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CNN: In key American Muslim enclave, alienation is growing
Editor’s note: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien chronicles the dramatic fight over the construction of a mosque in the heart of the Bible belt in “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door,” airing at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on Saturday, April 2 on CNN.
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
Madison Heights, Michigan (CNN) - Dawud Walid asked the worshipers for a show of hands: How many had heard about the Muslim radicalization hearings in Washington earlier that day?
About half of the 50 or so Muslims in the banquet hall-turned-mosque indicated that they had.
So Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter, briefed the other half about the hearing, calling it an “unfortunate first in American history.”
Then he went further, warning about what he said were a handful of growing threats to American Muslims.
“As we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11, we are seeing unprecedented acts of Islamophobia,” Walid told the worshipers at the American Islamic Community Center, 10 miles north of Detroit.
“After 9/11, it was coming from a few right-wingers,” he said. “But now, in 2011, we’re seeing it from Congress.”
Walid went on to tell the congregation that a dozen states - from Georgia to Missouri to New Mexico - are considering bans on Sharia, or Islamic law, and warned that such bans could lead to prohibitions on women wearing the hijab, or headscarf, and even on Muslims worshiping Allah.
“Praying five times a day is Sharia,” he said. “Do you go to jail for that?”
As one of the largest and oldest Muslim enclaves in the nation - and, with its century-old ties to Ford Motor Co., one that’s intimately bound up in the modern American story - the metro Detroit community is perhaps as close as one can get to the soul of American Islam.
At a time when the country is wrestling with its views on Islam, the faith causes relatively little friction in the largely Arab cocoon of southeast Michigan.
But narratives playing out in the national media, from the radicalization hearings spearheaded by New York Republican Rep. Peter King to the wave of proposed Sharia bans to anticipation of the September 11 anniversary, have left many Muslims here feeling ostracized in their own country.
The community is growing more defensive in the face of what many here say is a national climate of suspicion reminiscent of the period immediately after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In response to what he called “a spike in anti-Muslim bigotry,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, is holding a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing Tuesday on “measures to protect the rights of American Muslims.”
Witnesses will include Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick - the former archbishop of Washington - and the top civil rights officials from the administrations of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
On this Thursday night, however, worshipers at the American Islamic Community Center echoed the embattled tone of the guest speaker from Center for American-Islamic Relations.
Hadir Ghazala, a 49-year-old Iraqi immigrant in a black-and-white polka-dot hijab, said she’d been turned down for jobs at local salons because she refused to remove her headscarf.
Mohammed Elzhemni, 39, bemoaned what he called a growing national stereotype of Muslims as terrorists.
“These people raise their families and work hard,” he said, gesturing to a cluster of small children chasing each other across the mosque’s faux marble floor. “I’m a manager at GM and work to make the country better. This is the true face of Islam.”
At a time when King and others are alleging that radical American Muslims pose an under-acknowledged threat to national security, a popular refrain among Detroit-area Muslims is that they’re the ones under attack.
The sentiment is especially acute at the Islamic Center of America, which calls itself the nation’s largest mosque.
This year, police said they thwarted an explosives attack on the house of worship in Dearborn, just west of Detroit city limits. In January, police arrested a man in the center’s parking lot in a car they said was packed with fireworks.
Police said the suspect, Roger Stockham, drove to Dearborn from California. He faces two felony charges carrying maximum sentences of up to 20 years.
The arrest provoked state and local law enforcement agencies to urge the 70,000-square-foot mosque to bolster security and develop a new emergency response plan.
“We’ve never had an incident like that, where we were targeted by someone who wanted to do us harm based on who we are,” said Kassem Allie, the center’s executive administrator.
To Allie, the incident is evidence that some Americans are being radicalized against Islam, turning the allegation of growing Muslim radicalization on its head.
“The suspect was apparently radicalized quite some time ago,” Allie said. “And there are other instances of radicalization that are of great concern to us.
“I have no problem addressing Islamic radicalization,” he said, monitoring the mosque's security cameras from a computer screen in his ground-floor office. “But there should be an acknowledgment that other communities have the same problem.”
Indeed, a common complaint around Dearborn, the epicenter of southeast Michigan’s Muslim community, is that the only time religion is mentioned in a crime story is when the suspect is Muslim.
