Muslim leaders speak out

May 1, 2016

Too often the object of fear and derision, true followers of Islam assert the religion is one of love, respect, and peace. It is also one of three religions, including Christianity and Judaism, which come from the same roots. They are called the “Abraham religions,” because they each trace their history back to Abraham, first mentioned in the Hebrew bible, or Old Testament. Muslims believe that Moses and Jesus are prophets, as well as their prophet Muhammad. Around the world, there are 1.6 billion adherents of the Muslim faith, or 23 percent of the global population. While there are tens of thousands of Muslims in Michigan, according to the U.S. Census for 2010, there were just under 10,000 Muslims in Oakland County.

Downtown News Editor Lisa Brody met with Imam Mohamed Almasmari, religious leader of the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Township, which first opened in 1993, and Mahir Osman, secretary of public affairs at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Center in Rochester Hills, to talk to them about the religion, how the faith has been “hijacked” by radical, gang-like, forces, what they encounter in their local communities, the current political climate, and if Muslims lean politically Republican or Democratic.

What is your personal background?

ALMASMARI: I am a father of three, I was raised in Detroit, went to Toronto for a few years and then studied in Yemen for about eight years, and that’s where I got my master’s in Islamic Law. I always planned to come back here. This is my home. My family is all here. Michigan is my home.

I’m also the executive director of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, the MMCC. It’s a non-profit. What we do is interfaith events, civic engagement, we have a youth council, we have imam’s council – there are over 100 imams in the metro Detroit area. We just address our concerns, how to overcome challenges. We don’t go into politics, but we do get to meet our political representatives, express our concerns.

OSMAN: I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, for the first 13 years of my life, and then we moved to the area – I live in Macomb, although I work here in Oakland County. My family, though, was raised in East Africa. My parents – my mother, and my father, who now resides in London – my parents divorced when I was very young – their parents and their grandparents all were born and raised in East Africa, in Kenya. We originated in India, and our families continuously married within the same ethnicity, but they were all born and raised in Africa.

When my mother was 12 years old, that’s when a lot of the African nations began gaining independence, so being loyal to Britain, my family then migrated to Great Britain. My mother went to school in London; from there, went to Canada; then Canada, here to the States.

I, myself, I am a spiritual person – maybe not as much as I really should be – but I think everyone would say that. We all have our personal jihad – because that’s what jihad means, struggle. When you’re waging a jihad, you’re waging a struggle for the betterment of yourself and for the betterment of mankind. So if individuals say they are going to wage a jihad and kill innocent individuals, where’s the betterment in that?

Our readers need to understand the nature or purpose of the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Township and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Center in Rochester Hills. What are the centers’ purposes and what activities take place here?

ALMASMARI: I think the purpose of our centers, regardless of the religious nature, is to serve the community and to serve their needs. Basically, to cater to them. The activities that take place are service activities, where we serve our communities. So you could begin with exercise, youth activities, basketball, private classes, tutoring, lectures. We have a cafe so youth can get together. It’s pretty large – it can fit over 100 people. We try to make it a welcoming environment where people can come and feel it’s their home. It’s their home away from home. We have a male youth director and a female youth director, so if anyone has challenges – it could be drug challenges, alcohol challenges, whatever it is, we try to provide services to accommodate our community.

OSMAN: I am an elected official (not a spiritual leader) with the Ahmadiyya Center of Metro Detroit. Our calipha heads the entire community. Each country has what is called an emir, that is elected by a congressional body within that country. That emir has his own cabinet. Each director, or national secretary, they have different offices or departments, like public affairs, outreach, moral training, education, a secretary of finance. From there, each individual chapter elects their own president and each cabinet position as well. I’ve been elected to serve as the secretary of public affairs for the Ahmadiyya community. This center has been here since 2008.

Can you explain what is the basis of the Muslim religion? There are five pillars of Islam; what are they, and how do they define the faith? How does Islam differ from Christianity and Judaism, and what are its similarities, since the three share similarities?

ALMASMARI: There are many ways to look at the Muslim faith. The foundation that Islam is based on, you have five major pillars: the first one is to bear witness that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the last messenger of God; accepting all the prophets, beginning with Adam all the way to Moses and Jesus. Then you go to the second pillar which is prayer. We do pray five times a day, to show appreciation, to stay connected to God, to distance ourselves from that which is wrong. So it’s a constant reminder.

