Muslims at new Islamic Center of North America: "We want people to know where here and they should get used to it"
August 26, 2005
along the strip this Detroit suburb calls Altar Alley.
Dearborn's big, older churches cluster on an access street that parallels
teeming Ford Road, west of the tinted-glass forest of automotive corporate
A striking new institution joined them in May, after seven years of
planning, fundraising and construction.
The 92,000-square-foot, $14 million Islamic Center of America buzzes with
activity most days, observers say. But Friday, the Islamic Sabbath, brings
hundreds of worshippers, filling parking lots with cars and the classrooms,
banquet areas and prayer room with people.
The nation's largest mosque opened its doors less than four years after
extremists inspired by their own violent vision assaulted the nation on
Sept. 11, 2001. A message from the Shiite Muslims who worship here is that,
however others respond, they will not hide their religious practices in the
heart of their own country.
Three months after its opening, the big worship place already has become a
familiar feature of Dearborn's landscape, its shapes and symbols contrasting
with those of its Christian neighbors. From the road, the face shows
golden-hued domes, Moorish arches, a stone exterior of desert tones,
deep-green decorative tiles and two 110-foot-tall minarets topped with
"It's our statement of peace and understanding to the world" from one of
America's capitals of Muslim life, Ed Bedoun, a member of the mosque board,
Dearborn has many mosques. Arab-Americans (nearly half of them Muslims) make
up 30 percent of the population.
The 2000 census counted more than 29,000 immigrant and first-, second- or
third-generation Middle Easterners in the city, most from Lebanon, Syria,
Iran and Iraq. Another 4,600 lived in Dearborn Heights; 100,000-plus called
the Detroit metropolitan area home.
Drive through sections of Dearborn, and you will find Arabic script on every
other shop and restaurant. Go into any public place, and you will see women
wearing long, modest dresses and, if not veils, Islamic head coverings.
The municipal home to Ford Motor Co. has the highest proportion of Arabs of
any city in the country (though New York and Los Angeles have larger Arab
And Dearborn's newest mosque seems destined to become "the calling card for
Muslims around America," Mayor Michael Guido said. "It's something the
community is very proud of."
Many who worship here talk about their own pride, too, at erecting the most
conspicuous new sign of religious and cultural devotion in the Detroit area,
home to 5.5 million.
"We want people to know we're here, and they should get used to it," said
Ali Hamka, son of Lebanese immigrants.
He and others had just completed a two-hour Young Muslims Association
service and were about to walk to evening prayers in the new mosque's prayer
"We're Muslim, but like everybody else here, we're Americans," said the
25-year-old high school economics teacher in Rochester, another Detroit
Did he sound defensive? Standing in a banquet room with 200 other young
Arab-Americans, Hamka cited all too many reasons he and his peers might feel
that way. On July 7, terrorists in London had bombed the transit system,
killing scores. Islamic violence was all over page one.
"The media is always ready to point out that it's Muslims involved in
terrorism," he said. "I don't think they get the message that, you know,
we're a religion, about peace, not killing people."
Hamka summed up what many others Arabs say: "We are not terrorists. It's
horrible when things like this happen. They are criminals."
Earlier, at midday prayers, Eide Alawan leaned against the frame of an
arched portal to the center's expansive prayer room, or musalla, explaining
in a hushed voice the intricate rituals 700 to 800 Shiites were engaged in.
Shoeless worshippers stood facing easterly or kneeled and bowed or pressed
foreheads to the carpet (some to small clay shapes they placed on the
colorful carpet). They positioned their hands and responded in prayer to an
imam's musical chants.
Alawan, an energetic and fit 65-year-old of Syrian parentage, is a community
leader focused on interfaith worship and cross-cultural understanding.
He said he handles outreach to groups of other faiths and encourages
neighboring churches on Altar Alley -- and beyond -- to visit the mosque.
Many have. He's had special success in urging Jewish congregations to join
the Muslims, and vice versa.
He reached into a wooden box by the threshold, rummaged through prayer beads
and pulled out a tiny tablet the size of a very thick business card stamped
with Arabic text.
"When they kneel and pray, a lot of Shias want to press their heads against
the soil," he said.
The unglazed tablets were fired from Middle Eastern sand and clay.
Many worshippers dressed in casual clothing, some in shorts. Alawan said a
lot of them work at Ford's Rouge auto plant or the automaker's executive
offices. On Fridays, they rush to prayer on lunch breaks.
The building's principal architect, David Donnellon, showed and discussed
the mosque's features. He positioned the round prayer room, which holds 700
on the ground floor and 350 on the mezzanine, not just toward the East but
so worshippers pray facing precisely along the shortest straight line to
Mecca -- "52 degrees, 30 minutes north of east," he said.
The musalla includes two levels to acknowledge Islamic tradition that women
and men pray separately. The mezzanine is for women -- officially.
But during prayer hour, starting at 1:30 p.m., women kneeled on the same
main-floor carpet as men. They prayed toward the rear of the room, often
with children, all wearing scarves (though rarely the full hajib, which
covers most of the face).
As prayers waned, worshippers rose and walked through the portals to
retrieve shoes left on wire racks in the granite hallway.
Men paused to speak with and ritually kiss Alawan's cheeks. He seemed to
University of Michigan researcher Sally Howell, who worked on a major study
of Arab communities around Detroit, said she does not think the high
visibility of the new mosque signals "a sea change in the Arab community," a
brash response to other Americans' sometimes unfavorable notions of Islam.
Dearborn Shiites were planning the building years before the 2001 terrorist
attacks, Howell said. The new mosque "is a triumph for them, but the message
is: `We're not cowering in fear. We're going on with our lives.' A big part
of that is their religion."
That's one message. Eide Alawan suggested another.
He was sitting among trustees and others at a conference table in the
mosque's administrative wing Friday morning, the big day for people of his
He seemed a man gentle enough to embrace friends and family members, kissing
them on the cheeks, tough enough to demand firmly that a reporter not reduce
Muslims in his report by yoking Islam to terrorism.
That was a message he wanted powerfully to transmit.
"We do have a mission," he said. "It's to speak to this country. And the
Islamic Center of America can have a role in communicating what Islam is
about: We are a peace-loving people."