Steve Friess

Detroit suburb rejects proposed mosque

Sterling Heights Planning Commission votes 9-0 against planned mosque, finding it ‘not harmonious’ with neighborhood

STERLING HEIGHTS, Michigan – To the surprised outrage of local Muslim leaders and the raucous delight of this Detroit suburb's large Iraqi Christian population, the Planning Commission on Thursday rejected a much-debated plan to build a mosque in a residential neighborhood.

After the decision, a boisterous crowd outside the meeting at Sterling Heights City Hall chanted "No More Mosques," hurled anti-Islam epithets at women in headscarves and waved American flags.

A Muslim woman responds to anti-Islamic epithets by saying, “We love you all,” as she leaves Sterling Heights City Hall on Sept. 10, 2015 after the planning commission unanimously rejected a proposed 20,500-square-foot mosque
Steve Friess

The 9-0 vote came after the Sterling Heights Planning Director Don Mende, stunned the mosque’s developer by declaring the 20,500-square-foot, nearly 60-foot-tall structure as “not harmonious with the existing buildings in the area” and asserting that the developer “was not responsive” to his concerns.

“Rather than fitting in harmoniously, the structure would dominate the landscape,” Mende told the nine-member board. “No changes in the architectural plan were made to improve the compatibility with the development.”

Jeff Chehab, a board member with the American Islamic Community Center seeking to build the mosque, then told the board that he was “baffled” by Mende’s statements because he had complied with a list of 23 requests for changes Mende had demanded. “I’m not sure what happened from last week to now,” Chehab said. “Not allowing this mosque to be built is in violation of my Constitutional rights. We have given the City of Sterling Heights everything they’ve asked for.”

Later he added, “Maybe public pressure is mounting on the Planning Commission, but this is not about public pressure. It’s about the rule of law.”

The board voted on a motion to reject the mosque without any discussion, and Mende was never asked to respond to Chehab’s complaint that he had been blindsided. Neither Chehab nor Mende were available for comment after the vote.

There’s no doubt there has been intense public pressure. Since the plan went public earlier this summer, both the Planning Commission and the City Council have been deluged by calls, emails and public comments urging the rejection of the proposal. At a City Council meeting last month, several speakers spoke of their disgust, suspicion and fear of Muslims, a fast-growing minority in Sterling Heights. The Detroit suburbs boast the largest population of Muslims in the U.S., but the region has long also been popular among other oppressed ethnic groups including Chaldean Catholics, an ancient Christian sect also known historically as ethnic Assyrians and originating from Iraq.

I knew Muslims were disliked but I never knew it was to this extent. Hate doesn't even begin to describe what these people feel towards us.

Linda Dbouk

mosque supporter

At Thursday’s City Hall meeting, none of the speakers made derogatory remarks about Muslims or Islam. Instead, several residents worried about the traffic and parking problems that the mosque, which would stand on 4.3 acres along a major thoroughfare, would create.

“For the neighbors who live north, south, east and west of where this building will be, for those who like to sit out on our patios and enjoy the sunrise and sunset, why should we allow a six-story building to block those views?” resident Kenyon Cleghorn asked. “It doesn't make sense.”

Still, outside City Hall, hundreds of opponents of the mosque rallied before the meeting and roared with delight after the vote rejecting the mosque. They chanted, “God Bless America,” and many jeered and lodged anti-Islam epithets at women in headscarves as they left City Hall. One of the women replied with a smile, saying, “We love you all.”

“The Constitution will prevail,” said Linda Dbouk, another of the women, while a man screamed at her that she was a terrorist. “I mean, we’ll take it to the Supreme Court if we have to.” Later, on Twitter, Dbouk seemed more rattled, writing, “I knew Muslims were disliked but I never knew it was to this extent. Hate doesn't even begin to describe what these people feel towards us.”

Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told Al Jazeera America after the vote that he expects that CAIR and the mosque leadership will seek a Justice Department review of the city’s process for reviewing this request. He cited a 2000 federal law that bars cities from rejecting special use permits based on religious enmity.

Sterling Heights officials seem to be anticipating that prospect. Mayor Michael Taylor issued a statement via email to the media that read in part: “The recent application for the special approval land use to construct a mosque was considered by the City's Planning Commission based on objective land use criteria and not emotional feelings tied to religious beliefs either for or against the applicant. Sterling Heights has a solid reputation for inclusiveness and tolerance reflected in a wide variety of places of worship across the City, including a Sikh Temple, a Buddhist Temple and two existing mosques.”

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