Central Floridians are calling on Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg to apologize after Greenberg posted an "Islamophobic" question asking how Muslims benefit society on Facebook.
The controversy began Saturday after the Republican elected official posted on his personal Facebook, "Very simple question...Name just ONE society in the developed world that has benefited in ANY WAY from the introduction of more Muslims. Just one. Asking for a friend."
Greenberg also included in the comments a link to an article about a case of female genital mutilation
from Jihad Watch, a site that critics have called anti-Muslim propaganda
The post set off a firestorm of online backlash from the local Muslim community and other advocates, who asked Greenberg to condemn the statement or to resign if he refuses to apologize.
Rasha Mubarak, president of the Young Democrats of Orange County and a civil rights advocate for the Muslim community in Orlando, called on the public to contact Greenberg's office
to voice their concerns.
"Joel Greenberg posts derogatory and Islamophobic comments," Mubarak wrote online. "This feeds into the anti-Muslim rhetoric that not only is dangerous for the Muslim community, misperceived Muslim Community, people of color, moreover for our entire Centra Florida community. It’s divisive and hazardous – there is no room for any kind of discrimination in office. Joel Greenberg needs to resign if he fails to release a public apology."
In an interview with Orlando Weekly
, Greenberg says he did not write the post – he was literally "asking for a friend" by sharing the same question
from Twitter. The original tweet was from conservative commentator Neil Boortz. Greenberg defended himself, saying he didn't make derogatory statements, but that other people have attacked him with offensive comments.
"I was legitimately asking on behalf of somebody else," he says. "Now I'm just sitting back and watching people go crazy. … I don't have a racist or bigoted bone in my body."
Greenberg, who is 33, says as a millennial, he grew up in an era where his generation doesn't "see a whole lot of color." He says he wasn't trying to offend anybody by asking a "legitimate question." Anyone who comes to the Seminole County Tax Collector's office, regardless of religion, will get the same service, he maintains.
(Note: "Just asking questions" is a well-known form of fallacious argument similar to "what about"-ism.)
"One of my best friends is Muslim, and I have a black brother," he says. "I'm Jewish, which is probably one of the most hated groups. I don't go out there to be a demagogue against anyone else. I think it's fun to have a discussion. … There was not a single thing that was derogatory or slanderous. It's kind of ironic coming from people who claim to be part of a religion of peace and a political party of tolerance don't tolerate somebody asking a question."
Greenberg is not a stranger to controversy. In the last year, he tried to pull over a woman for speeding while wearing his tax collector's badge and later tried to get out of a speeding ticket by asking a Lake Mary police officer for "professional courtesy" as an elected official, according to the Orlando Sentinel
. Greenberg says he does not plan to take down his recent post or apologize for the question.
"I'm provoking public discussion," he says. "It's much different than me making a statement as a fact or opinion. I'm simply asking a question. I don't think there's anything wrong with having a discussion, especially when they're getting censored on other platform. … We live in a world that's extremely politically correct. Most people try to walk this fine line and unfortunately cannot have public discussions."
But if Greenberg actually wanted an answer to his question, he could have just consulted Google instead of posting it on Facebook, says Osman Farooq, a Central Florida doctor who is part of the American Muslim Community Center in Longwood.
"The comments are very upsetting, very hurtful," Farooq says. "This is from a public elected official – we expect a lot better from them. … I think his questions on his public forum from an elected official are consistent with Islamophobic comments and discrimination from his office."
Farooq invites Greenberg to visit the AMCC in Longwood and see the "amazing things" the Muslim community in Seminole County is doing.
"I'm a critical care physician in Seminole County – I save lives for a living, just to answer Greenberg's question on Facebook," he says. "I think he needs to show him humility and voice a public apology that would make people sympathize with his gesture. But to outright deny anything is wrong and play almost dumb is unacceptable."
Mubarak says advocates are also calling on Greenberg's family business, Greenberg Dental & Orthodontics, to condemn the statement. In the past, Greenberg has posted other anti-Muslim memes and statements, she says.
"His statement opens the doors for more bigotry and hate – it's that kind of discrimination that leads to violence," Mubarak says. "They're not just words when they're by elected officials. It gives a green light for people to act upon this hate and ignorance."
Mubarak adds that although Greenberg's intent may have been to "have a shock factor," his posts created more divide within the community.
"He’s being provocative," she says. "People follow the lead of elected officials. If indeed this was a question, he did not have to publicize it the way he did. He could have reached out to Muslim community leadership and had that conversation."
Ben Friedman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, says Greenberg has to take responsibility and ownership of his actions as an elected official.
"Using offensive language and then claiming to want to start a genuine dialogue is unbecoming of public trust," Friedman says.
Friedman also condemned people online making anti-Semitic and homophobic comments toward Greenberg in response to his post.
"It's possible to call out bigotry without resorting to your own bigotry," he says. "You're sinking to that level. … We obviously strongly condemn his language and we also condemn people who would resort to anti-Semitism in their response."
Wesley Neuman, the vice chair of the Seminole County Democratic Party, has called on Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg to resign from office.
"As a county-wide officer, Greenberg took an oath to uphold the constitutions of the United States of America, and the state of Florida," Neuman said in a statement. "This sort of rhetoric, in conjunction with his poor management, and inclination to take the law into his own hands indicates that Greenberg is unwilling or unwilling – or both – to faithfully execute his oath of office."
Neuman also called on Gov. Rick Scott to remove Greenberg from office if he refused to resign.
"Should the governor fail to take action, I promise my top priority after November will be to petition the incoming Democratic governor to remove and replace Joel Greenberg," he said.
Greenberg has since posted another statement to his personal Facebook, saying "Ah, the religion of peace and the party of tolerance. Until they disagree with you. Hypocrites. All of them. Vote Republican."
Stay on top of Orlando news and views. Sign up for our weekly Headlines newsletter.