Local attorney works to change perceptions, gain acceptance

‘Quit hijacking Islam,’ Muslim activist says

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — Like death, taxes or any other earthly certainty, it is a given that when tensions flare in the Muslim world the national media, will travel here to gather sound bites and screen shots for the story du jour.

It’s easy to see why. With the largest per capita Arab population in the United States, Dearborn offers no shortage of options from which to cull material.

To wit: For a spiritual take and some breathtaking still photos, reporters can go to the largest mosque in North America, the Islamic Center of America, 19500 Ford Road. For a more secular view, they can seek comments from one of the many locally based Arab-centric civil rights groups.

And if they want a man-on-the-street flavor, all one needs do is walk the Schaefer or Warren Avenue business districts, both situated in the heart of the city’s Middle Eastern population.

This entrée to the American public has not been lost on these groups, many of whom have seized the opportunity to dispel rumors about Islam, denounce extremist acts or air grievances of discrimination and intolerance. But to one local activist with a growing following, the message too often has missed the mark.

Muslim attorney Majed Moughni said he is trying to speak some truth to power when it comes to the image Muslim community leaders portray to the greater public. The 39-year-old says that in the post-9/11 era, these community leaders have done a woefully inadequate job of framing the dialogue on American-Islamic relations.

“Every single event that has happened, they have mismanaged,” said Moughni. “They come out like crying babies. They come out asking for mercy. They come out and they complain.

“And they still do it now,” he exclaimed, in reference to their response to the failed Christmas day airplane bombing of Nigerian Muslim Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab aboard a Detroit-bound flight. “Now they’re complaining about how the community is going to experience a backlash!”

Moughni’s displeasure with this public relations tack has led him to become increasingly outspoken on Muslim affairs, something he’s not unfamiliar with. In 2003, he drew widespread media attention and an eventual settlement from Meijer after handing out more than 10,000 fliers publicizing a Muslim client’s treatment in a religious discrimination suit against the company.

More recently, Moughni was in the news defending Wayne County Judge Bill Callahan, who was sued in August for making a Muslim woman remove her head scarf, or hijab, in court. The lawsuit, which featured the prominent advocacy organization Council of American-Islamic Relations as co-plaintiffs, claimed that Callahan discriminated against the woman because wearing the scarf is part of Muslim beliefs.

Moughni saw it otherwise. In press releases and thousands of fliers handed out at the city’s Homecoming and local businesses, he said the woman was using the guise of Islam to file a baseless lawsuit and, in the process, giving the whole community a bad name. He pointed to the fact that her scarf, which traditionally is worn to cover a woman’s hair as a sign of modesty, was only covering part of her hair — proof, he said, that the scarf wasn’t religious garb.

His criticism led to sharp rebukes from some prominent Muslim community leaders. Dawud Walid, head of CAIR-Michigan, said “(Moughni) is not the hijab police,” and the woman’s lawyer, civil rights attorney Nabih Ayad, called Moughni a “lone wolf with no community support.”

Ayad’s comments notwithstanding, Moughni’s ideas have started gaining traction. On a newly created Facebook group titled “Dearborn Area Community Members,” Moughni already has attracted 420 members in a little less than a month. He said he began the page to start a dialogue on Muslim community affairs in Dearborn.

So when federal agents arrested Abdulmutallab, the suspected airplane bomber, the conversation naturally turned to what would surely be the coming media circus.

“Our response was, ‘Oh my God, not again,’” Moughni said. “Here we are eight years after Sept. 11, and we’re trying to recuperate, put the pieces back together, get our lives back in order, try to get accepted again in the American mainstream — and we have to face another terrorist attack.”

So he decided to frame this question: “When Israel commits an act of terror, by bombing innocent (civilians) in Lebanon, Muslims in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles organize mass demonstrations. When a Muslim commits an act of terror against America, there are no mass protests.

“Should Muslims organize a mass protest to condemn the terrorist actions of other Muslims? What is your opinion?”

The response has been an overwhelming “yes,” Moughni said, and has the group planning a demonstration Friday at the U.S. District Court in Detroit when Abdulmutallab will be brought in for a preliminary hearing. The theme of the protest is “Not in the name of Islam” and already has landed Moughni on CNN and Al Jazeera for interviews about the event.

Moughni said he is working tirelessly to make the demonstration large and will be making up fliers once again. He expects to print 10,000 to 20,000 leaflets and said he has reached agreements with east end grocers Super Greenland and Eastborn Super Market to distribute the material. The whirlwind of activity has Moughni swamped.

“I have been so consumed with this I have actually had to turn away business in the past week,” he said.

But money can’t buy what Moughni’s after, he said, so some lost business is a small price to pay for the cause he believes in.

“It’s up to us to change the perception,” he said. “The time has passed for inaction, and we can’t afford to wait any longer.”