Number three, Muslims do have to gift 2.5 percent of their savings per year, for the less fortunate, for those in need, whatever your religious background, your ethnic background. Basically going and giving to those who live in poverty.

Number four, we fast once a year, for a complete month, and we begin from dawn to sunset, even liquids. People do find it challenging, but for Muslims, it’s become part of who they are. You find young children who don’t have to fast who force it upon themselves, just to be part of the whole community. And the last pillar is that Muslims must go to Hajj once in their lifetime, if they’re physically and financially able to travel, then they must fulfill the last pillar. If they are not, then of course, they are forgiven for not performing the pilgrimage.

We always tell people that reading is beyond important – it shows how much we have in common. In terms of the basic teachings of Islam, I don’t see any differences from Christianity and Judaism whatsoever. It’s very, very similar, and that’s why they were able to co-exist for so many thousands of years. In Jerusalem, they were able to live together for over 1,000 years. And before that, they were able to co-exist. There’s a lot of commonalities. What brings us together is more than what we differ in. There’s few differences in theology, but in terms of hold in good character, love one another, sacrificing, obtaining high goals in life, receiving the right education, loving your neighbor, everything is very similar.

OSMAN: We are the Ahmadi Muslims, we are Muslims who believe in the Messiah, beyond India. (Mirza Ghulam Ahmad) was a reformer, a prophet, who we believe came to reform the Muslim people in 1889. To put it in comparative terms, we know that in the Jewish religion, Moses brought the law, he brought the Torah. There were other Jewish prophets afterwards that didn’t change the Jewish religion – it was just the Jews were going astray, so the Jews had to be brought back to the fold. So prophets were anointed to bring them back to the fold. In a similar sense, prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, brought the religion of Islam, brought the Quran, brought that law, and Mirza Ghulam was a reformer because Muslims were going astray, to bring them back to that fold. Ending religious wars, ending this idea of jihad being anything to do with terrorism, saying the time of the sword is over, saying now the jihad is the pen. Now we must educate and be peaceful individuals. After his demise, a caliphate has been instituted, so we have a central instituted leader, who resides in London, England. We’re currently on our fifth calipha. I say we’re the Catholics of the Muslim world, because we have a spiritual head and an organizational structure. We know all of our members all across the world. We’re established in over 200 countries. Here in the United States, we have over 72 different chapters. And I know everyone in the Columbus chapter, and the L.A. chapter, Chicago, New York, Florida, all over the place. We’re constantly having national events where we get together.

Many people believe that all Muslims are Arabs, but there are actually followers of Islam all over the world, isn’t that correct? How many Muslims are currently in the United States? In the metro Detroit area? In Oakland County? Is the community growing and if so, is the growth organic or because of Muslims moving to the area from other countries?

ALMASMARI: They say around 7.5 million (in the U.S.). I don’t really know (in the metro area) – I know they’re in the hundreds of thousands.

First of all, there are a number of converts, people coming in from other countries. Communities like this, people love, they’re attracted to it. Understanding the safety of it, within the location, understanding the mosque, the community, the school district – so there’s a lot that attracts people to come to this city and neighboring cities.

Eighty-three percent of Muslims are not Arabs. People always get that wrong. We’re the minority. Most come from southeast Asia. The perception is always Arabs.

OSMAN: Correct. Our community was started in India, so the majority of our membership of our followers are Indo/Pakistani. But we have individuals who are of Arab descent as well, African American, even Chinese. We even have a missionary effort in Mexico right now, so we’re having a lot of Latino converts. But our headquarters are in London, and that is where our calipha resides. The reason for that is because we are very heavily persecuted in the Muslim world, because we believe in this prophet who came after prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, we are considered heretic. So even the nation of Pakistan declared us non-Muslims through their constitution. Because of that, we are consistently and heavily persecuted.

Our fourth calipha, at the time, had to leave, in exile, and migrate to London.

Can you explain what a caliphate is? It’s been misinterpreted perhaps as something negative, when it really isn’t.

OSMAN: A caliphate basically means successorship. A comparison again: papacy. There’s the institution of constantly electing a leader then for the Catholic people. In a similar sense, when the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, died, there were four who we rightly refer to as caliphs. And these individuals were leaders, the heads of the Muslim world. From a spiritual sense and a political sense as well, because at that time, Muslims held power over territories.

