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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. Nappy

    Wow, this site is full of sob sisters. ALL YOUR OPINIONS MATTER!!! DOJ botched illegal sale of guns operation and blames gun dealers. Fu ck this adminstration and this government. Burn Dc....burn.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • DannyG

      FK u too, Nappy. If you want DC to burn, how about volunteering to be the kindling? That will up the IQ of our nation.

      March 28, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  2. laila

    I never knew so many ignorant people live in a free educated society.....what should we expect from third world countries.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  3. kenny

    what is cnn's motive for running an article on Muslim hardships everyday? is it your goal to garner support for this sect?

    March 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Ronco

      That's all CNN does...I just switch channels.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  4. Lyle

    First of all, this is NOT "their" country!! They didn't found this country. They didn't lay down the roads, the bridges, the sewers, the buildings, the phone lines, the factories, etc. They didn't clear the boulders from the farm land BY HAND! It wasn't until all the heavy lifting was done that they hoards of non-whites flooded into this country. We are a nation of WHITE immigrants, not third worlders. This country was founded by and belongs to the white Anglo Saxon Protestants, and no one else!

    Second, we had damned well abandon the religion of non-racism and kick them all out while we still can before its too late. Read "Joys of Muslim Women by Nonie Darwish.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  5. Mike

    I find it funny that this story is trying to put the muslims of dearborn in such a positive light. I have nothing against the muslim faith or any muslim at all. However, why don't they mention in this article that the Mayor, Chief of Police and other Muslim organizations in Dearborn are being part of a class action lawsuit due to the arrest of individuals handing out Bibles on a public street. They preach tolerance in one year and hate in another. Why can't people just stick to practicing their faith and not trying to put it on other people both Christians and Muslims

    March 28, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  6. Dicky

    Most of them are IT workers too. Please Washington Stop patronizing these............

    March 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  7. Ex-Muslim and Happy

    Wife beating, polygamy, hate, terror, intolerance, child bride, stoning, discrimination against women,...not I do not think Islam is a religion from any god, and it doesn't have a place in 21st century USA.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  8. Ex-Muslim and Happy

    Wife beating, polygamy, hate, terror, intolerance, child bride, stoning, discrimination against women,...not I do not think Islam is a religion from any god, and it does't have a place in 21st century USA.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  9. Dallas5superrings

    Ok everyone....dont freak out....yet....Remember, this is CNN. C rescent News Network. This was not professional writing obviously. IF i want to convert to Islam, dont force it down my throat CNN. I understand your "siding" with them, but come on....

    March 28, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Ronco

      Righton! CNN is so pushing an agenda!

      March 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  10. QUESTION

    WHAT DID GOD SAY HIS NAME WAS WHEN HE SPOKE MOSES AT THE BURNING BUSH – IT SURE WASNT ALLAH –AND I WOULD ASK ANOTHER GOOD QUESTION – IF JESUS WAS A MAJOR PROPHET IN ISLAM UNDER THE NAME ISSA I THINK ? IF THE PROPHETS OF GOD NEVER LIED – THEN WHAT DOES THAT MAKE JESUS WHEN HE CALLS HIMSELF THE SON OF GOD -WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO MUSLIMS WHO THEN IS JESUS TO THEM ????. A PROPHET OR AN HEIR TO GODS THRONE ??? .

    March 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Dallas5superrings

      Question: Great Great points. If Jesus Christ was not who he said he was, he would be known as the biggest fraud in the HISTORY of the world. Do you know that actual TIME CHANGED after Jesus Christ death. Don't think Mohummed had that happen when he died.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  11. humberto

    The FBI are untrustworthy, they lie and falsify files.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  12. SCOTO

    I was surprised that my memory of immediately post 911 was quite different from that stated here. I remember an effort by Bush and Americans in general to make sure that American Muslims were not singled out for blame, women being escorted to the mosque etc by other non Muslim Americans. Unfortunately I also remember being surprised and disappointed that there being no real public groundswell of any kind to disown the actions of the 911 terrorists by Muslims in the USA. Indeed organizations like CAIR seemed to make things worse by a less than vigorous denouncement of Islamic terror and a constant theme of "victimhood" whenever I saw them on the media. This has continued unabated even though there are groups (Gays for instance) against whom there are many more attacks than those made against Muslims.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • SconnieGuz

