Mosque opposition in Sterling Heights is about more than location

On September 10th, there’s a scheduled planning commission hearing regarding a proposed mosque off of 15 Mile Rd and Ryan Rd in Sterling Heights, Michigan.  The proposed mosque has been met with opposition in three different city government meetings within the past month.  Much of the opposition has come from the Chaldean community, a Semitic people who are Christians that originate from Iraq. Even the mayor voiced his opposition to the mosque project in part to side with the Chaldean community though he backtracked from this position in a media story yesterday.

In 2011 in Farmington Hills, some within the Chaldean community teamed up with members of the Orthodox Jewish community to oppose the Islamic Cultural Association’s (ICA) plan to establish a community center with a prayer area.  During the same year, members of the Chaldean community launched vitriolic opposition against the American Muslim Diversity Association (AMDA) which sought to establish the first mosque in Sterling Heights.  After much contention, the mosque was eventually approved.

As we stood to defend ICA and AMDA, we did not focus on the fact that much of the anti-Muslim bigotry projected at these projects was coming from within the Chaldean community.  Between regular anti-Muslim comments on AM talk radio on almost a daily basisthe Aramaic Broadcasting Network (ABN) based in Walled Lake giving platforms to the nation’s most notorious anti-Muslim bigots, and a series of mosque oppositions, it is clear that there is a serious problem of Islamophobia within the Chaldean community in Michigan.

I empathize with the suffering of Chaldeans in Iraq.  Unlike Sunnis and Shi’is, Chaldeans and Assyrians had no armed militias to protect them after the misguided invasion of Iraq by American and British troops in 2003. Christians were forced from their homes, churches were attacked and clergy were murdered. The once vibrant community of Christians in Iraq has now become almost extinct.

Sterling Heights is in Michigan, however, not Iraq.

Putting Iraq into context, the vast majority of people murdered in Iraq by Al-Qaeda and Daesh have been Muslims.  The majority of houses of worship that continue to be attacked are mosques.  The religious leaders who continue to be killed are overwhelmingly Muslims.

But again, Michigan is not Iraq.

Michigan Muslims are not responsible for the burning churches and killing Chaldeans.  In fact, the majority of Muslims in Michigan and America were opposed to the immoral invasion of Iraq which opened up the hell that caused the large uprooting of Chaldeans to Michigan after 2003.  What is also ironic is that even when it came to Chaldeans opposing AMDA and their invoking of what took place in Iraq, the congregants of AMDA are majority Bengali-Americans, their resident imam is from Pakistani heritage, and I preach there as well, an African-American veteran of the US Navy.  The opposition launched against AMDA was clearly illogical.

Much of the Islamophobia coming from Chaldeans in Michigan is counter-transference in my estimation.  Those who have come here from Iraq suffered deep trauma, and that is being transferred to Michigan Muslims who are not responsible for that trauma.  When persons go through severe trauma, there is a much higher risk that they become abusers if that pain has not been dealt with therapy.  I believe that many Chaldeans migrated to Southeastern Michigan which has a large Muslim population and that trauma was not dealt with robustly enough during their resettlement.  I’m not making excuses for the Islamophobia in their community but am looking at one of the causes that it may be addressed if there is to be path forward after September 10th.

Bigotry is wrong no matter who it is projected at.  In this era in which we are having a national discussion on race relations and legacy of white supremacy, it saddens me to see so many Chaldeans, a people of color, who are using their religious privilege in America to marginalize another community of color.

My observations on race discussion at Muslim Congress

A little over a week ago at the Muslim Congress conference in Atlanta, I helped facilitate an impromptu discussion that primarily focused on race relations in the American Muslim community.  The conversation came about due to a group of concerned sisters who wanted “real talk” with shuyookh about the epidemic of racism in the community and how it expresses itself subtly and overtly. I was then appointed to lead the conversation by a leader within Muslim Congress, Mawlana Baig.

Before going into detail about what was discussed, knowing the demographics of Muslim Congress conference participants is important. The leadership and conference participants were majority South Asian.  Conference participants also included Iranian Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans and White Americans.  Though there were a few speakers such as myself who do not follow madhhab Ja’fari, the leadership and the overwhelmingly majority of conference participants follow the Ja’fari school of thought.

