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Muslim Americans on edge
March 27th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

In key American Muslim enclave, alienation is growing

Editor’s note: The original version of this story omitted the fact that the attorney for Roger Stockham, who was charged with making terrorist threats against a Dearborn mosque, says his client is a Muslim convert.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Islam • Michigan • Muslim

soundoff (3,082 Responses)
  1. What a joke

    Delta is ready when you are folks. That includes you Dan Gilgoff – CNN "Belief Blog" Co-Editor. I agree that a few bad apples that hijacked and killed innocent Americans during 9-11, spoils it for the good muslims in the United States. Same goes for a minority of our forefathers that stood for slavery 150 years ago. However, the United States owes us NOTHING but an opportunity. Ask not what your country (and Dan Gilgoff – CNN "Belief Blog" Co-Editor) can do for you, but instead ask what you can do for your country-JFK. If you don't like it get the heck out! That goes for you too Mr.Dan Gilgoff – CNN "Belief Blog" Co-Editor.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  2. zippy

    muslims are mot to be trusted, they would liketo ruin america, have it wher their laws are on place and do away with the american wayof life

    March 27, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  3. danny

    which would you rather... muslim living next to you or jew living next to you? .... UMMMMMMMMMM.....................

    March 27, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • POD

      I don't care.....just as long as it's not you

      March 27, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  4. POD

    Why do we ALWAYS have to be open, tolerate and accepting of everyone else's beliefs even when those beliefs clash with our own and openly hold our open, tolerate and accepting society in contempt? America is NOT a Theocracy and I will do everything in my power, within the framework of the law, to prevent it from becoming one. If you wish to live in a Theocracy I suggest you move to one that suits your needs.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Curious

      Who?

      March 27, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  5. Johnny C

    i wouldnt hire, speak, or even offer a hello to a muslim......

    March 27, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  6. Salam

    Muslims are always crying about their rights in the west, what about the right of other religious minorities in the Muslim and Arab world? Just have a look and see for yourself how Christians are being mascaraed in Iraq, Egypt or Afghanistan and you will understand better how they treat religious minorities in their homelands. Yes Muslims have the right to live and worship like everybody else, but it is time for them to change the laws in Islamic countries where the Sharia, or the Islamic religious law, is subjected to everybody, Muslim or non-Muslim. We need to live in societies that respect the freedom of religion no matter where and what kind of religion we are talking about.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  7. Doc

    Muslims have their work cut out for them. Until they publicly denounce the radicals of Islam and their Imams, they will never find a home in the United States. Watching muslims around the world cheering and laughing as our citizens were incinerated on September 11, 2001, has been seared into the memories of Americans. To this day they have done NOTHING to counter the terrorist threat THEY pose in the United States. How many terrorists have snuck across our borders and are now members of US mosques, teaching their hatred and destruction for the United States and are planning their attacks? How many of them have been turned in by so called peace loving muslims? Have they turned in any terrorists? Have they reported the where abouts of Bin Laden, Adan, and these other terrorist leaders? How about the Islamic Somalies that were granted refugee status but went back to Somalia and Pakistan for terror training only to return to the USA...have muslims reported them to the authorities. No, they haven't. Until they prove otherwise, by fighting Islamic radicals, reporting them to authorities, accepting OUR western culture and not trying to change it, Muslims will continue to be a sworn enemy. Talk is one thing, but action is proof. Prove it to us.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  8. stonedwhitetrash

    Facts of life; Christians hate Muslims. Muslims hate Christians. Both hate Jews.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  9. Nordeezy

    Scale of tolerance:
    Islam
    Westboro Baptists
    12 Year old attention spans
    Small rocks

    Guess the order?

    March 27, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  10. Kris

    "The thick Midwestern accent of a lifelong Michigan resident"?! LOL... What would that be, I wonder? What a ridiculous way to characterize someone.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  11. phillip Marlowe

    Name 3 top Muslim leaders who spoke out against the 9-11 attacks, the subsequent beheadings, the endless suicide bombers against our bravest? But Islam is sooo peaceful...you don't like it here, try going back to Lybya, or Syria, or Iran

    March 27, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  12. Curious

    What about the woman who says she is having a hard time getting a job in a salon, no less, because she won't remove her hijab? I think her problem is sort of obvious. I can see a little bit that the other problems are discrimination.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  13. billy

    Please tell me this is a joke. In their countries you are killed if you're not the right type of Muslim. They come here and if they're not accepted after Muslims around the world attack the west and its entire way of life for decades they cry about it? Pathetic. Truly pathetic and ridiculous. This soft touchy feely no backbone, just accept everything nonsense is why the US is the mess it is today.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  14. rkdres

    Good grief, why is CNN always covering mainstream religion lately?