“When Timothy McVeigh did his bombing, we didn’t investigate or blame Christianity,” said Al Machy, 32, referring to the 1995 attack on a federal building in Oklahoma City that left 168 dead.
Machy works behind the counter at the Golden Bakery on Warren Avenue, a miles-long Dearborn strip lined with halal butchers, hookah bars, Lebanese restaurants and locally owned groceries with names like Baghdad Market and Sahara West. Signs for most businesses are in Arabic.
“Every day, there are hundreds of rapes and murders, and they never put the words 'Christian' or 'Jewish' in the story,” said Machy, an Iraqi refugee who arrived in the U.S. after the Gulf War.
Unlike most such crimes, in which religion doesn’t appear to be an issue, recent instances of homegrown terrorism - such as 2009’s Fort Hood shooting and last year’s failed Times Square bomb plot - were allegedly carried out in the name of Islam.
But many Muslims around Dearborn say those cases garner inordinate news attention while recent attacks against Muslim Americans, including the defacing and burning of mosques, are largely neglected.
According to the Justice Department, there were 107 anti-Muslim hate-crime incidents in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, compared with 28 such incidents in 2000.
After a sharp spike in 2001, when there were 481 anti-Muslim hate crime incidents, there have since been fewer than 200 such incidents annually, though there were generally fewer than 50 in the years before 2001.
Muslim advocacy groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, say they have seen a more recent uptick in anti-Muslim threats and violence.
Officials at the Islamic Center of America, which draws about 1,200 worshipers for Friday prayers, say local law enforcement encouraged them to take a low-key public stance on the January explosives arrest. Authorities wanted to avoid inspiring copycat attacks or reprisals, mosque officials said.
The mosque issued a news release after the suspect’s arrest but limited its interviews with the media. Chuck Alawan, 80, a founding board member of the mosque, has some regrets about the mosque keeping relatively quiet about the incident.
“You never hear about all the threats against mosques,” Alawan said in the thick Midwestern accent of a lifelong Michigan resident.
“I was born in this country, and I have never felt persecuted,” he said. “But it’s getting close to that.”
As Alawan spoke, a surveyor from the Michigan Department of Transportation was setting up equipment on the mosque’s lawn as part of a “vulnerability study” after the January incident.
Last week, the Islamic Center of America learned that the Florida pastor who triggered an international firestorm last year by threatening to burn the Quran would take part in an April protest at the mosque.
The protest against "Sharia and Jihad" is scheduled for Good Friday, two days before Easter.
"It is necessary that we set very clear lines for Muslims that are here in America,” Terry Jones, the Florida pastor, said in a statement Wednesday announcing his plans to protest at the Dearborn mosque. "If they desire to change our Constitution, in other words to institute Sharia, then these Muslims are no longer welcome in our country."
Officials at the Islamic Center of America are still deciding how to respond, though they are leaning toward a Good Friday counter-event that would bring together religious leaders of different backgrounds to encourage tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
"For us to try to fight fire with fire like in this case - to fight hate with hate - is really unproductive and actually destructive," said Allie, the mosque's executive administrator. "Under different circumstances, we'd welcome a dialogue with Terry Jones or other detractors, but it's got to be civilized."
Developments like the mosque protest have some local law enforcement officials sympathizing with growing Muslim anxiety.
Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad is among them. He estimates that he has received 10,000 anti-Muslim “hate e-mails,” some calling him a “Taliban police chief” or alleging that he’s persecuting Christians.
The senders assume he’s Muslim because of his last name, Haddad says, even though he’s a Christian of Lebanese descent.
Like Alawan and Haddad, many Arab-Americans in the area trace their local roots back generations. The first big wave of Middle Easterners arrived in southeast Michigan around 1910 to man Henry Ford’s automobile plants in Highland Park and Dearborn.
Those immigrants were mostly Christians from the area that is now Lebanon but was then part of the Ottoman Empire.
“Ford seemed to think that that this particular segment of the empire was industrious and productive and a good source of cheap labor,” said Saeed Khan, a lecturer in Islamic history, politics and culture at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Khan said Ford also favored immigrants from that region because, unlike some other groups, they tended to be light-skinned.
