By Dawud Walid
The evening of September 10th in Sterling Heights, Michigan reflects the complex convergence of trauma and bigotry that affects Chaldean and Muslim communities in Southeast Michigan.
The American Islamic Community Center (AICC), which currently resides in Madison Heights, purchased property in neighboring Sterling Heights to relocate its small center to build a larger community center to meet the needs of the Muslim community. Once AICC’s request for a special land use permit was made known to Sterling Heights’ residents, a sea of opposition came out against it in five separate city council and planning commission meetings. There was also a separate protest against the proposed community center to boot including the mayor voicing opposition.
On the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, the planning commission unanimously voted against the proposed Islamic center. After the hearing, Muslim community members including myself were faced with jeers, profanity and physical intimidation. One Muslim woman was even spat upon in her face by a resident who celebrated the decision.
Oppositions to Islamic centers and schools are nothing new to American Muslims in post-9/11 America. People with bigoted agendas have protested special land use permits and zoning accommodations for Muslims from Pittsfield Township, Michigan to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. What makes Sterling Heights different from others was the vast majority of protestors coming from the Chaldean community, Christians who originate from Iraq.
The protests in Sterling Heights were not really about the proposed height of the Islamic center and traffic concerns as some claim. There are churches off of primary roads in the city that are equivalent heights, and a traffic study by AICC reflects that no adverse impact would take place if the center was built at the proposed location. The opposition clearly desired that the area which is majority Chaldean continues to remain so and that an Islamic center is not welcomed there.
The largest concentration of Chaldeans in the world resides in Metro Detroit. There are literally more Chaldeans in Sterling Heights than in Baghdad. Due to the chaos which engulfed Iraq as a result of the misguided American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Chaldeans were displaced like other Iraqis. The difference between them and Iraqi Muslims, however, is that as Muslims continue to live in Iraq, though circumstances are tough, Christians have almost disappeared.
Michigan Muslims most certainly sympathize with the plight of Chaldeans as well as Assyrians in Iraq and the reasons why large numbers of them were forced to resettle in Michigan. It is easy to understand that Christian Iraqis who were displaced from are traumatized.
Michigan, however, is not Iraq.
Michigan Muslims were not part of the Al-Qaeda and Daesh criminals that destroyed churches, killed clergy and displaced Christians from their land in Iraq. The countertransference of Christian suffering in Iraq onto Sterling Heights Muslims is misguided to say the least.
The recent drama in Sterling Heights is not the first time that Michigan Muslims have received misguided opposition from a section of the Chaldean community. Beginning in 2011, members of the Chaldean community were the primary opposition to the American Muslim Diversity Association (AMDA) Islamic center project in Sterling Heights. In the same year, members of the Chaldean community joined a group from the ultra-conservative Jewish community in opposition to the Islamic Cultural Association (ICA) establishing a community center in Farmington Hills. During the same timeframe, the Walled Lake based Aramaic Broadcasting Network (ABN) hosted Islamophobes from Acts 17 who came to Dearborn to disrupt the now defunct Arab International Festival.
It is incumbent upon leaders within the Chaldean community to firmly denounce the Islamophobic elements which exist among them including from some who purport to represent Christianity. As we know that it takes time for a people to heal from collective trauma, the leadership of that community has to set the tone for healing and reconciliation. Being quiet about or brushing aside the issue of anti-Muslim intolerance among some Michigan Chaldeans is no solution; it is in fact irresponsible.
Hopefully the recent events in Sterling Heights will spark awareness among Chaldean and Muslim leaders in Metro Detroit that the two communities must hold regular community conversations just not leaders meeting once or twice then going back to the status quo. The process of reconciling the pain and frustrations between Chaldeans and Muslims in Michigan will not be without pain but must happen. Otherwise, such ugly situations as what recently took place in Sterling Heights will repeat themselves and possibly escalate.
Editor’s note: Dawud Walid is the Executive Director for the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. His views are his own.