Proposed mosque in Sterling Heights stirs opposition

  • Written by:

Niraj Warikoo, Detroit
Some Iraqi-American Christians fear a proposed mosque in a city that has become a center of Chaldean life in metro Detroit
(Photo: Niraj Warikoo/Detroit Free Press)
Across the street from a proposed mosque in Sterling Heights, signs make it clear it’s not welcome:

“We don’t want it!!!” and “build it elsewhere!” read some of the placards planted off 15 Mile Road next to an American flag flapping in the summer breeze.

It’s a view shared by some in the city, which has emerged in recent years as a center for a growing Iraqi-American Christian population, known as Chaldeans, Assyrians, or Syriacs. Some of them fled persecution in Iraq at the hands of Islamic extremists, and now worry such extremism is coming to their new home in metro Detroit.

But some Muslims say they have been stereotyped during the debate over the Shia mosque and feel the opposition is rooted in a prejudice against Islam. In recent years, there has been strong opposition to mosques being built across metro Detroit, including in West Bloomfield, Plymouth, Pittsfield Township and Warren.

Tonight , the city’s planning commission is expected to hold a public meeting on the issue and may vote on whether to grant permission for the American Islamic Community Center to build a $3- to $4-million mosque on the site.

The dispute has sparked tensions between some Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims in metro Detroit, leading to a war of words on social media. Problems in the Middle East have added to the tensions, with both sides accusing each other of being extremists like ISIS. Two rallies were held in late August opposing the mosque and another one is planned at City Hall before tonight’s meeting.

But there are also attempts to defuse the tensions. Last week, the head of Chaldean Church in metro Detroit, Bishop Francis Kalabat met with Imam Hassan al-Qazwini, both of Iraqi descent, at the Iraqi Consulate office in Southfield to promote dialogue over the issue. And Steve Spreitzer, president and CEO of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, is calling for greater understanding of Islam, noting the prejudices that some Catholics and Jews faced in the 19th and 20th Centuries when they tried to open their centers in the U.S.

“To draw conclusions about any religion by the behavior of people who have hijacked the religion for political and economic gain, is to miss the bigger picture,” Spreitzer said. “At the heart of Islam is neighborliness.”

At the same time, Spreitzer said he understands why some Chaldeans might have concerns considering what’s happening in Iraq. “The pain, anger and suspicion is grounded in life experience and can’t be dismissed,” he said.

Iraqi-Americans, most of them Christian, make up more than 12% of Sterling Height’s 131,000 residents, according to 2013 Census figures. An intersection near the proposed mosque, 15 Mile and Ryan, is a center of Chaldean life in the area, with Iraqi restaurants, centers, and groceries. A 11,500-square-foot center, the Chaldean Community Foundation, is opening this fall on 15 Mile close to where the proposed mosque would be.

At a City Council meeting last month, several residents strongly opposed the building of the mosque, saying that the house of worship was not suited for a residential area. Some limited their opposition to just the issues of traffic, congestion, and property values.

But others attacked Islam.

“It’s not a good area for the mosque,” Sterling Heights resident Saad Antoun said during the meeting, according to a recording on the city of Sterling Height’s website. “I just wish” the mosque would be located in “either Dearborn, or somewhere else, just not that area.”

Antoun then held up a picture of a woman wearing a niqab, an Islamic face covering worn by some Sunni Muslims that covers the entire head except for the eyes.

“This mosque is going to bring…people like this,” Antoun said, displaying the image to the council and crowd. “I don’t want to be near people like this. This is not humanity … This is scary. and disgusting. This can not stand. Please stop the mosque.”

Other residents voiced similar concerns, with some trying to link the proposed mosque to Islamic extremists in Iraq who have targeted Iraqi minorities, such as Christians. One resident at the meeting said he was concerned the mosque could be used as “a facility to store weapons, training.”

Muslim advocates expressed concern about the rhetoric, some of which was posted on YouTube. The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized the anti-Islam sentiment and Imam Al-Qazwini slammed the opposition, comparing them to ISIS.

The proposed mosque is Shia, a sect that has often been targeted by ISIS, a group that dislikes Shias.

“What is the difference between Daesh (Arabic name for ISIS) and those who oppose building the masjid (Arabic word for mosque) in Sterling Heights?” Al-Qazwini said in a Detroit mosque. “There is no difference. ISIS is a bunch of bigots, hateful, who hate others. Those people are also a bunch of bigots who hate others.”

Some Chaldean leaders criticized those remarks, saying it was unfair to compare opposition to the mosque to ISIS, which is killing and ethnically cleansing Iraqi groups.

Such comparisons are “out of line,” said Martin Manna, who leads the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce. He said there are extremists on both sides of the debate.

“There’s no excuse for any form of bigotry or hatred that some are presenting” in the Chaldean community, Manna said. “On the other side, some in the Arab community have been really inciting some of these negative comments, because of the comments they have made.”

In Dearborn, some Arab-American Muslims slammed the attacks on the mosque and on Dearborn. Tarek Baydoun, a Dearborn attorney who is Muslim, sent an automated voicemail to 18,000 homes in Sterling Heights that said in part:

“Perhaps the greatest difference between the United States and Iraq is that in the United States, our government does not take sides between religions. Some people that came here in search of religious liberty and personal freedom want the city government to enforce their opinions on others. This is simply unacceptable, and fundamentally un-American.”

The American Islamic Community Center is based in Madison Heights and wants to move because it’s running out of space, said mosque leaders. Jaafar Chehab, a board member of the proposed mosque, tried to assure residents at the August meeting that “there’s not much traffic,” which will mostly happen during Ramadan and Friday afternoons during weekly congregational prayers.

“We’re not here to make problems or decrease people’s values,” he said. “I don’t know why people are making it an issue.”

“Our religion is similar to Christianity,” he added, drawing jeers from the audience.

Chehab said his family has been in America for three generations, with a grandparent fighting in World War I.

“People have the right to say what they want,” Chehab told the Free Press this week. “The Constitution allows them that. We respect all people’s opinions.

“We’ve done everything the city asked for … hopefully, everything works out.”

Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor, who opposes building the mosque at that location on 15 Mile, has found himself under fire from both sides. In the city, some seeking public office have expressed anti-Islam and racist rhetoric, leading to complaints that Taylor was siding against Chaldeans.

In response, Taylor wrote a Facebook post last month saying he supported Chaldeans and was aware of the suffering they faced in Iraq. Some Muslims took offense to his post, challenging him on Twitter and Facebook.

On Sept. 2, Taylor said on Facebook: “I completely and unequivocally denounce any anti-Muslim bigotry.”

He added that while he objects to building the mosque on 15 Mile because of location and size issues, “I will work with the AICC (American Islamic Community Center) to ensure they have a place to worship in our city.”

Taylor told the Free Press: “At this point I think all that is left is for the Planning Commission to make its decision. Whatever happens, I urge all residents to be respectful and tolerant of each other. Regardless of the outcome, Sterling Heights must remain a place that is open and welcoming for people of all races, faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds.”

Contact Niraj Warikoo: 313-223-4792 or Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo