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A look back on 12 months that saw Islamophobia reach record levels in Michigan

A year of fear

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A February Sterling Heights city council meeting over approving a federal consent agreement involving a mosque was so contentious the auditorium had to be cleared. - CITY OF STERLING HEIGHTS
  • City of Sterling Heights
  • A February Sterling Heights city council meeting over approving a federal consent agreement involving a mosque was so contentious the auditorium had to be cleared.

Astute political observers will recall that President George W. Bush, less than a week after Sept. 11, 2001, appeared at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. to caution Americans, "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."

That attitude among the GOP began to shift around 2010. Faced with growing economic disillusionment and gains by the Democratic Party, right-wing politicians such as Sarah Palin shifted gears and began using Islamophobia to "mobilize their bases."

The groundwork for such fearmongering had already been quietly laid. As a study released in 2011 by the Center for American Progress showed, large foundations had spent millions funding far-right groups whose whole reason for existence was ginning up fears about Islam and immigrants from the Middle East. The study, called Fear, Inc., detailed how $42.6 million was donated to Islamophobic think tanks between 2001 and 2009.

Given that most Americans don't know a Muslim — a 2014 Pew study found that only 38 percent of Americans say they knew one — and that the overwhelming majority of media coverage of Muslims is negative, Muslim-baiters have found most Americans easy pickings for outrageous and broad charges that would never gain currency about any other group.

What's more, an "echo chamber" of hundreds of online video channels, social networking groups, and lone bloggers regularly share information that is fraudulent, incomplete, or out of context, amplifying unfounded outrage as commenters join in the furor.

It's all part of a political tactic as old as politics: When people are discontented by a flagging economy and widespread distrust in bedrock institutions, scaring the hell out of them allows you to lead them by the nose.

No political figure has mastered this art like our current president. Donald Trump has made a cottage industry out of promoting fear and loathing of Muslims, refugees, and immigrants in general. He has emboldened Islamophobes of all stripes, from smooth-talking politicians down to brass-knuckled white supremacists. And studies show that with every uptick in his political career, it is often rank-and-file Americans, people who've fled strife and war seeking a fresh start far away from extremist violence, who have paid the price.

Given Michigan's sizable Muslim population, we thought it was important to compile the highlights of a year that government statisticians and advocacy groups say is on track to be the worst yet for hate crimes and bias incidents against Muslims. What follows are synopses of some of the key incidents with Michigan connections, as well as overviews of the problem from national observers. It shows that Trump is not alone in exploiting nativist anxieties, and that the Great Lakes state has plenty of xenophobes eager to spread messages of fear and hatred.

DECEMBER 2016

Call it the "Trump factor" — the Michigan Civil Rights Commission reports that hate incidents have spiked in the state since the election of Donald Trump. Normally, about one incident is reported per month, but less than a month after the Nov. 8 election, 65 such incidents have been reported in Michigan. Many of the alleged incidents have taken place at local schools. This comes on the heels of a report by the national Southern Poverty Law Center that hate incidents spiked during the 10 days after the election, with 40 incidents in Michigan. Many of the instigators mentioned the president-elect by name.

Among them was 23-year-old Jacob Holtzlander. Four days after the election, he attacked a Grand Rapids taxi driver named Yemaj Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant, punching him repeatedly in the head while yelling "Trump! Trump! Trump!" Later, while in custody, police said Holtzlander shouted racial epithets at Adem. Holtzlander was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years of probation after pleading guilty to ethnic intimidation.

In November, news breaks that an author named James Simpson is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the Oakland County Business Roundtable. The announcement calls him an “investigative journalist” and “an expert on immigration and refugee resettlement.”
The hate-group watchdogs at the Southern Poverty Law Center have a few other choice descriptors for Simpson, among them “extremist blogger.” Simpson is the controversial author of a book called The Red-Green Axis: Refugees, Immigration, and the Agenda to Erase America, and when officials at Fifth Third Bank learn of the guest speaker, they cancel their sponsorship of the series.

It doesn’t take a lot of political acumen to sense the guiding hand of L. Brooks Patterson behind Simpson’s appearance in Oakland County (and it’s no coincidence that Patterson would personally introduce Simpson at the event). Patterson has spent years railing against the resettlement of refugees from the war-torn Middle East in his backyard, calling them an “imminent” danger.

