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. Riffrite

    "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."

    There's a big difference in defacing a building and killing American Soldiers. What makes American's mad too I think is the idiots overseas and in America that were applauding the 9-11 attacks.

    March 28, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Riffrite

      You would think that in this day and age with all that is known and information available it is pretty plain to see that Mohamed was a fraud. If you didn't agree with him you were beheaded. I am pretty sure that was not what God had in mind.

      March 28, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  2. victoria

    i have three things i need to say:
    1. coming from an asian background, i understand that we have different traditions and religious beliefs, but in no way are we going to wear our traditional attire to get a job in the U.S.
    2. reading some of the comments, a lot of you are hypocrites and stereotypical of the muslims
    3. IF some of you who are leaving negative comments, are christians, isnt one of the 'rules' in the bible is not to judge others?

    March 28, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  3. Bobby

    The only law we have in the US is US law. I believe the Islamaphobia is coming from the muslims. As long as all citizens obey US law, everything will be fine. No worries.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  4. T-Pot

    I'm gonna move to Iran and setup a Christian church. I hope nothing happens!

    March 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  5. John

    Hey SigFreud, you should probably keep up better with what is going on in this country instead of listening only to left leaning outlets like NBC and CNN. Did you not hear about the judge in FL that just last week allowed a dispute to be ruled by Sharia, as the two parties involved in a funding dispute over a mosque were Muslim. Maybe you're the one that needs a shrink. And if you don't believe that the media is left leaning, why don't you look at how CNN portrayed protestors from the Tea Party versus the way they were written about in Wisconson. The Wisconson folks were freedom fighters while the Tea party was a group of radical protestors with hate signs and speech. Have you seen all the signs from Wisconsin or did your media of choice edit those out??

    March 28, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  6. Tony


    March 28, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  7. Tony

    We are a country of tolerance, I have served in the middle east, and I have seen the worst of Islam but I have also seen the good. Myself I could care less about your religion, and I know from experience that not all muslims are bad. If we say that, then we should say all Christians are bad based on the OKC bombing done by Timothy Mcveigh. Their is bad and good in every society that you can't change and alienating a particular group does not help the situation. Furthermore I think the changes that are happening in the middle east with this younger generation is proof that as long as they are getting an higher education they will change on their own. Besides with education comes tolerance.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  8. Evil ISlAm

    FACT= Islam says death to infidels.Who are infidels? We are they do not believe in islam.Sounds like a hate group..
    FACT= Islam Does NOT give women equal rights.Si why do they worship a religion that treats them so bad.
    FACT= Mohammad married a 9 year old = PERVERT.And you worship a pervert. Aisha was six or seven years old when she was engaged to Muhammad and nine when the marriage took place.Aisha stayed in her parents' home for several years until she joined Muhammad and the marriage was consummated.she was nine years old at the time.
    FACT = Followers of Islam are animals.slaughtered American contractor Nick Berg. Sitting in a chair, Berg made the following statement: “My name is Nick Berg, my father’s name is Michael, my mother’s name is Susan,” the man said on the video. “I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah. I live in … Philadelphia.”The video then changes to a scene of masked men, with Berg sitting in front of them. After reading a statement, the masked men were seen pulling the man to his side and putting a large knife to his neck. A scream sounded as the men cut his head off, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” – “God is great.” They then held the head out before the camera.THIS IS THE REAL FACES OF ISLAM.barenakedislam.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/american-nick-bergs-beheading-warning-graphic-images/
    FACT= Muslims do not care about the life of the innocent.
    In this case, just as it has happened so many times before, it seems that the executioners used a dull knife again. These guys really left the man take the imminent death with all of its worst. The knife wielding masked man slowly cut through the neck of the victim as if to take in the joy of causing slow and painful death. He cut through man’s trachea and esophagus which detached victim’s mouth from the rest of the body, yet he’s still making desperate attempts to scream and all the noise is coming out of his neck. It’s brutal.
    As carotid arteries got cut, the blood started gushing out in volume you have never seen before. The massive blood loss along with horrific sound this beheaded man lets out make this easily the most brutal beheading video you will have ever seen. Also notice how just before the beheading starts, the camera focuses on victims bruised arms. That man was heavily beaten prior to his painful execution. He was given a choice to say his last words – it’s in a language I don’t understand (possibly a Middle Eastern tongue) but you can tell the man has already gone through hell on Earth and knows the worst is yet to come. He likely wished for a quick death so he’s done with it, unfortunately for him, he was not granted that wish. Brutal video.I don’t want to sound mundane with warnings, but WARNING on this one. Extremely brutal video. Very bloody. You have never seen this much blood ejected out of man’s body before. Knife executioners used to behead this man was likely really dull which you can tell by what it took to cut through the soft tissues of the neck. The video then jumps to the footage of decapitated head laying atop man’s dead body – which I’m assuming is because cutting through his spine took them forever, so they got rid of that so they’re not ridiculed for being complete amateurs. Once again – this video will hunt you for years, even if you’ve seen previous beheadings and took it like a champ. This one is worse. The sound is extremely painful and the amount of blood lost is beyond comprehension. You can’t even believe heart can pump so much blood with each beat. Watch at your on risk, you’ll have to deal with it yourself if you opt to go for it. I’m not kidding, it’s the worst beheading video ever!
    It appears as though the name of beheaded man was Jasus Musel. The beheading was carried out by MUSLIMS.See a pattern??
    Watch muslims in the name of islam.Not 100 years ago but in modern day.Islam is evil and everyone who follows it becomes evil.Let the videos speak. http://www.bestgore.com/beheading/worst-beheading-video-ever-horrific-sound-massive-blood-loss/
    The video, on an Islamist site, identified the hostage as Eugene Armstrong and showed a masked man sawing his head off with a knife.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Renny

