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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. BL

    Ii love comments from hypocritical Christians., the bloodiest, most destructive force in human history. When it comes to sheer, brutal violence, the history of Christianity makes Islam look like mere amateurs.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  2. liz

    First they came for the communists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  3. BornInUssr

    One must have a broader knowledge and perspective of the world to understand. One should ask why muslims burn christian churches and kill christians in Egypt. Why chrisans used to make up 89% of Bethlem population and now only 30%? What is "dhammy" in arab countries – non-muslims have to pay special tax for the privilege to live as a second class citizen. Why there has been any condemnation of militant jihadism by US muslim organizations?

    US muslims must be american patriots and help the country to rid it of the islamic jiihadism. When I see the evidence of that I'll treat them with respect

    March 27, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  4. ignorance_intolerant

    No religions would equal no problems. These problems exist only because of the ignorant idea that we are all CORRECT. Nobody knows who is right and nobody will ever know. There are idiot Christians just as there are idiot Muslims. One will never believe the other and until that ends, it will never end.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • ignorance_intolerant

      Should have said less problems. Human nature is still pretty nasty in its own right.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  5. jimboc

    Do the Imams that complain bitterly about the hearings condemn with equal vigor the violence that is done in the name of Islam? If so, I salute them for their fairness, if not they are part of the problem.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  6. DD

    Islam has worked hard to establish a reputation as a religion that disrespects all other religions, all other people. Until Muslims shed their self made reputation they are not going to be treated very well. They have told "us" that they hate "us" and that "we must convert or die". Until Muslims start vocalizing a respectful tone against non-Muslims, they will be considered a low life form.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  7. Jac

    Maybe if the Muslims in America would stand up and start denouncing the violence as well as become more vocal for America and start telling what they know instead of setting up shop and trying to make America look like the country they just left and denounced people would look at them in a different light. I am tired of all the lables these religious groups and ethnic people put on themselves, i.e Afican American, Iraqi American, Latino American...When are they just going to be Americans first, They left their country to become Americans maybe they should start being Americans instead of bringing ALL of their countries rules, traditions etc. Until that happens they will always be looked at as outsiders.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • WC

      Jac, they didn't leave their countries to become Americans! They left to take advantage of OUR way of life yet they continue to behave as if they still lived in tents and the filth that they left behind. Had they a better way of life in their countries, they'd have stayed there. Yet! They come here and try to change OUR way of life.

      To this article, all I can say is BooHoo! If they want to be looked upon as first class citizens of the US, then they should start behaving as CITIZENS.

      March 27, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  8. jon
    March 27, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  9. Rob

    Simple solution – treat Islamists in Christian nations the same way Christians are treated in Islamic nations. BTW USA is a Christian nation that tolerates other beliefs.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  10. jon

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKsqZ10RYhU&w=640&h=360]

    March 27, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • a2b3

      Jon... This prince and most of the monarchs in the middle eastern countries are bunch of greedy animals.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • WC

      And that particular 'prince' is now dead. Killed by those whom he tortured.

      March 27, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  11. Joy

    They alienate themselves, primarily by being non-patriotic

    March 27, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • WC

      And that particular 'prince' is now dead. Killed by those whom he tortured.

      March 27, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  12. Reality

    What instigated the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? And what drives today's 24/7 mosque/imam-driven acts of terror and horror? The koran, Mohammed's book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means. Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. Then we can talk about the safety of mosques and what is taught therein. Until then, no male Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  13. AmericanPiex

    People fear and hate what they dont understand. The most anyone on these forums understands about the Quran is 1 – 5 verses they're read off of some website and what they see in the news. This is where the west earns their education from, hate filled websites and a biased media.

    Islam had reached the very heart of America, not thru violence but thru its message. The number of Muslims in the US have grown since 911 but the number of terrorist relative to the converts is negligible.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • RevolutionMary

      So true

      March 27, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • mike

      Don't you think you're being slightly unfair? How do you know where people get their material? And it doesn't matter this way or that. You mean to tell me there is a different way to interpret the Qu'ran's "verse of the sword?" It doesn't matter where a person finds this, be it an anti-Muslim site or the Qu'ran itself. It says what it says and encourages the slaying of all non-muslims.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  14. jon

    All Religions are a step backwards. Our founders knew it. Why has the tea party forgot this?