After the demise of our prophet, Mirza Ghulam, that caliphate was reinstituted. We believe that caliphate is what brings people together. It actually creates that unity. We have tens of millions of followers worldwide, and not one instance of terrorism within our community. Not one instance of youth radicalization. Why is that? Because we believe the spiritual leader is guided by God, and he shows us what the true message of Islam is, and the true peaceful message of Islam. By following that one leader and that one calipha, we’re able to be better and more righteous human beings.

The caliph has to abide by the religious mandates. When you compare (our leader’s) mandates, who has spoken on Capital Hill, in front of the Dutch parliaments, spoken in front of the European Union, who has constantly denounced terrorism, who has lived a life of righteousness and promoted that peace, obviously he is an example of what the religion of Islam is – versus the calipha that ISIS has now instituted.

If Islam believes in peace, and promotes peace, but all you see is mayhem and destruction from that individual, then he is not a calipha. That is just from a rational standpoint.

Our religion teaches us there should be a separation between mosque and state, that individuals should not be forced to follow a religion if they do not abide by that religion, and the state has no power to institute something like that. It’s just a spiritual successorship to be for the Muslims, not on a totalitarian scale.

Explain the Quran, which is considered the Word of God by those who follow the religion, and how it is different from the Christian Bible.

ALMASMARI: Muslims do believe in the holy scriptures. We believe the Quran was sent to address certain challenges within the community of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in coming generations. When you read the Quran, it was not just rules but incidents that took place that the Quran addressed. Of course, you will find differences. We have many stories of prophets in the Quran. Moses is mentioned more times than Mohammed in the Quran. Jesus, peace be upon him, is mentioned more times than Muhammad in the Quran. Abraham more times; Ishmael – all the prophets are frequently mentioned. But other verses in the Quran were revealed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, to address certain issues, so people would ask him, and the Prophet would respond with revelations. He would respond on intoxication, or gambling, and God would answer right away.

People might find verses in the Quran where military force can be used, and people say, “Oh, this is a violent religion.” The Quran goes beyond spiritual guidance. It is also a foundation for a Muslim-governed country, where it says if you are being attacked, it says it is permissible for you to defend yourself. (It talks about consequences.) So people find these verses useful, where a simple person who lives in Bloomfield Hills, or another community, would just implement those verses. But those verses are no longer taken as clear rules because that’s a constitution for an existing country. That’s where people go wrong when they hear about fighting in the Quran, and they think it’s personal. No, it’s not. There’s a long story behind it that explains how Islam does allow military force at certain times.

For example, Quran tells if you are attacked you have the right to defend yourself. It doesn’t say you have the right to kill. If you speak to a large group of people, to a country that has a ruler, that has a system, that is respected by countries around the world, like America, the second right in our Constitution is the right to bear arms. (It’s interpretation.) And, like everything, it’s there for a reason. You can’t say America is a violent country. But it needs someone who is not biased, who understands the circumstances, and is able to explain it, where there may be some disagreements, but there is always a middle ground.

I understand that from an early age you memorized it completely. Is that an unusual accomplishment, or one that all imams must do? How long is it, to memorize? What is an imam, versus a sheik, or an ayatollah, or an allamah, or a mufti? You are an imam and a sheik?

ALMASMARI: Yes. No – people do it. It’s very common. And that’s part of our preservation for the Quran. We do completely memorize the book from cover to cover. It took me four years. But I wasn’t consistent. I was a kid. I was like 11. But it was just like afternoon classes, where my dad would take us off the streets for like an hour. It’s not like, this guy has a good imam future. It has nothing to do with that. A lot of kids memorize the Quran. A lot of kids. Here, we have at least 30, 40. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re not going to guard him at basketball, he’s too special.’ That wasn’t the case.

An ayatollah is in the Shia tradition, it’s more of their man of reference that they completely submit to – his ideologies, his opinions, his schools of thought. For imam, sheik, that goes back to the culture, the tradition. Some people just call people imam, sheiks. And mufti also goes back to the age and the culture. They’re all words that have the same meaning.

I look at myself as just Mohamed, a normal person.

How does your congregation look at you?

ALMASMARI: Both. Mohamed and Imam. It’s a scholar, a leader, because imam comes from the word “leadership.”