Invitations are extended to the usual members of the county’s business community, but the list is also stacked with fans of Simpson, Republican party officials, organizers of Donald Trump’s campaign in Michigan, members of SPLC-listed “anti-Muslim” group Secure Michigan, and supporters of its communications director Dick Manasseri, as well as at least one township trustee from Waterford Township, which had recently passed a resolution rejecting Syrian refugees.
James Simpson speaks at the Oakland County Business Roundtable. - OAKLAND COUNTY
  • Oakland County
  • James Simpson speaks at the Oakland County Business Roundtable.
On Dec. 1, Simpson makes his presentation to his audience in the Auburn Hills Marriott Pontiac at Centerpoint. He spends more than an hour making his claim that hard-left activists holding positions of power in government and business are conspiring to bring Muslim fanatics to the United States to destroy our way of life and institute harsh Islamic rule. He alleges the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. government under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Radical leftists, he says, have penetrated major foundations since the 1950s and 1960s. He charges that they have “insinuated themselves into every level of government and industry and there’s a lot of them, there’s a lot of them.”

The real goal of refugee resettlement, Simpson contends, is to dilute the pure, American culture. “It dilutes American culture, and that’s one of the left’s agendas,” Simpson says. “They want our exceptional culture, our exceptional society, which is the beacon for the world, to become irrelevant, because that’s the way they can control it.”
The audience apparently laps it up. One attendee tells MT, “We are in total agreement with his opinions based on the clear facts and thought he did a good job presenting.” Another says, “If I were hosting another event in the community, I wouldn’t hesitate to invite Mr. Simpson to speak again.”

Also during December, false claims appear on social media that Dearborn had enacted "Sharia Law" and that Muslims were killing their daughters for having boyfriends. Independent journalist Steve Neavling traces these claims back to David Woods, described as an "anti-Islam zealot" who can be seen in a video claiming Dearborn police alleged that honor killings are common and kept quiet. Neavling says the city's police department scoffs at the allegations. But that doesn't stop Islamophobes from issuing such tweets as "Dearborn has more MUSLIMS than Americans, this is how these animals take over, they must b extermited soon!!"

JANUARY 2017

In Inkster, a Muslim man of South Asian heritage returns to the apartment complex where he lives and finds his car with its tires punctured and the body covered in graffiti that includes racial slurs and swastikas. CAIR Michigan spokespeople tell media the man had moved into the apartment complex four days earlier, and that at least one other similar incident had taken place there before.

FEBRUARY 2017

The Southern Poverty Law Center documents an almost 200 percent increase in Islamophobic groups for the year 2016. The center's annual census of hate groups showed an increase from 34 such groups in 2015 to 101 in 2016, calling the rise “the most dramatic change” in domestic extremism over the last year.

MARCH 2017

Firefighters rush to the Islamic Center of Ypsilanti, a religious center and mosque, which had been set on fire on the afternoon of March 11. There are no injuries, as nobody was inside the building at the time. Police later identify a 16-year-old suspect and say they do not believe the arson was a hate crime. Given that the suspect is a minor and isn't named in press reports, no more information is available to contest that determination.

Yet it's worth noting that the township hasn't exactly laid out a welcome mat for Muslims. Just six months earlier, Pittsfield Charter Township had been whacked with a $1.7 million settlement from the Department of Justice for placing undue burden on the Michigan Islamic Academy, which had sought to build a K-8 Islamic school in the township.

The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding issues a study finding that 60 percent of U.S. Muslims have experienced some form of religious discrimination in 2016. The study finds Muslims expressing fears that the election of Donald Trump will embolden white extremists, with about 38 percent of Muslims saying they're afraid for their safety or that of their family.

Since 2015, the Sterling Heights Planning Commission had been jousting with the American Islamic Community Center over construction of a mosque at 15 Mile and Mound roads. The commission had ostensibly denied construction permits due to zoning and local ordinances, though meetings often involved ugly Islamophobic rhetoric from residents.

Finally, last month, facing a federal consent decree resulting from multiple lawsuits, the Sterling Heights City Council held a meeting to discuss signing off on the mosque. Even though the mayor asked speakers not to discuss religion, so many speakers and audience members engaged in angry outbursts about Islam that the auditorium had to be cleared so the consent agreement could proceed to a vote, which passed unanimously.

