N.Y. mosque controversy hits home in metro Detroit

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

The Islamic Center of America, 19500 Ford Road, just after prayer services on a sun-drenched afternoon last week. Muslims have increasingly become the target of anti-Islamic rhetoric as the national debate over a proposed community center and mosque in New York City near the site of the World Trade Center has led to broader questions about the role of Islam in American society.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — The incendiary debate over a proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan is reverberating far from the shores of the bustling island borough.

Located two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, the project has drawn varied criticisms from mostly conservative factions. Some have likened it to putting a Nazi billboard at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., or an anti-government militia’s billboard outside the Albert P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee, said the building would be insensitive to families of 9/11 victims who still are grieving and see Islam as responsible for the attacks.

Even President Barack Obama hasn’t been entirely supportive of it, saying that while he supports the group’s right to build a house of worship there, he would not comment on the political wisdom of the selected location.

But as the debate has evolved so has the rhetoric – and rationale – of the opposition. One of the biggest critics of the project, conservative blogger Pam Geller, has called it a “triumphal mosque” designed to celebrate the 9/11 hijackers’ victory on “conquered lands.” Geller, who is part of a group called “Stop Islamization of America,” has become a fixture on national news outlets as a poster child for the anti-mosque movement.

And with an apparent disregard for the first amendment, former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich equates the situation thusly: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” the presumptive 2012 Republican candidate for president said in a statement.

As the war of words has become more vitriolic, anti-Islamic sentiment also appears to be on the rise. Public opinion polls show increasing opposition to the New York mosque as the debate has worn on, and instances of anti-Islamism from across the country have been featured in dozens of news stories.

In Tennessee, for example, three plans for new Islamic centers in the Nashville area — one of which eventually was withdrawn — have provoked protests and angry outbursts. Members of one mosque there discovered a Jerusalem cross spray-painted on the side of their building with the words “Muslims go home.”

In Jacksonville, Fla., the pastor of an evangelical church has scheduled what he calls “International Burn a Koran Day,” to “send a message,” he said, “to Muslims across the world.”

And on Wednesday, a Muslim cab driver in New York was assaulted by a passenger who allegedly said “Assalamu Alaikum (a Muslim greeting meaning ‘peace be upon you’), consider this a checkpoint,” before slashing him in the throat, arms, and hand.

Muslims and non-Muslims Arabs have followed the controversy with rapt attention, here in metropolitan Detroit, which is home to the largest per-capita Middle Eastern population in the United States.

At Al-Ameer restaurant on Warren Avenue, Lebanese Christian Rafi Berry lamented the situation as he shared an iftar dinner with some Muslim friends on Wednesday.

“Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter,” he said. “(Arabs) all get the same hard stare at security checkpoints, we all get the same dirty looks from some people. In the minds of most Americans we are the same.” His friends nodded in agreement.

Imam Mohammed Ali Elahi of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights called the controversy “tragic” and said it was unfair to lump Islam in with the radical extremists who perpetrated 9/11.

“There were Muslims who died in the World Trade Center, too,” he said. “This is so unfortunate that, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims have been put under attack by political people for selfish reasons. I know that this is not what is in the hearts of most Americans.”

Elahi said he is concerned that the growing public visibility of anti-Islamic cabals could lead to hate crimes against Muslims, though he downplayed the likelihood locally, saying that Muslims have been greeted with considerably more tolerance here than in most parts of the country.

University of Michigan-Dearborn political science professor Ronald Stockton agreed with that assessment, noting that according to public polls, little more than 25 percent of Americans know a Muslim. While he did not provide a specific estimate, he said that percentage is much higher in metro Detroit.

“Social science research has established that once you know someone, you stop looking at them as a stereotype and you start looking at them as a human being, with all of the positives and negative traits we all have,” said Stockton, a co-author of the recently published book “Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit after 9/11.”

For his work on the book, Stockton was part of a team of researchers that surveyed more than 1,000 Arab-Americans in the metropolitan Detroit area about their beliefs on everything from foreign policy to civil rights.

Stockton said that as a political scientist, he sees this controversy as a matter of opportunistic GOP members trying to capitalize on an abstract — but powerful — idea for the upcoming Congressional midterm elections.

“I think that most of this is going to go away once the elections are over,” Stockton said. “There just won’t be anything to gain after that.”