      They'd prefer to disrespect everybody in the whole country by attempting to build a victory mosque

      March 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  13. corey c

    This was a great stride in American, religous standings. Americans are known for standing up to what is not right, building a tremple anywere that preaches the teachings of the corran is wrong. Americans are fead up with the piecefull talks, from the radical muslum religion. The carran speaks of punishing women for not obeying there husband, as well as, muhammed having multiple wives. This ignores American morals and values, Americans have to face this as a problem. Because it is definetly not the answer, looking at the muslum brotherhood and thier beliefs, making America a battle ground, wich must control.this ratical religion before it gets out of hand.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  14. Dicky

    Comment away America. It's all being recorded and tracked for future use against you........bet on it people !

    March 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  15. jorge washinsen

    While the discussion is hot we need to make it mandatory to teach American history, with no punches pulled,starting with the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 through 1948 when Harry Truman put his blessing on a piece of paper that started the war our young are dying in now.We should never repeat the same mistake again of taking sides.We should do like the Swiss,stay neutral and handle the gold no matter from whence it came.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  16. Jeena

    In America the average income of most Pakistanis and other Asians are much more than average Americans.
    I think this subject is not at all relevant. I do not see any difference based on religious background.
    Such a topic only brings about hatred in the minds of people who do not know much about America.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  17. ummsaad

    Nothing to fear, they can only afford a "faux marble floor" . This is the theme of this story.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  18. Alan

    CNN has become a by proxy mouth piece of the Muslim movement.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Ronco

      Agree!

      March 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • COUNTRYCOOK

      Did you notice how the Muslims standing outside by the burned bulldozer when a gun shot was heard (like on plan) they stated "This is terrorist attack " and they said they were afraid but kept on standing in the open without moving, and when our country suffers a REAL Muslim terrorist attack and we say "This is a terrorist attack" we are called "bigot, Islamapobic, haters, anti-Muslim"

      March 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Dallas5superrings

      Alan, very well said! Thanks

      March 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Becca

      CNN enough of this poor muslim hogwash. They are a threat to our very freedom, if you are too stupid to realize that, then don't report on it. You are helping the new world order to be established and that's all you're doing. 3 days of poor muslim stories. I'm sick of it.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • CJ

      There is no muslim movement. And this is called reporting. I presume you want Christian only news on CNN...well you got plenty of places to find that drivel in the US.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  19. Kevin D.

    Soooo, a few rumblings about possible bans on Sharia law percolate on some conservative websites, a person doesn't get a job at a hair salon because she won't show her hair, and "some other stuff" which is not defined...and this is persecution??!?!? Geez, people will do ANYthing to consider themselves victims these days.

    America is incredibly tolerant and Muslims are a part of that. Muslims, like I do, should thank their lucky stars they are here.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • ahmed

      If all this persecution is so bad here, go live in a muslim country. If you want to live in this country than westernize. If you want to live under Sharia law and by the ways of Islam than leave. Simply as that. We don't want Sharia and we don't want Islamic philosophy here.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  20. jorge washinsen

    Everyone who comes here now want to bring their problems with them.We don't need any more problems.we who have been here through many many wars do not consider troublemakers as keeping their oaths to get into this country as a must..Remember 9-11

    March 28, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • sue

      Most of these folks ARE from this country!!! Born here, raised here, educated here, married here, die here! WHY can't some people understand that????? They are as American as anyone. They just aren't of the Christian faith and SO MANY people think you have to be Christian to be American and vice versa. ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!

      March 28, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • socrateze

      remember 9/11? Have you investigated the claims of 9/11 being an inside job or are you just accepting the story the Bush adminitstration gave you?? How about the WMD's..... do you still believe that? Open your eyes and your mind.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • URNUTS

      It is not required to be of Christian faith, but no one can call themselves an American and believe what is in their Quran....the are opposites in every sense of the word!

      March 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • alex

      Jorge....as american as apple pie

      March 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • CJ

      Wow, illiterate and ignorant together. Nice.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • supremeamerican

      lol sue. anything to bad talk the christians right? Learn your facts sue. Christians dont hate muslims. It's vice versa. Wanna know who hates the muslims ? the jews. Bad job sue. you are a bigot.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
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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.