STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — The nation’s largest concentration of Iraqi Christians, many driven from their homeland by persecution at the hands of Muslim groups, is mounting an intensive campaign to block a proposed mosque in Sterling Heights, Michigan — sometimes by deploying public anti-Islam invective unusual in its bluntness even in this post-9/11 era.
The 20,500-square-foot mosque, to be built on four acres by the American Islamic Community Center (AICC), is to stand 60 feet tall along a major thoroughfare in a middle-class neighborhood if the Sterling Heights Planning Commission approves the plan at its meeting this Thursday. Opponents have dubbed it a “mega-mosque,” while Muslim leaders say it is of average size for houses of worship, including some nearby churches.
American leaders of the Chaldeans, an ancient Christian sect also known historically as ethnic Assyrians and originating from Iraq, have insisted in recent days that their opposition is based on concerns about traffic and property values, not religious enmity.
Yet a parade of speakers at a four-hour Sterling Heights City Council meeting on Aug. 13 offered vicious accusations that the group behind the mosque planned to use it to plot terrorist attacks and store weaponry, and attacked women who wear headscarves as scary to children. More of that sort of ire is being spewed on popular Chaldean group pages on Facebook and in signage and comments to local reporters at recent street-side protests near the proposed mosque site.
“This mosque is going to bring people like this. I do not want to be near people like this,” one resident, Saad Antoun, said at the City Council meeting as he held up a photo of women in burkas. “This is not humanity. … It is not right to live with people like this. This is not acceptable at all because these people are scaring the public. And they don’t care. … Can we prohibit this kind of public thing? We see them at the mall every day. We see them at shopping. Can we prohibit this? Can we make law against this? It’s scary and disgusting.”
Another resident, who refused to give his full name and address because he said he was harassed the last time he did so at a City Council meeting, said: “My grandfather built a house that backs up to this so-called mosque, worship, whatever it is. These guys are forcing out of this neighborhood. I have young children, they watch the news and now they’re getting scared. … These people who are coming in are not beneficial to this area at all. Worship, no worship, whatever it may be. This facility is to store weapons, training, whatever it is.”
Jeff Chehab, an AICC board member who is part of the group behind the mosque, did not return calls or emails requesting comment. At the City Council meeting, he defended the plan by saying the mosque would greet about 100 members for Friday prayers and services during Ramadan. “We just want a mosque in our city to call our own,” Chehab said. “We don't plan on being a nuisance to any residents and we are very well-financed.”
Chaldean activist Zina Rose, a lawyer whose family fled Baghdad when she was an infant and who grew up near Sterling Heights, rejected the notion that the opposition is based on anti-Muslim sentiment. Rose pointed to concerns that that a mosque would erode property values.
Still, the long history between Chaldeans and Muslims was also not far from her mind. “I personally see this as being the start of pushing the Chaldean community out of this area of Michigan and shifting the demographics of the area,” she wrote via e-mail. “Given that many of the Chaldeans living in this area are refugees themselves who in the last few years fled persecution in Iraq, I am deeply concerned about their property values going down and if they will be forced to leave this area due to parking, noise issues. Many of these residents … have put any and maybe all of their finances into buying new homes in the U.S. I will not stand by and just allow the little equity they possibly have to disappear due to this project.”
Rose added, “Is it insensitive to build a mega German cultural center in the middle of a heavily concentrated Jewish residential area? Not only would it be insensitive but indecent and appalling.”
Likewise, Joseph Kassab, president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, also rejected the notion that the controversy is rooted in bigotry or religious conflict.
“I don't think there is a tension between the Chaldeans and the Muslims in the area, it is just a matter of sorting out what is right from wrong,” said Kassab, whose West Bloomfield, Michigan-based non-profit helps refugees settle in the United States. “In this country Chaldean-Americans cherish the values of this country which is freedom of religion and speech that they were and are still deprived of in their own country.”
Sterling Heights, about 16 miles north of Detroit, is Michigan’s fourth-largest city and has long been a magnet for ethnic immigrants from various war-torn or oppressed regions. A century ago, many Polish immigrants set down roots here; waves of Albanians, Serbian and Macedonian émigrés joined them in the 1980s and 1990s. Chaldean migrations have occurred in spurts dating back to the 1970s but escalated in the past decade after the fall of Saddam Hussein unleashed sectarian violence from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS that have targeted non-Muslim minorities.
Chaldeans make up roughly 5 percent of Sterling Heights’ population of 130,000, and the Detroit area in general is home to the most Chaldeans in the U.S., according to the 2010 Census. The Detroit suburbs are also well-known for having the nation’s biggest population of Arab-Americans and Muslims. The proposed mosque would be the third in Sterling Heights and the second built since 2011, emblematic of the area’s surge in Muslim residents.
The heated rhetoric has alarmed Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on Arab-Islamic Relations Michigan, who declared the opposition to the mosque “inherently anti-Muslim bigotry.” He expressed empathy for the Chaldean immigrants but said that the history overseas is not relevant to life in the U.S. today.
“The newer wave of Chaldeans who live in Michigan suffered a lot of hate and targeting in Iraq after the 2003 invasion” led by the U.S., Walid said. “The Chaldean community didn’t have militias to protect them like Sunni and Shia groups. They had churches burned down and clergy targeted. The Chaldean community is becoming almost extinct in Iraq. … But Michigan is not Iraq and the Muslim community here had nothing to do with their suffering in Iraq.”
The mosque question has become a factor in this fall’s election for mayor and city council in Sterling Heights. The incumbent, Mike Taylor, upset the Muslim community last month with a now-deleted Facebook post as well as remarks caught on cell-phone video insisting he opposes the mosque’s approval. (The Planning Commission, not the City Council, has the power to approve or reject the project.) He later apologized for that and told Al Jazeera that he wrote and said that while under political pressure from Chaldean constituents who were accusing him of encouraging the mosque’s construction on that site.
“My response was careless, of course,” said Taylor, who now insists he is neutral about the mosque and will support the Planning Commission’s decision. “It did not convey the message I wanted to convey, which is I support the Chaldean population but that doesn’t have anything to do with the mosque and my specific opposition to this specific opposition to this proposal. I was careless in making it seem like I was anti-Muslim, and that is simply not the case.”
Taylor’s mayoral opponent, Paul Smith, is well-known for his anti-Muslim remarks. In 2010, when the debate over a proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan was raging, he sent an email to several colleagues in which he suggested New York allow the “raghead Muslims” build the largest mosque in the world so “we can crash a radio-control 747 into it and roast the bastards.”
Via e-mail, Smith first said this is “not a Muslim/Chaldean issue” but then also wrote, “It looks like this group has intentionally chosen this site to create controversy. … This plan is nothing but trouble. You are making even more enemies by invading this neighborhood.”
The Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit has been working to cool the rhetoric in advance of Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting. A delegation of Muslim leaders met with the Chaldean Bishop Francis Kalabat last week in a closed-door session to discuss the matter, according to the Arab American News network.
“There are a lot of efforts being made but not in the public space,” Interfaith Leadership Council president Raman Singh said. “We’re trying to create spaces where people can talk to each other but that’s not in public. There’s too much rhetoric and chatter. We don’t want to make it worse.”