Although the Quran is considered the sacred scriptures dating back to the 7th Century with the Prophet Muhammad and the Word of God, are there various interpretations of the Quran?

ALMASMARI: There are (different interpretations). In the last three months I have been part of interfaith events, and even the English interpretation is very poor. I had never read the Quran with this English interpretation – I just started a month and a half ago. Just trying to realize how many people are misled with all these interpretations that add more words. I find it troubling. It’s done by Muslim scholars, and they’re doing it to add more clarity.

OSMAN: It tends to be, unfortunately. That is one thing, also, why a unified leadership is important, and having true, proper scholars that are able to understand the meanings of verses is very important.

The problem we are having today isn’t so much of widening opinions of interpretations of scriptures – what we see today are illiterate individuals that do not read or understand scripture in parts of the world, and their Muslim leaders, who are looking just for power and money and more influence, whatever that may be, so they utilize religion to incite those individuals.

I’ll give you an example. In the Quran, there’s a verse, “Slay the non-believers where they lay.” There are verses that say that. You see the verse, and mind you, it’s not just non-Muslim Islamophobes quoting it, it’s terrorists themselves quoting it. So both the terrorists and these individuals who don’t understand Islam – one thing that they are missing out on or forgetting is the verse directly before, and the verse directly after, that specifically describes and discusses the times of war. It’s talking about self-defense.

So when it gives permission to “defend against those who have wronged you is given, but if they have stopped fighting, God has given you no right to transgress against them.” Why does it have the word transgress? Transgress is an opposing force. It’s doing something first. Harming some individual. If somebody comes up to me and starts waling on me on the head and starts punching me, and I end up punching them and accidentally snapping his neck, that’s self-defense. I have every right to defend myself. I can kill an individual if he is attacking me, if I am in fear of my life. That is the meaning and the intent. But individuals are now trying to interpret it in a different way. What they are doing is just getting more power and more influence, and they’re influencing young individuals who are illiterate, uneducated and don’t know any better.

We often witness the public debate as to whether Islam is a peaceful religion or a religion that calls for the elimination of all those who are not Muslims – does that mean that there are different sects within Islam or that various religious leaders in the Muslim community have varying interpretations of the Word of God, much like we witness in the Christian community? The most ready example of possible divisions within the Islamic community would be the Islam subscribed to by the leaders of Saudi Arabia.

ALMASMARI: In history, there were always communities that promoted violence, or utilized religion to fulfill personal agendas, and that’s the struggle of our generation. We’re struggling with it. Quran has always promoted leadership, generosity. If you look at Muslims just in Michigan, and look at their donations to the people of Flint, the people of Detroit, it’s all motivated from the teachings of Holy Scripture.

Can you explain how some members of the Islamic faith are able to use the Quran to justify the violence we see around the world as something that is ordained by God?

ALMASMARI: You’ll have people who will take anything and use it for their own personal benefit. The force of religious evidence is very powerful. To understand what these individuals are going through, or what they’re promoting, you have to understand their situation. Understanding that sometimes they’re uneducated. If they are educated, they are individuals who went through certain challenges where these challenges were not addressed nor the community showed them any attention, so they decided to travel. Some of them were fooled, understanding this was the only way towards forgiveness, and you’ll have some leaders who are well-equipped to attract youth, to get these people in.

The youth, I could say they are innocent. But the leadership is not. I think everyone knows who they are and what they stand for, and the evil they carry in their message.

OSMAN: I attribute it to gang mentality.

If we go down to downtown Detroit, if we were to go to Harlem, to Chino, Pontiac, to any of the urban, unfortunate areas, where there’s a lot of crime and a lot of uneducated individuals, and they’re put in situations where they really should not be – you look at the mindset of youth when he decides to join a gang, because they’re in a position where they have no food, or they have no family, no education, no structure and no prospects to their life. It’s not even that, “Oh, I don’t want to do this, but I have to.” They start finding acceptance and purpose in something greater. They find this family of a gang. And they now feel important. Significant. It’s “I’m going to take it because others took it away from me.”

Mirror that with what’s going on in the Middle East. You have individuals who are significantly undereducated. They’re illiterate, living in slums, living in areas that are very unfortunate, for them to do the exact same things – it makes sense, rationally. They’re going to cling to something. These individuals are going to cling to religion. When you have religious leaders who are peddling radicalization, it’s a power struggle, it’s money. They utilize them and tell them, “It’s the Jews that are the ones that put you in this situation.” “The Americans are the ones that put you in this type of situation. Death to America.” “Why don’t you take this bomb, go kill yourself, and give me all your money, everything you have left.”

The way that I see it, if all these leaders, ISIS, if they truly believed you were going to be getting 72 virgins by blowing yourself up, they’d be doing it. Why aren’t they?

How as a cleric or a leader do you explain the radicalization of a faction in the name of Islam? Is that part of the Quran? Does ISIS represent Islam, or have they hijacked your religion?

ALMASMARI: I always tell people there is no Islamic institution or great scholar that has approved ISIS and its doings and its actions. That’s number one. Number two, to show you how bad ISIS is, Al Quaeda itself has denounced ISIS – like, it can’t get any worse, if Quaeda denounces you for your actions. They are fighting ISIS because of the corruption they are causing in certain countries. Number three, I don’t think there are any victims on the face of this planet that are more victimized by ISIS than Muslims. The last United Nations number are that Muslims are eight to nine times more victimized by ISIS than anyone else in this world. The Syrians, the Iraqis, the Iranians, in Turkey. The list goes on. Boko Haram, part of ISIS – they’re attacking Muslims.

What saddens me is that people no longer look at human soul as human soul. I think to address this issue we have to look at it from all of its angles, and allow the Muslim community to take part in addressing this challenge, because without the Muslim community ISIS will not be solved.

I remember when Clinton, I don’t remember if it was Bill or Hillary, said that one of four people walking this earth are Muslim, so you do find peaceful people, people who open their own businesses, people who go about their own lives. American Muslims hold 10 percent of American doctors. These people are serving their communities – just the free clinics that we have. The volunteerism.

These are challenging times we have to go through with sincerity.

OSMAN: I won’t give them the satisfaction of saying they’ve hijacked my religion. I am a Muslim. Islam is a religion of peace. If they are not following what Islam is teaching, by not being peaceful individuals, by not loving their fellow man, by not adhering to what prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, that the Christians should never be harmed and touched – then they are not following what true Islam is. And I’m not going to give them the time of day to say they have anything to do with Islam.

I will definitely speak out against them. Condemn them to the fullest extent, and do my best to teach the general public what true Islam is, and teach our youth what true Islam is. But I am not going to acknowledge them by giving them even a smidgeon of what they are doing has anything to do with Islam.

In plainest terms, yes, they’ve hijacked Islam. But they don’t speak for Islam. I pity them.

A fear for many Americans, and I have read, of many American Muslims, was realized when it was discovered that Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters, or the Tsarnaev brothers of the Boston Marathon bombing, had been self-radicalized. What do you believe compels an American born or American-raised Muslim to radicalize? How often is that happening?

ALMASMARI: Sometimes it’s what they watch. I know for a fact these people who were radicalized were not consistently going to mosques. They were people who decided to just live their own lives.

You would see things in common with these people. One is that they had to go through certain challenges. Two, none of them knew much about the religion to begin with. You could see by their appearances, or they way they acted, the way they would speak. (They were not becoming more religious) – not at all. They were people who had access to certain websites. The common factor was they were not going to mosques, where they could listen to a religious leader who could empower them, or maybe address their challenges, or if they came up with these radical ideas, let’s address them as community members. More lost souls.

OSMAN: This is something that we have been trying to tackle for some time. Our youth association came out with a seminar symposium called Stop the CrISIS. We talk specifically about youth radicalization and how youths become radicalized. It doesn’t have to do with religion; it has to do with being disenfranchised. Not being satisfied with the way one may see it.

Was Timothy McVeigh tortured as a young kid? Was he abused? Was he part of a gang? They say you step on a cat’s tail, and you wonder why he’s shrieking. Did he have a cat’s tail? I have no idea. We don’t know what goes through the mind set of a crazy individual. That’s why it’s important for Muslims to properly teach their youth what the religion teaches. And be nurturing. Be loving to those youth. To your children. Here at the mosque, we’re one big family. I’m in charge of these children just as much as anyone else might be. We have an active youth group. We try to show our youth there is more than just video games and television. It’s giving back to mankind. It’s doing what you can to your fellow human beings.

