Chairman - Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan
In 1993, my Muslim community purchased an old school building in Bloomfield Township in the hopes of making it a home for the spiritual and social lives of the growing number of Muslim families in the area. It would be a mosque. We’d call it the Unity Center, and as part of its mission we would aim to foster unity within metro Detroit's vastly diverse Muslim community.
Thirty-three percent of Detroit’s 33 mosques are largely attended by South Asians, 30% by Arabs, and 18% by African Americans, according to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding’s 2003 mosque study. By making unity a core value, we also wanted to demonstrate our commitment to strengthening relationships with the greater community we lived in, a neighborhood dotted with churches and synagogues.
As the project took root and renovation plans were drawn up, neighbors who lived around the proposed mosque began to voice objections. They cited traffic, environmental impact on nearby lakes and noise pollution, but the underlying foundation for their apprehension was poorly cloaked. They were afraid of this group they knew little about — Muslims — and they worried about what problems the unfamiliar group might bring to their peaceful lives. As one resident said, “It’s not a standard of worship like we know it to be.” These objections came eight years before 9/11.
American Muslims were already starting to become the next chapter in the country’s list of victims of racial and religious prejudice. At the township hearing, when the late Rabbi Ernst Conrad of the nearby Temple Kol Ami came to support the mosque, he didn’t mince his words: “Being a rabbi who at one time had to struggle to get a synagogue established in a waspy, white community, I know there are some people who dislike the prospect of a group coming into the neighborhood that’s different from them.”
As I dug deeper into the area’s history, even more troubling news came to light. Written into the deed of the old building was a clause that prohibited the purchase or transfer of the property to “people of color or non-gentiles.” The clause had been long rendered legally invalid, but still, it was a stark reminder of the bigotry and racism that plagued this country, and the long road we have traversed to acquire the freedoms and rights we so cherish.
Recognizing our right to build, Bloomfield Township officials not only approved the project, but offered their encouragement, confirming that we, too, were part of the fabric of the community. We also recognized the need to reach out to our neighbors, and so we engaged them in honest dialogue. We discussed the project with them, and as they learned more about us and our families, their fears were put to rest.
We worked together to custom fit the Islamic center for the neighborhood, retaining a soft Islamic architecture with an environmentally friendly dome, a small minaret and a tree-lined ridge to diffuse possible noise and lights at night. We agreed that neighborhood children should continue to play on the property’s playground; in fact, we updated it and put fresh paint on the old swing set.
We invited our neighbors to the center’s annual breaking of the fast interfaith event during Ramadan. We welcomed fellow citizens during elections when the center was used as a polling station, and we participated in the spring neighborhood cleanup. Once they took the chance to get to know us, it wasn’t difficult to distinguish us, a peaceful suburban Islamic community in America, from the likes of al-Qaeda.
Indeed, as patriotic Americans who value the freedoms of this country, and who raise our children to be educated, civically minded and engaged members of the greater community, the Muslims who frequent our center are the antithesis to al-Qaeda. And we are representative Muslim communities across America, New York included.
The objections leveled against the Park 51 project, which would build an Islamic center near Ground Zero, are a vile and extreme manifestation of those we faced nearly 20 years ago, but the same lessons can apply. Well-meaning objectors must confront their fears about Muslims and resist the growing right-wing movement to collectively punish all Muslims for the tragic events of 9/11.
At the same time, the mosque’s developers must recognize the local context and the sensitivities of their neighbors, and together they must reach a solution that meets the needs of the lower Manhattan community, Muslims included.
Victor Ghalib Begg is senior adviser and chairman emeritus of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan.