how this last sentiment was expressed. It isn't hard, because the homeless people lining up for food don't want to talk about it, and the Muslim volunteers say they haven't paid much attention to his race, and he doesn't want to exploit this. "No photo ops," he says. "I hate when people make photo ops out of things like this."
The decision to keep politics out of this is a sound one, because Republicans and Democrats across Florida have spent the last week spiking a political football called the Ground Zero Mosque. There are conservatives who both oppose the mosque and argue
that Islam should not have a foothold
in America. That's not Long's take.
"Absolutely they have a constitutional right to build there," says Long. "Who's even saying that they don't? I don't know why the president would say that there are. The question is about the wisdom of building it there. If you're a Muslim who wants to build bridges between faiths, that's the last thing you'd do."
Phil Russo, Long's campaign spokesman, looks over at the Muslims bringing in massive pans of rice and vegetables. "These are just the best people," he says. "They're fasting. They're not going to eat or drink water until sundown, and they got up and cooked for these people."
Still, Coley is under no illusions about how hard it is to bring Muslims into the tea party. When former Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams called Allah a "monkey god," around 50 Muslims Coley had brought into an e-mail group dropped off. Russo jumps in to explain how bad this was.
"Muslims should be voting for conservatives," he says. "The free market system, laissez faire capitalism -- that was invented by Muslims!"