By Valérie Samson
Second part of my investigation on the consequences of 9/11
for the Muslim community in Dearborn.
Imam Steve Mustapha Elturk insisted on having me visit every corner of his mosque, and he took the initiative to record our conversation. Out of habit, no doubt. The FBI monitors mosques, and this practice actually doesn’t bother him: “They do what they have to do, even if we don’t like it.”
It is the methods used by the agency that cause him to bristle. “They recruit people who have committed crimes or have problems with the law or immigration.” More specifically: “The FBI approached one of our members to make him one of their informants. A guy of “twenty years”, who, according to the imam, “trespassed on the site of a military complex.” “After a night in prison, he says, they asked him if he would spy on my mosque for them.”
There is the implicit fear that these informants may themselves become the zealous instigators of crime, agents provocateurs who would push any weak soul to a terrorist act. “It has nothing to do with the conspiracy theory, points out Andrew Shryock, you need only watch the news!”
In Dearborn, a piece of news is still on everyone’s mind: the brutal death of an imam, whose body was found riddled with 20 bullets during an operation organized by the FBI. According to them, the Imam had shot one of their dogs when they came to arrest him. According to the defenders of the man of faith, he had to defend himself when the animal attacked him.
The case is now in the hands of justice, but the results of an independent autopsy have already shown that the imam’s face and one of his hands were bitten by the dog. The incident has shocked the community and beyond.
Sally Howell refers to him as “a man who was working for the wellbeing of the neediest in his community” and she is not surprised that he carried a gun. “If I had to work in the neighborhood in which he officiated, I can tell you that I too would have carried a gun.”
Again, these are the methods that are challenged: Once more, this was one of these sting operations in which FBI agents pose as dealers of stolen goods. Many voices denounced such an excessive use of force to challenge an alleged receiver of stolen goods.
Sally Howell mentioned another consequence of 9/11 for the people of Dearborn. “Three charities have been closed. They are subject to raids and are regularly prosecuted.” The consequence of all this: “It has become difficult for Muslims here to give to charities from their countries of origin. But because they are compelled to perform the Zakat (1), they donate the money locally at their mosque.”
Sally believes that this unexpected manna has had to do with the development and renewal of the community. “In 2001, she says, there were 38 mosques in Dearborn. There are now sixty, let alone the projects for renovation and beautification that have been financed thereby.” And there is more: between 2000 and 2005, the Muslim population will have grown “30%” in a period of restricted immigration.
Imam Elturk has his explanation. He says that since 9/ 11, conversions are rife, especially among born and bred Americans: “9/11 gave us a great opportunity to talk about our faith, to open our places of prayer, to begin a dialogue with the Americans. We should have done this before. For their part, many Americans have started to read about Islam, even if only to feed their curiosity… I think that our religion speaks to their heart because in Islam there is a principle of non-discrimination…”
In fact, all Muslim leaders that I met during my investigation made the same surprising confession. I remember an Egyptian colleague had made this observation when he returned from a visit to a mosque in Virginia. He was struck by the number of followers who were of WASP origin. He had suspected that it was rather a desire to monitor from inside what was happening…
Eventually, the Muslim community in Dearborn could paradoxically emerge empowered from the ordeals endured. This is not surprising, actually. It is a community firmly rooted in the Michigan landscape: its presence dates back over a century, it is economically well integrated, and its relationship with other communities has always been cordial.
There are of course historical reasons for this. Andrew Shryock explains that when the United States closed the immigration spout in 1925, the Muslims who settled in Dearborn by the end of the 19th century “were Americanized. In forty years, they were assimilated to the point where they no longer spoke Arabic, and many had renounced Islam to embrace Christianity.”
The flow of Muslim immigrants ever since 1965 has come from a decolonized Middle East. “It’s a different population that has more integration problems, says Andrew Shryock. Today, 75% of Muslims in the Detroit area were born abroad.” These newcomers, however, have benefited from a stable foundation on which they thrive.