Plan for suburban Detroit mosque draws resistance

September 6, 2012 - 5:49 PM
School to Mosque

A sign for the future home of Islamic Culture Association is shown outside the former Eagle Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Mich., Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012. This affluent Detroit suburb with a diverse mix of religions and races and center of the region's Jewish community is the latest battleground over mosque construction, as some residents push back against a school district's decision to sell a vacant elementary school to an Islamic group. The Farmington Hills school district defends its agreement to sell Eagle Elementary School to a Muslim association and an administrator says opposition now can be classified as "Islamophobia." (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. (AP) — On a prime piece of real estate in suburban Detroit stands a large, vacant elementary school with no vestiges of life — save for a tiny sign that identifies the building as the "future home" of the Islamic Cultural Association.

But the proposal to establish a new mosque and community center has thrust this quiet site into the center of a battle between a prosperous Muslim community and a Christian legal advocacy group that wants to derail the project as part of its goal to confront the "threat of Islam" in the United States.

The effort is "targeting innocent Americans because of their faith and willingness to engage in the community and to contribute," said the Islamic association's attorney, Shareef Akeel. "They're targeting a people simply because of their faith."

The Islamic association bought the school in upscale West Bloomfield Township last year. Then some residents made a legal bid to have the $1.1 million purchase thrown out over allegations that the deal was somehow corrupt and hidden from the public.

In the process, they gained the support of the Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center. Among other things, the center and residents accuse the school district of negotiating with the association behind closed doors and accepting illegal campaign contributions from an association official.

A judge dismissed the residents' case, saying the plaintiffs had no standing to file a complaint. But they are appealing that decision, and the law center in June called for a grand jury to investigate.

Michigan Attorney Bill Schuette has yet to decide on the request, but the law center says it's confident he will empanel a grand jury because he made corruption a priority of his administration.

Outside court, the center's allegations go beyond the purchase of the building. It accuses Islamic organizations in the United States of taking advantage of the American legal system to wage a "stealth jihad" that aims to transform the U.S. into an Islamic nation. The center also alleges that the Islamic association has ties to terrorism because of its links to other Muslim groups.

The confrontation in West Bloomfield and similar clashes have made Detroit "an active front in a kind of culture war," said Andrew Shryock, a University of Michigan anthropologist, author and expert on the city's Islamic presence.

The Detroit area is home to one of the nation's largest Islamic communities, with 150,000 to 200,000 Muslims living in the city and its suburbs, many of whom emigrated from the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere. The population has sometimes drawn anti-Muslim protesters, such as members of the Westboro Baptist Church and missionaries who demonstrated at Dearborn's 2010 Arab International Festival. The missionaries were arrested for disorderly conduct and later acquitted.

The Islamic Cultural Association — composed of more than 100 families, including many doctors, lawyers and other professionals — is "threatening to people who see Muslims as alien," said Shryock, who wrote a book called "Islamophobia/Islamophilia."

To their critics, the social and economic advancement of Muslims in the Detroit area is seen as "somehow anti-American," he said.

The clash is another example of the Thomas More center entering a dispute on behalf of Christian groups that attack Islam. The center has also represented Terry Jones, the minister who in 2011 burned a Quran at his Gainesville, Fla., church — an act that led to violent protests in Afghanistan that killed more than a dozen people.

Jones sued the Detroit suburb of Dearborn in federal court, alleging that asking him to sign an agreement before a planned protest outside that city's large Islamic Center of America was a violation of his free speech rights.

Richard Thompson, the law center's president and chief counsel, did not return messages left by The Associated Press.

Attorney Erin Mersino, who assisted in the center's investigation, said she could only speak to her role, which included going through documents alleging "a backroom deal" that "was never open to the public" and summarizing the evidence for submission to the Michigan attorney general.

One person who said he is trying not to take sides in the dispute is Jim Manna, who sits on the West Bloomfield Planning Commission, which will consider the mosque proposal in October.

Manna, a Catholic from Iraq who is part of Detroit's large Chaldean community, said he will base his decision solely on whether features of the project, such as a 45-foot minaret, conform to the township's rules and regulations.

So far, Manna said, the proposals for a mosque have "substantially better curb appeal" than "a vacant school, doing nothing but rotting away." But that hasn't stopped him from asking questions about whether the Islamic association has received money from outside groups, whether it would accept money from an Islamic government or what kind of message the imam will preach.

"We have every right to be cautious," he said.

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