      You have said it correctly. Too bad the liberal leftists and bleeding hearts won't listen until it is their head on the chopping block for being an infidel and refusing to convert to islam. Their last thought will probably be, "why didn't I listen......"

      March 28, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  9. Iqbal khan

    And who was behind 9-11?


    March 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  10. Lucy

    One Muslim in America is one too many. Sorry, nothing personal except that your religion is incompatible with American culture. Assimilate or leave!

    March 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  11. Shirley U Jest

    Oh, is this a voice of America's Muslims in the wind? Where has it been for the last 10 years? Why wasn't it heard shouting rage at the attack of 9/11?

    Just wondering.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  12. White Christian In America? Good Luck!

    As a White Christian Male in my late 50's I was born and raised in Detroit. The town was mostly middle-class, blue collar and White. Now Detroit is mostly Black with a very large Middle Eastern/Muslim population.

    I married a girl from South Texas and we moved back to her home to get way from the Crime, Chaos and the Racial and Ethnic shift of Detroit. Nothing against anyone, but we felt Alienated in my home town!!

    Now our Texas home for the last 20 years has become over run with illegal Mexicans and as Whites/Americans we feel Alienated. No one speaks English, Crime is out of control and our kids live in fear. We have become the Minority in our own nation.

    Why don't you do a story White Middle Class Christians in America for a Change?

    March 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  13. Michael Lovestar

    I wonder if any Muslims read this or are we just farting into the wind?

    March 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  14. jorge washinsen

    Hey has any one else got the "whoops" an error happened?Bunch of CNN crap.Why do they just not delete?Why not delete the foul language?

    March 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  15. abidngdude

    Muslim or Mexican, either is the new Irish. We've always hated the immigrants that come to this country in droves.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  16. Michael Lovestar

    Poor little cry baby Muslims... They want it all in this country, but try opening a Christian church in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, etc. Hey Muslims! We don't want your 14th century lifestyle. Get with the times!

    March 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  17. liza

    Fukk muslims. WE need to be protected from THEM.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Geoffrey

      You are obscene in words and deeds. Your ignorance is disgusting to me and an embarasment to me as an American.

      March 28, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
  18. Iqbal khan

    Check this.....


    March 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  19. LANCE

    I am glad that they are getting the very real message that they are not welcome here. They need to leave and take their violent lifestyle back to the rock they crawled out from under.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • liza

      We need to make them leave.

      March 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Geoffrey

      The morons here or people who need to get a message are the bigots who fail to understand this country is founded not only on tolerance but on knowledge and understanding. Many of the comments here embarass me as an American. Those of you have posted these mean and un-american comments, I can only hope the day will come when your realize your stupid, thoughtless and heartless behavior.

      March 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Renny

      And Geoffrey, you and people like you are part of the reason this country is going the same way the Roman Empire went, and for the same reasons. You are just making it happen to America faster. At least Rome had a thousand years or so. America will be lucky to make 300.

      March 28, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • victoria

      what 'violence lifestyle'? i dont get how some you people are getting the idea that their violent. ugh you need to get educated on their cultural background than to assume you know everything about them.
      I couldn't agree more, GEOFFREY, im embarrassed by some of the comments too

      March 28, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  20. Renny

    American Muslim.....definition of an oxymoron.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Sam

      Smart Renny ..... this is the true definition of oxymoron

      March 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Bethe123

      Yes...American values are not the same as Islamic values.

      Your point is well taken..'.American Muslim' is an oxymoron

      March 28, 2011 at 5:13 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.