Going backto the actual discussion which was not on the official program and took place from midnight to 2 a.m. with my facilitation and in the presence of Shaykh Usama Abdul Ghani and Shaykh Hamza Sodagar, the following issues related to implicit and explicit ethnocentricity and racism were discussed:

Implicit:

  • Most masajid feel more like cultural centers than Islamic centers. The dominant cultural groups of boards and congregants superimpose their cultural standards and traditions in the centers, which makes those who are not from those groups feel alienated.  An example given was of an Islamic center that started off with a diverse group of people when it was small.  As it expanded and the majority of the congregation became Iranian American, speeches transitioned into majority Farsi.  A South Asian brother who brought up this specific issue says that he no longer feels welcome there. Similar sentiments were expressed by other people that experienced the same at other locations.
  • Programsand speeches which are focused on overseas matters without balancing domestic concerns. An example of this is that a South Asian sister brought up how shuyookh are quick to talk about “Takfiris” and “Wahhabis” abroad yet don’t allow platforms to discuss oppression that takes place in America such as police brutality and systemic racism.
  • Sisters moving in the prayer lines away from other sisters to pray next to someone from their own ethnic group.

Explicit:

  • Issues relating to marriage were the most discussed.
  1. A Pakistani American sister spoke about how she was harassed by family members here and abroad for two years for introducing her Pakistani American friend to a Black American Muslim brother. The sister herself was engaged to a Pakistani American man.  She was accused of violating the hadeeth of loving for your sister what you love for yourself because she was engaged to a Pakistani man yet introduced her friend to a black man who was beneath the standards that she chose for herself.
  2. A sister who is an immigrant from India married a brother who is originally from the Caribbean. She continues to be harassed by her family.  After having children, family members had the audacity to ask her if her children were scared of their own father because “he’s so black.”  Even statements about lack of pure blood have been made.
  3. A Southeast Asian sister’s marriage was broken up by in-laws because she was a different culture; their comments about her not being from them were repetitive and very specific. Comments were made about her skin color not being light enough in conjunction.
  • Stories were also shared of Black Muslim children being harassed at schools because of their blackness and not being seen as Muslim enough.
  • An Indian American brother spoke about how he was on the executive board of a masjid, and when he suggested to add an African American brother who was a “professional” to the board, he was rebuked. He was later forced off of the board for not understanding that the center was for Desis.

These issues that were discussed continue to be experienced by Muslims across America irrespective of schools of thought.  The specific examples in cases 1b and 3 are incredibly gross, and I’ve heard and even experienced my share of overt racism in the American Muslim community.

The bottom line is that racism among Muslims must be discussed openly, and leadership of masajid and Islamic organizations have to be challenged to systematically address these issues.  Since many of the leaders themselves are ill equipped or undereducated on addressing the complexity of race in America in general, which is informed by white supremacy, as well as the specific issue of implicit bias that exists everywhere in the American Muslim community, the challenge becomes getting leaders not only to acknowledge the broader issues but for them to be humble to be trained in this discourse and to allow persons who are not wearing turbans and thawbs to have trained facilitators lead these discussions.  To be more specific, Muslim women who are trained in this subject should be used as well; sexism was also a topic that was touched on in our discussion related to racism.

Just for the sake of clarity, I recently finished a 9 month fellowship through Wayne State University’s Law School on racial equity in which I was trained on how to facilitate such conversations besides my Islamic studies that relate to this issue.

Leadership has to acknowledge and be willing to change, starting with themselves on this issue.  Trainings and discussions need to take place.  Deep relationships and socialization has to take place as well outside of superficial contact on Jumu’ah Day and/or at Islamic conferences.

The struggle continues.

Beards, the Supreme Court, and religious expression for inmates

http://blogs.detroitnews.com/politics/2014/10/10/high-court-promote-religious-expression-inmates/

OCT 10, 2014, 10:00 AM

Beards, the Supreme Court, and religious expression for inmates

 

Justices of the United States Supreme Court three days ago strongly questioned oral arguments from Arkansas Department of Corrections defending their “no beard” policy for inmates, even when beards are worn for bona fide religious reasons.

The policy is being challenged by a Muslim convert named Gregory Holt, who holds that Arkansas is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which is a federal law that says government cannot impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of prisoners unless it demonstrates that it has a compelling interest.

Some Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others view shaving the beard as tantamount to committing sin. RLUIPA gives legal protection that despite even when people are incarcerated for felonies, the state does not have the absolute right to strip them of their religious practices and expressions. Even prisoners of war are guaranteed freedom of religious practice under the Geneva Convention.

Arkansas claims that beards should not be allowed in correctional facilities because they can be used to hide contraband such as weapons. Chief Justice John Roberts stated that Arkansas provided no proof of such ever happening, and Justice Sam Alito went farther by sarcastically suggesting to Arkansas that a “tiny revolver” could fall out of an inmate’s beard. Keep in mind that Roberts and Alito are both conservative jurists on the high court.

Just as in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the court ruled that two non-profit organizations did not have to provide full range contraceptive coverage for religious reasons to employees per the Affordable Care Act, I’m sure that the justices will rule in favor of beards for inmates.

At the end of the day, government has no right in meddling in the affairs of people’s bona fide religious beliefs as long as those beliefs do not pose a reasonable threat to security and justice in our land.