Do many American Muslims identify with the desire to reject westernization and want to go back to the Middle East, or to strike back utilizing terrorism against western targets and people, or is it an isolated segment?

ALMASMARI: I’ve never seen one, and I’ve been around a long time. What I think is, you might have people who say, “I want to live in the Middle East.” I don’t want to deny that. Which is their right because that’s more of their home. But the general public, 99.99 percent, they’re here to stay here. This is what they call home. They no longer look at the Middle East as home. I graduated as a judge in the Middle East, and I left all of that to live here. This is my home. I can’t relate to the Middle East whatsoever, even though I go there frequently. I don’t see myself there. I always tell people I would go crazy if I lived there. This is my home, where I feel comfortable, where I see myself living for the rest of my life.

OSMAN: There’s 1.7 billion Muslims in this world; there’s millions in the United States, and every time a terrorist attack occurs, it hurts, it’s terrible, and we condemn it to the fullest extent. We don’t want to limit the importance of an attack like that happening, and how much we need to come together.

As terror attacks occur overseas, suck as in Paris and Brussels, does that create a feeling of wariness or fear amongst your community, that there could be attacks upon local Muslims as a backlash or retaliation?

ALMASMARI: Not really. Here, in the Michigan area, we just hope that things calm down. Every time something happens, I don’t think people realize what we have to go through as a community. We have to deal with these physical attacks, and at the same time, we go through the ‘real world,’ and we have all of these emotional attacks, verbal attacks. It’s very hurtful for many people.

OSMAN: At times, yes. Our mosque in Connecticut, after San Bernardino, an individual shot at it a couple of times. The individual, who was arrested and charged, met with our leadership there, apologized, and (later) was a speaker at the symposium there, and again apologized. It was very emotional because obviously, we’re very saddened by what he had done, but for him to come out and apologize and ask for forgiveness, who are we not to forgive?

We are always fearful of these things happening, which is why we maintain security as much as possible, but at the same time, we have to keep opening our doors to anyone and everyone who wishes to come in.

What is the reaction in the Muslim community when officials call for at least a temporary halt to Muslims being allowed to enter America and that perhaps there should be increased surveillance of the Muslim community?

ALMASMARI: The reaction goes back to the educational level of each person that is reacting. You have people that go, “Oh my god, what is happening!” And you have others who know it is a political stunt.

People forget we have a Constitution. It’s not about what one person says.

OSMAN: When it comes to certain comments about “banning Muslims from entering the country” – forget the fact that it’s just completely unconstitutional and goes against the fabric of our nation – especially when our nation was formed by individuals who were escaping religious persecution in Europe – I would ask a politician, if an American, Muslim soldier is serving overseas, fighting and dying for this country, are you going to then say, no, they cannot come back in this country?

It’s ludicrous and it’s fallacy.

Yes, security is very, very important. Yes, it’s important to have background checks.

Regarding surveillance, first, the responsibility of Muslims leaders is to be always 100 percent open, their doors are 100 percent open, sermons 100 percent open. Yes, you need to know what is happening in mosques and houses of worship. If a house of worship is open, then the responsibility is to be open. FBI, you want to come in? We’re not doing anything, come in.

With that being said, you cannot marginalize or intimidate, a group of people that you need assistance from. You want their cooperation. It’s not practical, and it’s dehumanizing.

With the current political campaigns, has there been greater prejudices against Muslims – the “Trump effect”? What is the current climate in Oakland County? Do you feel isolated, or welcome and part of the community at large? Do you encounter Islamophobia, either subtly or overtly? How?

ALMASMARI: Of course. The disapproval of Muslims now in the U.S. raised from less than 20 percent to over 60-some percent. And when I say raised from, I mean from 9/11. There’s more towards Muslims now than what they faced (after) 9/11.

What shocks me is that, of course there is a lot of support. I’ve had calls, I had Rabbi (Mark) Miller (Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township) that spoke here, and everyone was able to address these issues. There is some kind of support where you find Islamophobia.

In Oakland County, we’re blessed. I think it’s more of a race issue than a religious issue.

In the United States, where we are supposed to have religious freedom for all, what are Muslims experiencing in 2016? Is your community finding acceptance, or bigotry? As our children are being raised in a multi-cultured world, with its encouragement of assimilation, is there mutual respect and tolerance among the younger generation, or are there cliques and isolation? Do many Muslim youths attend local public schools?