    March 27, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Jonathan

      Yep, that's right; it's the Tea Party's fault.

      MORON.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • ignorance_intolerant

      I think he's referring to the fact that TEA PARTY smart ones believe that the US was started as a Christian nation. It wasn't.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson_and_religion

      Educate yourself.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  15. Jewish

    When your religion is so visible and such an important part of your life, people will worry that it will get in the way of your other activities or your job. i.e. Joe lieberman election. Hasidic jews employ each other for the most part.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  16. Mohammad

    Why is it that the dead sea scrolls the oldest bibles around are more compatible with Islam that current day bibles? Christians ought to ask this question if they are really serious about finding the truth.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Eric G.

      Are you claiming that "faith" is a path to "truth"?

      March 27, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • BSs

      Maybe you have it all mixed up. Maybe the Koran closely resembles Christianity? Maybe just maybe the islamic teachings are loose interpretations of Christian teachings considering Christianity is older than Islam.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • WC

      Are you kidding? Best you study up on the other religions before making foolish statements.

      March 27, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  17. jon

    Too bad that they feel this way – it should be expected though

    March 27, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  18. Ahmad

    It's very easy to misquote the Quran, just as it is easy to misquote the bible or any other book for that matter. As long as the reader is ignorant of the subject, there is no difficulty in vilifying one group and raising another.
    The truth of the matter, Islam remains a misunderstood religion by many in the west.
    For a different viewpoint, try this:
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iu-8S-nbl0Y&w=640&h=390]

    March 27, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Eric

      You capitalize quran and islam, but failed to capitalize Bible and West. Don't be surprise if your maskarading for a appealing to reason and fairness will evoke scedpticism. Respect is recieved when respect is given.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • cass

      Trust me, we DO get it.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • WC

      The bible and the quran were written by men, very ordinary men. They were ot written by God, god or goddesses.

      These books were simply thier opinions of what they believed and followers have since tried to impose these opinions on others. If you follow the Golden Rule, no one needs a bible or quran.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Frogman

      Your correct Ahmed many Americans, and other western peoples, have a dangerous misunderstanding of islam. They have never read the koran and have never heard of the hadiths. They don't understand that the principal teaching of islam is that islam must conquer the unbelievers and become the dominate religion in the world. They think that islam can fit in and respect unbelievers beliefs. In reality islam must kill, enslave or convert all of the unbelievers. I'm surprised that you admit this.

      March 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  19. Edward

    This article has crossed the line between journalism and propoganda.

    March 27, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Jonathan

      Yes. Thank you for saying that.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Sabah

      no this is not propaganda, this article summarizes my experience as Muslim American.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • cass

      Agreed. This feeling Americans have about muslims comes from their politcal ideology towards Westerners, not religion.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Mr.Cranky

      Agreed. Puff piece.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Frogman

      Thank you Edward. You're absolutely correct. Our government and our news outlets colluding to obscure the very real threat of islam to our way of life.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  20. emenot

    While I have no doubt that there are many many kind and peacefull Muslim in the world, but they should also understand why many infidels such as myself are parentnoid of the attack American had suffered. America had tried and indeed help liberated, save millions of muslims such as the Baltics, Afhganistan, Irag and now Libya, Why didn't the good muslims speak up more loudly for America, their adopted home and country? I myself is an immigrant and proudly love America as my permenated home, I after all didn't like that Hong Kong was reverting back to China inevitablly in 1997. I now still travel to Hong Kong to visit but to me America is now my home and country and will defend America if invaded!

    March 27, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • scroo yoo

      Why didnt more christians denounce the KKK? Maybe they were and you didnt listen.

      whatever happened to separating the action from the individual?People do bad things,but that doesnt mean a whole culture of people support what one Individual does?

      Should I have to defend myself everytime a white guy commits a crime?Should I denounce every racist everytime someone gives them the freedom to spew their garbage?

      Ive got a life buddy.I dont have time to make sure every Ignorant xenophobe hears my beliefs.I have things to do,and Its up to the individual to open their eyes,not up to the masses to open them for them.

      March 27, 2011 at 11:19 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.