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Metro Detroit Muslims Work On Tolerance, Not Terror (September 2, 2010)

Detroit – Like many, Areej Kattan doesn’t like how Muslims and her religion are portrayed. Unlike many, she’s doing something about it.
Upset by recent scrutiny of her religion and eager to put a positive face on her faith, she started a Facebook campaign to post positive news stories, interviews and other items about Islam.
“Within my circle of friends they’re showing their frustration (but) they’re trying to make a difference,” said Kattan, a Wayne State University student and Dearborn resident.
That sort of activism has helped ease relations between Muslims and people of other faiths in Michigan when they’ve suffered nationwide, experts said.
While Kattan and others are worried about the view of their religion nationwide, they acknowledge tensions aren’t as severe in Metro Detroit.
And experts say outreach efforts by mosques, community leaders and interfaith groups here have helped bridge the gap.
“There is tolerance here, but I don’t know about going out of state,” Kattan said. “I went to Indiana and two women pointed at me. I wear a veil and they said, ‘What’s happening in Indiana?’ ”
Some say Metro Detroit could offer lessons when fear and misunderstanding runs high — especially as the anniversary nears of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and controversy lingers over the Islamic center in New York.
Declining image of Islam
Last week, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life issued a poll showing that 30 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Islam, down from 41 percent five years ago. The poll also showed 51 percent object to building the 0 million, 13-story community center and mosque near ground zero in New York City.
“Detroit and Michigan have a very different dynamic,” said Ronald Stockton, a University of Michigan-Dearborn sociology professor who studied Detroit Arab-Americans and Chaldeans after the 2001 attacks.
He said of the protests over the Islamic center: “What happened in New York was political opportunism. That would not happen in Michigan. Politicians would know better than to do that here. The proportions of people who personally know a Muslim are greater in Michigan.”
Many say they feel more comfortable in Michigan because the state is home to 350,000 Muslims. Some 200,000 live in Metro Detroit — and the community has been described as having the largest concentration of those of Arab descent in North America.
“Michigan is a highly diversified state,” said Mohammed Abuelroos of Sterling Heights, a retired chief engineer and member of the Islamic Organization of North America mosque on Ryan Road in Warren.
“There’s a lot of tolerance in Michigan.”
Imam Steve Mustapha Elturk, who presides over the mosque, said Michigan is more tolerant, although it doesn’t mean there aren’t some incidents against Muslims or mosques. He also credits numerous interfaith efforts and the area’s diverse population for making the difference.
“There have been a lot of interfaith activities, particularly after 9/11,” Elturk said. “That’s when the faith-based organizations really came together.”
Problems persist
Muslim leaders in Michigan have worked hard to ease suspicions, publicly distance themselves from terror suspects and reach out to other religions — especially since the 2001 attacks.
On Wednesday, the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations announced a national campaign of public service announcements on television about the anniversary, featuring Muslims who were first responders at the World Trade Center.
The campaign hopes to defuse anti-Muslim “hysteria” surrounding the Islamic center controversy, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the local CAIR group.
One of the public service announcements features Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders describing the “golden rule” as expressed by faiths to illustrate that faiths have more in common than differences.
Among the efforts Muslims and others have put together to help ease tensions is Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust, consisting of law enforcement, community, advocacy and civil rights leaders and representatives.
Local Muslim leaders also have put out a call for volunteers for an interfaith initiative on the weekend of Sept. 11. It is part of the national “Muslim Serve” campaign for community service projects.
After the attacks, local Muslims hosted open houses and distributed pamphlets about their religion.
Stockton, the U-M Dearborn professor, said mosques in New York and elsewhere could learn from Detroit.
“They can start with young people,” Stockton said. “Become proactive. Bring people into your mosque. Talk to them. Give them hummus. Neutralize the issues.”
Even so, local Muslims say it’s difficult to hear the national dialogue about Muslims — especially as they observe Ramadan, the holiest month of Islam.
Walid said recent incidents across the country of “Islamophobia” are of concern for local Muslims.
He cited incidents such as one in Queens, N.Y., late last month, when a man entered a mosque, shouted anti-Muslim epithets, called worshippers inside “terrorists” and then urinated on a prayer rug. Also, a New York cab driver who is Bangladeshi and a Muslim was stabbed by a passenger.
“People are worried, disgusted and frustrated,” Walid said.
“We’re not totally vaccinated here, but we are better off than Tennessee or Kentucky.”
Extremists are the problem
The past year has been especially tough for mainstream Muslims, who say they feel they need to constantly defend their religion when Islamic extremists make headlines.
In November, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas. Government officials say he was in contact with a cleric with ties to al-Qaida.
A month later, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was charged with attempting to blow up a plane en route from Amsterdam to Detroit.
On May 1, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen, Faisal Shahzad, allegedly tried to blow up an SUV in Times Square in New York. He told authorities he was a “Muslim soldier.”
And just this week, two former Detroit men — Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi and Hezam al Murisi — were detained, but later released without being charged, in Amsterdam when authorities said suspicious items were found in one of the men’s luggage.
“They judge us badly. They judge us with hearsay,” said Abuelroos, the Sterling Heights engineer. “There are pockets out there that express resentment towards Muslims.”
But Muslims, including Malik A. Shabazz, a retired city bus driver, refuse to deny their religion, despite looks or outright hostility. After the 2001 attacks, Shabazz said he deliberately started wearing a kufi, a Muslim prayer cap.
Shabazz, who is not related to the Detroit activist by the same name, said some of his riders treated him differently after they learned of his religion.
“Once people found out I was Muslim, they stopped talking to me,” said Shabazz, 60.
“I once had a person ask me if I believed Jesus was the son of God, and when I answered she told me, ‘You’re a heathen and you’re going to hell,’ ” Shabazz said.
But the Pew study also found encouraging signs. While opinion is divided about the mosque near ground zero, the study found 62 percent of those polled believe Muslims should have the same rights as other groups to build houses of worship.
“It’s not entirely a bleak picture for Muslims,” said Alan Cooperman, associate director of research for the Pew Forum. “I do not want to diminish the attacks or discrimination some of them face, but I do not see real evidence that attitudes have significantly hardened or become less positive since 9/11.”
Abuelroos said he hopes the controversy over the New York mosque begins a broad conversation on religion and Islam.
“I hope this issue becomes a national debate in a factual, accurate and non-biased way,” he said.
“How are we going to get people to understand Islam?”
bwilliams@detnews.com (313) 222-2027