ALMASMARI: Most of the Muslim youth here go to public schools. 

(With bigotry or acceptance), it matters what school they’re in, the understanding. In Bloomfield, we’re blessed where we have the RDJ – the Religious Diversity Journey – and they come and visit different places of worship, and that breaks a lot of barriers. Here, it’s very good.

Jewish kids are more picked on than Muslim kids. I always tell people, if you look at who’s more bullied in schools, among the religious communities, you come to realize the Jewish community is. You have our Jewish youth who are struggling, to hold onto their Jewish identity, being teased and made fun of. We try to empower our youth and teach them. I always tell our Muslim youth, you’re not an exception. You’re not special – why do you expect that special treatment? It’s the identity you carry within, and being self-confident. 

OSMAN: Here in the metro Detroit area, so much acceptance. We are so proud, and we are blessed, in fact, to be living in this metro Detroit area. There are many places in this country – many places in the world, in fact – Ahmadi Muslims would be killed by calling themselves Ahmadi Muslims. We are so blessed and so loyal to this country that gives us this freedom. And to be in this tri-county area, where you go on the streets and pass out a flyer that say “Muslims believe in peace.” And they say, “Yeah. Of course they do. Leave me alone. I’ve got work to do.” And for the most part, it’s “Alright, it’s cool, don’t worry about it man. Want to have dinner with us, man?” 

We’re very, very lucky to be living in communities like this. But there’s always those nut jobs. 

I’ve always thought the younger generation is more open-minded than the older generation. For better or for worse, our society is moving towards total acceptance of a lot of things. You can have a young Muslim child, a young Jewish child, and a young Christian child – teenagers, and the three of them can have their discussions, and have fun discussing things, and at the end, it’s let’s go grab a bite to eat. It’s so beautiful to see that in a pluralistic society. 

The majority attend public schools. 

What can either the Muslim community or the community at-large do to provide for greater understanding of Muslims and Islam and create more of a welcoming assimilation of Muslims into the general community? 

OSMAN: TrueIslam.com. We feel it will be a deterrent to youth radicalization and combatting that ideology. The objective of this campaign is to show 11 specific points of what Islam believes in, and show what ISIS believes. We can cite parts of the holy Quran and sayings of the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, that prove each of these points. It’s literally combatting this ideology, to combat what ISIS is putting out there. And it’s not just for non-Muslims – it’s for Muslims, as well. 

Traditionally, Muslims as a demographic group have aligned themselves with the more traditional values of the Republican Party, with a majority backing former Pres. George W. Bush. Recent bigotry shown by some Republican candidates is suspected of moving many Muslims to lean more Democratic with the past two presidential elections, and in the 2016 primary season, pundits note that the Muslim community is shifting toward the Democrats, with 59 percent of Dearborn’s Arab population voting for Bernie Sanders in Michigan’s primary. Are you seeing that shift reflected within the local Oakland County Muslim community?

ALMASMARI: Yep. You have a lot of Muslims that are part of the Republican Party, but recently a lot of them have changed their direction for political reasons. We don’t promote that as a non-profit, but you do see that shift. 

Who wouldn’t? Sometimes you sense the hatred. You can see it. At the end of the day, people are people. They make their own decisions, they see what’s best for their own families. People want to co-exist. People want to see bright futures for their children, and that’s a very simple movement, moving from one party to another. It’s not a life-changing step. 

OSMAN: Yes, 60 percent of Muslims voted for President George W. Bush. 

I would say that shift is reflective all over the United States. It’s obvious that many, and a majority, of Muslims, were leaning more towards being Republican, were right wing, because they believe in fiscal responsibility, they believe in hard work, in family values, more of those social values. But there are also those Muslims who believe in the welfare system, that the state should care for­ individuals in other aspects as well. 

But when certain political candidates, such as Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump, come out with this kind of rhetoric, with this kind of pushback to the Muslim community, as a Muslim it’s very hard to support. Some of the things Sarah Palin said (in 2008) were very hard to take. I wanted John McCain. But no, I’m sorry, when you see the acceptance and loving nature of one side over the other – obviously people are going to gravitate to one side. The worst thing the GOP can do is marginalize the Muslim people, to make them feel they are being belittled, to call them enemies.

They’re losing votes by doing it.­­ ­

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