    March 27, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  15. BlahBlah

    I dare any one in the US tell the Jews not to eat kosher foods and not to wear the hat. See what will happen.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  16. Nordeezy

    It's a good thing no reads/watches cnn anymore, otherwise this propaganda might be noticed.

    Totally agree though, Islam is a completely peaceful religion as long as you don't insult their prophet, then, they just might kill you

    March 27, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Bryan

      So then its not a peaceful religion right?????

      March 27, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  17. Nick

    Excellent job Caliphate News Network an arm of the Hamas propaganda wing Al Jazeera.
    Ignore Muslim killing gays. Instead portray Muslims as victims of American bigotry. Total BS.
    Muslims beware no intelligent American is buying your victimhood status.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  18. sebastian

    All I know is most Americans are ignorant people, afraid of things they do not understand and do not bother to try to understand before they form an opinion and stick their noses in where they do not belong. As a result, they are manipulated by their own govt, by media and by themselves. The problem is not something you can explain here in one article. The problem is solved by going out and having a dialogue with different people, reading books, and especially looking at history. Arguing about what or what is not written in the Koran and whether or not we should hold every Muslim accountable for Jihad sounds ridiculous to an educated human being. Do you believe in everything that is written? Man is guided by his own spiritualism, not just written law or religion. There is Jihad because there is injustice, corruption and persecution, period. Americans close their eyes to that fact that they are responsible for the many ills in this world, just as many of us here are guilty. Everytime you get in your car, you are party to the global war on terror. US terrorizing Muslims, Muslims, terrorizing Muslims, Christians and Jews, while we all pay for the weapons that feed this war. Until we can begin to see what is wrong with ourselves, we cannot begin to appreciate what is the real problem. We are just so caught up in our own little worlds.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Red

      To make friends try being friendly. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Nobody will listen to your constant complaining, attacks and demands.

      March 27, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Southshot

      its just easier to hate. The Muslims have pushed far too many buttons. Their so called moderates too silent. There wont be any trust therefore no discussion

      March 27, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  19. MJ

    I'd like to see these people condem terrorism as well any and all movements associtated with Islam that target USA. All this money the send back to "their" counties should be used to distance themselves from those who target USA. Then they might have a right to complain. America, love it or leave it.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • MBFrazee

      Absolutely!!! The muslims that radicalized themselves and the rest that don't stop them) have not encountered the Real American – the Patriotic American. They've been sheltered and led astry by our liberal leaders and immigration service. Now, that they're encountering the Real American, they don't understand. Well, they better start understanding, because We the People are not going to let them terrorize us on our soil!!!

      March 27, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Curious

      Several actually have condemned violence. That may have been true in the year after 9/11 but 10 years later muslims have been speaking out on violence. Also the money I think they send to their countries goes to families. They are sending money to mothers and fathers in their home country.

      March 27, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Curious

      The "real American"? As a real and patriotic American, that's a little much. I don't believe the muslim population was led astray by the immigration service They do not get a blind of the immigration people. The immigrant muslims are pretty easy to spot. Liberal leaders on the other hand....

      March 27, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  20. swatguy

    Walid calls the radicalization hearings an unfortunate first in American history? So were the attacks on 9/11 and those attacks were perpetrated on America by radicalized Muslims. The Fort Hood shootings was perpetrated by a radicalized Muslim. The list of atrocities and near atrocities of radicalize Muslims is lengthy. Lutherans did not hijack AA 11; Baptists did not shoot up Fort Hood. Get real, Walid. Instead of putting your head and those of your followers in the sand, support your country first.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • someone

      Charles Joseph Whitman, University of Texas Massacre shooter, Roman Catholic, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Columbine High School massacre, Protestants. There is a very long list. Do not define a people by the actions of a few.

      March 27, 2011 at 10:54 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.