After the defeated Ottoman Empire was carved up at the end of World War I, Christians were given favored status in the newly created Lebanon, provoking more Muslims to exit the region. Some wound up in new Arab strongholds like metro Detroit.
“Especially after Henry Ford announced the $5 workday, (immigrants) would get off the train in Detroit looking for work, and police would pick them up and take them to Ford’s Rouge plant to apply,” Dearborn Mayor John O’Reilly said, referring to a huge Dearborn manufacturing facility that opened in the 1920s.
Today, southeast Michigan’s Muslim population is estimated at nearly half a million, Khan said. Though there are larger Muslim populations in New York and Southern California, there are few places in the country with such a heavy concentration of Muslims.
“Once Henry Ford established that community, it had a pull effect and became an epicenter of Arab life,” Khan said. “It was influenced by employment opportunities and the availability of resources like mosques and schools.”
Though Dearborn retains its Lebanese flavor, the area’s Muslim community includes many immigrants from India, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, along with a growing Eastern European contingent and many African-Americans.
The historic Muslim presence here helps explain why local allegations of Islamophobia are pretty rare - and why Haddad, the police chief, suspects that most of his anti-Muslim e-mail is from outsiders.
Zeinab Dbouk-Chaayto, a recent immigrant from Lebanon, says that she was the only woman donning a hijab when she took classes recently at Madonna University, a Catholic school in Livonia, just west of Dearborn, but that no one gave her any trouble.
The school’s conservative culture jibed with her Muslim values. “There’s no partying and no alcohol,” she said, adding that administrators in a school office where she worked even threw her a baby shower and a birthday party.
Local law enforcement officials, for their part, say they strengthened ties to greater Detroit’s Muslim leadership after September 11, launching a program called Bridges to create an ongoing dialogue between those leaders and the FBI, state and local law enforcement, and other government agencies.
“Sometimes, there’s a relative who feels that someone in the family might be doing things that probably aren’t in the long-term best interest of the country, and they want to bring that forward,” said O’Reilly, the Dearborn mayor, explaining the program.
“But they don’t want to be responsible for throwing a family member in jail,” he said. “There’s a delicacy to that, so they have a dialogue about where people can bring this stuff forward.”
Haddad, the Dearborn police chief, said the Bridges program helped create a parents’ task force to combat gang activity in the city’s Yemeni community. That move contributed to an 11% drop in crime in the heavily Yemeni South End neighborhood last year, he said.
At the same time, many Muslims around Dearborn are convinced that they are under government surveillance, exacerbating feelings of alienation.
Sitting with friends at the Islamic Center of America, Alawan says, they often joke that law enforcement has the mosque’s phones tapped and its rooms bugged.
“The agencies will deny it,” he said. “But we know they’re doing it.”
The suspicion was given credence after FBI agents killed a Muslim cleric in an October 2009 raid in Dearborn.
The charges against the imam, Luqman Ameen Abdullah - which included mail fraud and the illegal possession and sale of firearms - were based on information from three confidential FBI informants who’d infiltrated Abdullah’s mosque.
The case raised the specter of government spies in other Dearborn area mosques and prompted a 2010 letter of protest from Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“People of all faiths should be free to worship without undue fear that the person in the next pew is a government agent,” Conyers wrote, invoking the FBI’s wiretapping of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a regrettable precedent for such surveillance.
Many Muslims around Dearborn find it ironic that what they see as a growing suspicion of Muslims in America comes at a time when much of the Arab world, from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, is rising up against despotic leaders and demanding more U.S.-style freedoms.
“While the Islamic world is rising up against dictatorship, dishonesty, deception and corruption … America should show solidarity with people who are looking for dignity and democracy,” Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi told hundreds of worshipers at recent Friday prayers at the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, a mosque situated across the street from Henry Ford Community College.
“That’s not the right time to bring another wave of Islamophobia and ignorance,” he said, blasting the King hearings of the previous day. “It is so dangerous to provoke people who are ready to commit hate crimes with this kind of wrong information.”
Elahi wasn’t referring to the danger of inciting Muslim radicals to commit terrorism against the United States. The threat, in his eyes, is that Americans will be provoked to terrorize Muslims.