This month, David Yerushalmi, co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center (along with Robert Muise of the Christian-right, Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center), filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Mayor Michael Taylor alleging last month's session violated the Open Meetings Act and the First Amendment, and that the federal consent order is illegal. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that Yerushalmi has designed much of the "anti-Sharia law" legislation brought forth in state houses. He has also proposed outlawing Islam and deporting Muslims and other "non-Western, non-Christian" people to protect the country's "national character."

LEE DEVITO
  • Lee DeVito

APRIL 2017

The U.S. Government Accountability Office publishes its report on countering homegrown violent extremism. It compiles the deadliest attacks by "far right wing violent extremists" and compares them with those of "radical Islamist violent extremists." The report finds that the far right is responsible for most of the incidents, 73 percent versus 27 percent, and that the far right was more violent in 10 of the 15 years studied.

MAY, 2017

Secure Michigan is identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an "anti-Muslim hate group," but that's a point of pride for presenters at a library in Alma, where speakers Dick Manasseri and Gary Kubiak discuss why they oppose refugee resettlement. Using projected slides, the two promote their group's message that Muslims are infiltrating small-town America to overthrow the U.S. Constitution and replace it with "Sharia law." During a question-and-answer period, Alma resident Fellipe Johnson asks whether Islam is open to interpretation the same way other religions are. Manasseri yells at Johnson to "shut up." The presentation turns out to be so full of fake facts that the local Morning Sun News spends five paragraphs in its news report just debunking points in the presentation.

JUNE 2017

The March Against Sharia Law takes place, pushed by Islamophobic group ACT! for America. The group, which added 50 new chapters in 2016, during the height of Donald Trump's presidential run, was founded in 2007 by Brigitte Gabriel, whom The New York Times has called a "radical Islamophobe." A report by American Progress pointed out that Gabriel has argued that every "practicing Muslim who believes in the teaching of the Quran cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America." In 2007, she told an audience that Arabs "have no soul."

She's also a birther who believes radical Muslims have infiltrated the government. Her group has a budget somewhere north of $1 million, political connections inside the Beltway, and has received at least $50,000 of more than $1.1 million contributed to Islamophobic organizations by the Becker Foundation, the Becker Family Foundation, and Becker Trust in the '00s.

In Lansing, demonstrators are met by counterprotesters organized by such advocacy groups as Women's March Michigan, Women Organize Michigan and the Islamic Center of East Lansing. The latter group's secretary, Hauwa Abbas, tells the State News, "It's very sad that it's happening. They're saying 'anti-Sharia,' but it's a mixture of anti-Sharia, Islamophobia, and refugee hate kind of all in one."

The Lansing State Journal reports that about two-dozen anti-Sharia protesters, including their armed militia guards, are opposed 3 to 1 by counterprotesters.

While organizers like Gabriel insist they're not against Islam, and only against radical Islam, such fine points do not seem to filter down to all rank-and-file protesters. In a closed Facebook group for the march, one poster declares, "Islam is an evil ideology made up by an insane, inbred, barbaric, murderous pedofile."

JULY 2017

The Council on American-Islamic Relations releases a report comparing the first six months of 2016 with the first six months of 2017. The report shows a 91 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes, as well as a 24 percent increase in anti-Muslim bias incidents. 2016 had been the worst year for anti-Muslim incidents yet by CAIR's measure, meaning 2017 is on track to be the worst ever.

Kalkaska Village President Jeff Sieting refuses to apologize for a social media post calling for the death of all Muslims. The tattooed village president of seven years raised ire in the small town east of Traverse City when he posted a sign endorsing Trump on the front of a building he owns. It was then disclosed that he had shared a social media post by a friend calling for the death of "every last Muslim." Though he later apologizes publicly for the remark, the village president will later tell The Detroit Free Press he thinks the controversy, and a recall effort, "probably strengthens my chances. I think my constituency has grown." During a council meeting on July 24, armed militia groups gather outside to "keep the peace."

