In many faiths, congregations are created by groups of people who are alike, not only in their religious beliefs, but also in their culture. Immigrant populations have always tended to create small, comfortable enclaves of religious and ethnic homogeneity in their new homes. And metro Detroit’s Muslim community was not the exception. But in 1993, a community made up of Muslims from around the world was given a single roof under which everyone could gather and celebrate their common faith while sharing their cultural diversity.
The founders of the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills were themselves an ethnically diverse group, and as they worked to create the identity of an inclusive home for all Muslims, they codified their intent in their by-laws, requiring the board to be composed of an ethnically mixed group, which included both men and women.
Another significant part of the Center’s mission is connecting with the surrounding community. Current President Rouzana Hares has been active with the Center’s interfaith committee for a decade, working on partnerships with many local organizations, including the South Oakland Shelter, serving dinners and packing hygiene kits for residents, planting trees in Detroit with Birmingham Unitarian Church, and working with Faith in Action to support Oakland County seniors.
“We like to reach out to churches, shelters, synagogues,” says Hares. The Center hosts IFLC’s Religious Diversity Journeys and opens its doors each year to all of Bloomfield Hills Schools’ seventh graders.
At the Muslim Unity Center’s recent annual dinner, the Center welcomed an interfaith group of community members that included clergy, activists, and city and school officials.
IFLC President Robert Bruttell was the key note speaker, speaking on the subject of combating Islamophobia. The challenge, as he described it, is combatting an emotional response to terrorism.
The response must be two pronged, he says. First, the conversation about terrorism needs to be redefined. Bruttell said that he doesn’t call terrorists Muslims, he calls them “Malsi,” an inversion of “Islam,” because they have Islam, which is a religion of peace, backwards.
“The Malsi cannot be Muslims because they have violated all of Islam’s most sacred tenets,” says Bruttell. “So, we stop trying to explain how they are Muslims that have it all wrong. They are not Muslims. They are Malsi evildoers.”
Bruttell also defines Nazis and Ku Klux Klan as “Malsis.” But Christians he says, are not asked to condemn or justify their acts because they are not accepted as representative of the whole of Christianity, though they are based in it.
In short, we need to stop explaining why all Muslims aren’t terrorists, and explain that terrorists aren’t really Muslims.
Bruttell says that emotional response will change as people have positive experiences with Muslims in their communities.
The crowd gathered that night was part of the Muslim Unity Center’s efforts to do just that. The annual dinner is held to bring together community members who are dedicated to building bridges and creating understanding.
Dr. Muzammil Ahmed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a research group specializing in the challenges facing the American Muslim community, also spoke.
“We eat, we talk, we mention things we have in common and we move on,” he says of many interfaith efforts. “We believe a lot can be done if we do it all together.”
Bruttell also emphasized the need for collaboration, saying that combatting Islamophobia requires coalitions with genuine purpose. “The coalitions we build,” he says “need to focus on how people feel.”
It is key, he says, for Muslims to participate in service organizations and other community groups, so that when someone says, “how come I never hear Muslims speaking out against terrorism,” there will be someone to answer. The face of Islam needs to become the trusted friend, neighbor and co-worker, rather than the radical Islamist seen on television. This is what will change the emotional response from fear and hatred to acceptance, understanding and a sense of being part of a common community.
On Sunday, May 17th, the Center will hold its annual open house. It will, says Hares, be a fun day, with pony rides, henna, face-painting and food. It will also be a chance for the community to visit a mosque, talk to volunteers, learn about Islam, participate in a question and answer session with Imam Almasmari, and see that the face of Islam is the diverse and welcoming group of members that call the MUC their spiritual home.