Political Powder Keg: Has Religious Tolerance Gone Too Far?
By Melissa Charbonneau
White House Correspondent
The Islamic call to prayer is a 1,400-year-old tradition, sung in most U.S. mosques within the walls.
– (CBN News) - HAMTRAMCK, Michigan -- Hamtramck, Michigan is a blue-collar town surrounded by the city of Detroit. Its downtown storefronts reflect the diversity of immigrants who settled here. But an influx of immigrants from the Middle East has transformed Hamtramck from a melting pot into a political powder keg.
New Muslim residents are adopting American habits, driving SUVs and talking on cell phones. But many still cling to old customs, wearing traditional dress, and shopping at markets that sell "halal," or meat slaughtered according to Islamic law. Now one Bangladeshi mosque wants to revive a controversial ritual.
The Islamic call to prayer is a 1,400-year-old tradition, sung in most U.S. mosques within the walls. But the Al Islah Islamic Center says they should be able to broadcast over public loudspeakers in Arabic, five times a day, from 6am to 10pm.
The call to prayer states, "Allah is great…Mohammed is Allah's prophet…come to prayer. There is no god but Allah."
Mosque president Ahmed Motlib asked the city's permission to broadcast from rooftop loudspeakers. Motlib says, "Some people, they don't know what time is our congregation, only for congregation coming and participating. That's why we want to call prayer outside."
But the request has split the community. Hundreds signed a petition to block the broadcasts as a public annoyance.
Hamtramck resident Jerry Radziszewski says, "To me, this is disturbing the peace. They understand what it is. We don't. To us it's just a bunch of noise."
Mosque supporters say the Azan can already be heard from mosques in nearby Detroit No different, they say, from Christian church bells.
Motlib comments, "Azan is only two minutes, less than two minutes is noise. Every hour church bell, more than five minutes their bell make belling. So we don't feel anything bad."
Bob Zwollack is a former city clerk who led the petition drive. He says it is an issue of noise.
"Even if they got up on their towers and did it like they did 1,400 years ago," says Zwollack, "where you just had a call to prayer like before, there's not a problem. Who's going to object to that? Yes, they have a right to free speech, but the overall objection was an amplified sound, amplified religious statement."
But the dispute has escalated into a national controversy over religious freedom. The press converged on heated city council meetings, which exploded with calls for tolerance and charges of discrimination.
Hafiz Mohammed of the Islamic Association of Michigan, says, "Those people who are opposing Azan, our position is not a new phenomenon. They are racist! "
Council member Scott Klein says, "The folks I've seen leading this have nothing on the boys from Montgomery, the boys from Birmingham, the boys from Mississippi."
Hamtramck resident Bob Golen protests, "I am not a racist! My wife is not a racist."
Joanna and Bob Golen are life-long residents of this neighborhood, now largely owned by Bangladeshi newcomers. The Golens say they have been demonized for signing the petition.
Bob Golen says, "I don't tell them to believe in Jesus, I don't want them to tell me to believe in Mohommed. The call to prayer is fine, but don't evangelize me where I can't turn you off five times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They're going to tell me their god is the only true god? I don't have to listen to that."
The Golens say the mosque is forcing a foreign religion right onto their front porch, proselytizing on public airwaves.
Joanne Golen says, "Why is it wrong for them to practice their religion the way they want to? They can do it any way they want in their mosque, like we do in our churches, in their homes, like we do. I can even sit on my porch and pray silently. I'm all for them practicing their religion, but I do not want to hear over loudspeakers their god being praised in my ears five times a day."
Monther Alkisswanii says, "I think it's racial discrimination against someone's culture or beliefs."
For years a mosque in Dearborn has announced the call on loudspeakers. Mosque-goers say neighbors are not complaining.
Alkisswanii says, "It doesn't bother them because it's not, the call is not so loud. People play music more loud that this."
Others living near the mosque say the daily declarations are hard to ignore.
Dearborn resident Felicia Moser says, "Especially around Ramadan time, they keep to themselves. You hear the speakers every day, every day, for hours. It's just when it gets to the point when it's really, really loud, if you're trying to sleep at night. We've tried to express our feelings about it and it doesn't get you anywhere."
Dearborn is home to the nation's largest concentration of Muslims outside the Middle East. One McDonald's caters to Muslim customers offering halal meals. Shops advertise in Arabic. Mosques line the streets, with more under construction.
Nasser Beydoun, head of Dearborn's Arab-American Chamber of Commerce, says that the sizable Muslim population has earned the community's recognition, including support for a new proposal to declare two Muslim holy days official, paid city holidays.
Beydoun says, "Islam is one of the second largest religions after Christianity, and one of the three monothestic religions, so celebrating Islam like you do Christianity and Judaism. We see nothing wrong with it."
Beydoun expects no resistance. Dearborn schools already grant Muslim holidays to students. One district banned pork and changed lunch menus to meet Muslim requirements. Old-world ways are gaining acceptance, but some see the beginnings of a culture clash.
Michigan columnist Barrett Kalellis says America's lax immigration policy is shifting immigrant attitudes from assimilation to accommodation.
"Great waves of foreign cultures have come over here," Kalellis says, "and they have no real interest in becoming Americans. They want to maintain and set up satrapees or fiefdoms of their original cultures from the old country."
He continues, "They don't want to change. They want the system to change to accommodate their beliefs and customs, as opposed to their trying to change."
American Muslims are gaining political clout on local school boards, city councils, and in Congress. They have support from the Bush administration The Justice Department recently defended the constitutional right of a Muslim sixth-grader in Oklahoma to wear a headscarf in class. And states across the nation are conceding to Muslim demands to wear headscarves in drivers license photos.
The push for concessions and tolerance of Islamic traditions has some in the Detroit area and elsewhere asking, "How far could it go?" Across the U.S. bordering Canada, some Muslim leaders have already established judicial tribunals to enforce Sharia, or Islamic law, to handle family and civil disputes."
What is happening in Hamtramck could be a beginning. A precedent some see as cause for concern.
Bob Golen says, "If it were allowed to snowball. If it were allowed to take root, we would become an Islam nation, and no longer would there be a separation of church and state because an Islam nation is governed by Islam, and not by a republic or democracy."
Others say there's nothing to fear. Tolerance and respect for other cultures is the source of America's strength.
Yet Alkisswanii says, "I pray for this country, and I pray that all Americans become Muslim only. That's just my prayer message to all Americans."