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Metro Detroit

Muslim Leader Embraces Challenge Warren Presents (May 9, 2006)

Steve Elturk of the Islamic Organization of North America looks at plans last week in Warren for a mosque he plans to open there, maybe by September. "We seem to have the support of the majority," he says. "There are a few who are still uncomfortable with us. We have to deal with that." (Photos by REGINA H. BOONE/Detroit Free Press)
As some of his future neighbors flung hate-filled comments about Islam and cursed Muslims last month at a Warren Planning Commission meeting, Steve Elturk listened quietly.
The rude welcome showed him that getting formal approval from the commission that night to open Warren's first mosque was probably the easy part. Winning acceptance from skeptical neighbors in a city known for its resistance to change is the bigger challenge.
Elturk hopes to ease the lingering tensions with an open symposium intended to correct misperceptions about Islam and the Islamic Organization of North America. Elturk, from Troy, is president of the nonprofit organization, which wants to open the mosque and learning center in an existing building his group bought on Ryan south of 12 Mile.
"We seem to have the support of the majority of the residents," Elturk said. "There are a few individuals who are still uncomfortable with us. We have to deal with that."
Elturk met last Tuesday with representatives of civil rights groups to organize the meeting, planned for early next month. He hopes it will include officials from several religious and civil rights groups. The city has offered to host the symposium at the Warren Community Center.
"I think if we all talk, it will go well," Elturk said.

Elturk has played the parts of peacemaker and teacher since getting approval for the mosque last month.

He asked Harry Bissell, a Royal Oak resident who converted to Islam 13 years ago, to speak to concerned residents on his behalf a couple of days after the Planning Commission met. Bissell spent two hours answering questions from members of the Central Homeowners Association of Warren, whose homes surround the site of the proposed mosque.

It was a dramatic change from the Planning Commission meeting, where some residents asked if Elturk's organization had ties to terrorist groups and a commissioner asked if Elturk planned to offer sacrifices at the mosque. Some exchanges became vulgar.
Barbara Sollose, president of the homeowners association, said 80 residents attended Bissell's forum, and 79 had positive impressions from it.
"I think they feel better about it," Sollose said. "I think they were happy with what happened." Bissell said last week: "I was expecting that there might be a lot of hostility there. But the association was very receptive and more than anything else, curious. They weren't against it, they just didn't really understand it."
The rough welcome raised eyebrows throughout the city. Stan Newman, 75, who lives a few miles from where the mosque will be built, said he heard of residents who grumbled about increased traffic and parking problems.
"My concern was they were using parking as an excuse," he said. "I'm concerned with what the fuss was. Muslims deserve a place to worship."
Elturk said no people have threatened him or told him that they oppose the mosque since he received approval for it, but he knows some still will not welcome it. A U.S. Department of Justice official told him not to lose her number, just in case.
Planning Commissioner Alan Casmere, 54, has lived in the area surrounding the planned mosque for 38 years. He voted against Elturk's plan in March, but voted in favor of it in April. From the outset, he said, the opposition was largely a result of concerns that the mosque might use a loudspeaker to announce calls to prayer.
"I know the neighbors," Casmere said Tuesday. "They weren't against the mosque, they were against the loudspeaker."
Late last month, Elturk and Sollose signed an agreement that ensures an external speaker will not announce calls to prayer. Elturk has said he never had any plans to use such a speaker, but decided to offer the pact as a sign of good faith. Sollose will talk about the agreement at an association meeting Wednesday.
"I think they put the first step forward and I admire them for doing that," Casmere said. Elturk said he has heard from Muslims in Warren who are eager to begin worshiping at a mosque in their own city. He plans to get permits by the end of May and begin construction soon thereafter.
"I would love to have it by September," he said, when Ramadan begins. "That would be a real gift for the Muslim community."
Contact DAN CORTEZ at 586-469-1827 or dcortez@freepress.com.
Elturk meets with Michigan Muslim leader Dawud Walid, left, Sharon Buttry of the National Conference for Community and Justice, and pastor Roger Facione of Warren's Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church