AUGUST 2017

Outside Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, a white man in his 30s pulls his car up to a Muslim family and screams profanities at them. The mother, Haifa Moussa, tells WXYZ-TV she'd never been so scared in her life. The man shouts at them to go back to their country, and calls them terrorists. Moussa, who was born in the United States, tells her kids to ignore the man and quicken their step, calling the police on her phone. The man then gets out of his car and shouts louder and louder, catching up with them, repeating his insults. When police arrive, the man claims to be suffering from depression and is let go. CAIR-Michigan urges a more vigorous investigation of the incident, with staff attorney Amy Doukoure saying, "While we acknowledge that depression is a real issue, we are concerned that it's being used to excuse racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, particularly when there is an attack against Muslims."

SEPTEMBER 2017

A speaker from Dearborn turns up at Grand Lake Elementary School in Grand Lake, Colo., to give a speech on "Sharia law" during Constitution Week. The speaker, identified as a white woman named "Deena," refuses to give her full name or the name of the organization she runs. She claims religious law mandates that Muslims cheat and lie, and that Islam is the single most severe threat to the survival of the United States. "To try to make them American, it will never happen," she says. "I don't want them becoming citizens."

One of the year's bright spots is the release of a study called Muslims for American Progress. Commissioned by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, the study demonstrates the rewards Michigan has reaped as a magnet for Muslim immigration. The study's findings show that, if all Muslims were deported, as some Islamophobes want, Michigan would lose 15 percent of its doctors, 10 percent of its pharmacists, 7 percent of its dentists, $177 million in charitable giving, 35,835 business owners employing more than 100,000 residents, and a whopping $5.5 billion in consumer spending. Researcher Rebecca Karam tells MT that one of the key obstacles to understanding Michigan Muslims' contributions is a "feedback loop" of negative media in which "mediamakers report on Islamophobes at the governmental level" and "those images and viewpoints get fed back down to the individual level."

OCTOBER 2017

Raheel Siddiqui, 20, was a Downriver guy, a native-born U.S. Muslim whose parents came to Taylor from Pakistan. In early 2016, Raheel had been excited about joining the U.S. Marines and shipping off to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he'd become a leatherneck and be able to fight for his country. Instead, officials said Raheel became suicidal and vaulted over a third-story railing to his death. Later, it was disclosed that Raheel had been subject to extreme hazing under the direction of their drill instructor, U.S. Marine Sgt. Joseph Felix.

It turned out Raheel had suffered an injured and bloody throat, and was denied repeated requests for medical care. A Marine investigation reported Sgt. Felix had allegedly violently slapped Raheel on the morning he died. This month, Raheel's parents files a $100 million wrongful death suit against the U.S. government. In November, after a court-martial, it will be revealed that Sgt. Felix had committed hazing crimes against more than a dozen recruits, with the harshest treatment reserved for three Muslims, one of whom was Raheel. Sgt. Felix will be sentenced to 10 years in military prison.

NOVEMBER 2017

Extreme right-wing websites continue to spin out the sort of scary news designed to confirm the darkest fears of those discomfited or unfamiliar with Islam. For instance, in July, federal prosecutors had announced a nationwide sting targeting dozens of doctors for their role in defrauding the government of $1.3 billion. Somehow, by this month, that story would become the basis of a "Freshmedianews.com" report declaring that 412 of Michigan's Muslims were arrested in "the largest bust in U.S. history." The article's lurid language describes "hordes of Muslims taking over the state," and suggests the entire fraud was committed by "a group of Muslim doctors in Detroit." This month, politifact.com singles out the article for a thorough debunking.

The FBI releases its statistics on hate crimes for 2016, and there are few surprises. Even though the reporting is incomplete and the statistics can give an inaccurate picture, the report shows that hate crimes rose in 2016, especially against Muslims. The report documents a 19 percent rise from 2015.

President Trump re-tweets three anti-Muslim videos posted by U.K. radical far-right group Britain First. The videos are so devoid of context as to constitute "fake news," and a video alleging Muslims beat up a Dutch boy on crutches is revealed to be an attack by a native of the Netherlands, religion unknown. White House Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says it doesn't matter whether the anti-Muslim videos are true. "Whether it's a real video, the threat is real," Sanders tells reporters.

DECEMBER 2017

The Supreme Court allows the third version of the Trump administration's Muslim travel ban to go into effect, even as legal challenges in lower courts proceed. In response, a poster to the "March Against Sharia" Facebook page rejoices, apparently unaware of the Biblical irony, "Thank you, Jesus for sending us a president that loves America!!"