It was easy to find the Islamic Center of America when I turned off the Southfield Freeway service drive onto Ford Road at about 4:30 p.m. last Friday. Twenty or more police cars with lights flashing served as my GPS in the gray, rainy afternoon. Police cars blocked access to the area and officers directed traffic onto the side streets.
I pulled into the parking lot of the Los Amigos restaurant and walked past the St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church to get to the mosque. The ICA is flanked by three Christian churches. I don't know about the spiritual energy around there, but it is apparently not exclusive.
I was there to see what Terry Jones, the Quran-burning Florida minister, would do in his planned protest in front of the Islamic Center. Right before I got out of the car, I heard a radio report that he was in court and a jury was deliberating on whether he would be allowed to carry out his mission. Jones had said that he would come, permit or not, so I joined the gathering of police and news reporters shivering in the cold near the front of the mosque. There were a handful of onlookers out on the berm off Ford Road.
A guy from the mosque asked for my press credential. I had none. He told me I either had to go inside or stand with the group out near Ford Road. I went inside where it was warmer and drier. On entering the building I was given a Quran and read a few lines as I walked the hallway past small groups of people mostly chatting quietly near the windows.
I began questioning folks, but the first few I approached didn't want to talk so I stopped. I overheard one man say, "If he is a pastor and he's coming in peace, why does he bring his gun?"
Indeed, Jones' .40-caliber handgun went off in his car the evening before, after leaving the FOX 2 television studios. He wouldn't be the first person to come to Detroit with his gun loaded and ready to go. On the other hand, I felt that if Gandhi came to town, he would not be armed. But then the Rev. Jones is no Gandhi.
The crowd had surged to some 40 or 50 people outside, so I headed back into the rain. As I approached the group, a guy in an oversized poncho and hood approached me. I jumped when he grabbed my arm.
"Relax, don't be getting paranoid on me," said Mulenga Harangua, my conspiracy theory-loving friend.
"Mulenga, what are you doing here?"
"I want to hear what Jones has to say. I'm not for the guy or against him. I don't want him to burn a Quran, but if he does, I want to see that."
"Even if he's trying to incite a riot?"
Mulenga looked dismissively at the soggy crowd. "That crazy bunch of rioters there? Let's go talk to them."
He grabbed my arm again and dragged me over to a guy carrying a sign that read: "I will debate you anytime, anywhere." Mulenga shoved my hand with the tape recorder in the guy's face.
"Sir, why do you want to debate Terry Jones?" I asked.
"I believe that our community has not given him clear answers. ... " said Haithan Kayed of Dearborn. "Jones is anti-sharia in America. We, as Muslims, don't want sharia in America. We want it in our homelands. God is a part of our legislative process. In this country there is a lot of fear among Muslims, and there are certain things that they shy away from saying. Islam is a complete way of life and ... an alternative to capitalism. That is one of the things they shy away from saying because it's one of these things that could label them radical or extremist. They are ill-equipped in presenting it in a clear and precise manner."
A guy walking past on the road yelled something like "Muslim radicals" at the crowd, which surged toward him. Police quickly escorted him away while a big guy from the crowd exhorted his compatriots. "Everybody say nothing. Let them say what they want to say. They want us to get arrested. Nobody touch anybody. Words don't hurt."
Those were certainly words of wisdom — especially if Jones actually showed up at the scene. I looked around. Mulenga was approaching an elderly white-haired couple. The man had a Bible tucked under his arm. I ran over to them.
"Why are you here, sir?" I asked.
"I want to support Terry Jones," said Rev. Lanny Raper.
"What about him do you support?"
"I want to support the protest and what he is supporting as far as freedom in America and the right to be able to protest and stand up for what you believe in."
"And what is he protesting?"
"Well, he is protesting the right, his freedom, the Fifth Amendment."
"He's protesting his freedom?"
"I'm supporting it. I think if they have the right to believe what they do. Basically I believe that America was founded as a Christian nation. One nation, under God, indivisible, and I still believe it. My dad he fought in World War II and my brother was in the Vietnam War. So I very much believe that America is a Christian nation."
"How does fighting in World War II and in the Vietnam War mean that America is a Christian nation?"
The woman with him spoke up. "It's not the war. It's the reality of the freedoms that we have."
About 7:30 p.m. word came that Jones was being held. Police told the crowd, which had peaked at about 100 people, to leave. Mulenga asked me for a ride home. As we walked back to my car we mulled over the issues.
"I wish he had come," said Mulenga. "I really wanted to know what he was talking about."
"He seemed to want to protest sharia in Dearborn."
"But Jones doesn't live in Dearborn. Aren't these conservative guys always talking about the supremacy of local law? Why should he be concerned about local law in Dearborn when he is from Florida? Why is he trying to tell us what to do?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "Maybe he wants to keep the rest of us from drifting into sharia. You start with halal meat and next thing all the women have to wear burqas."
"Hey, you're starting to sound like me. But that didn't happen with the Catholics."
"Fish on Friday. There are all kind of places that serve fish on Friday because of the Catholics. And my niece goes to West Bloomfield High School. They get Jewish holidays off, and the cafeteria serves matzo pizza. I don't hear anybody protesting against that. Or thinking it leads to some kind of takeover."
"Well you've got a point there. Let me buy you dinner. I used their parking lot; I should spend a little money. I hear this place has great chile rellenos."
"Oh, man, don't get me started about the Mexicans and their food."
I shot him a questioning look.
"Well they already took over California and Texas."