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PoliticsWorldTroy gets first mosque amid American Christian unease

Troy gets first mosque amid American Christian unease

The first mosque in the city of Troy in Detroit is now set to open following years of litigation in the Christian-dominated United States, a society that is increasingly turning woke. The Adam Community Center’s mosque was inaugurated on 17 Se[tember at 5 PM on 3635 Rochester Road according to a report in The Arab American News. There have been quite a few cases in the US where Christians expressed their reservations initially when the Muslim clout in the region increased, but they came around to accept the Muslim presence and even dominance in the area eventually (more about this in the last section of this report).

The large, ethnically and religiously diverse Metro Detroit city of more than 80,000 inhabitants had churches, temples and a synagogue but no mosque, even with a large and recognised Muslim population — until yesterday.

Muslims at the Adam Community Center had been conducting prayer services in the basement of a real estate company and had tried for years to find a suitable building to expand into. They finally did identify a building of the type, a former restaurant that had already been zoned for assembly use. But the Christians of the city refused to provide the centre with a variance to allow the building to be put to Islamic use.

The refusal led to two lawsuits filed in the US District Court in Detroit over the proposed mosque, one by the US Department of Justice in 2019, which claimed discrimination in the city’s zoning, and another filed by the centre. The Justice Department argued that the city’s zoning laws should not treat mosques, churches, synagogues and other religious assemblies less favourably than nonreligious assemblies, adding that the free exercise of religion was illegally restricted in this way.

The court ruled in favour of the US Department of Justice in March. In the centre's lawsuit, a judge ordered the two sides to work together to establish the city’s first mosque.

The Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI) legally represented the mosque. The CAIR-MI said in a press release on 15 September that through years of litigation against the city of Troy to establish the centre, the community had been able to open its doors through a court ruling.

"Litigation, however, is still pending regarding the City Council’s refusal to pay damages to the community for legal fees and violating its civil rights," CAIR-MI said.

Troy Ethan Baker said that his city was not opposed to having a mosque, but that they had not allowed the group to make use of the building so far because they were waiting on a resolution on the Adam Center's suit, seeking financial damages. He said that in May the city had a number of public health concerns stemming from work in the building being "completed without a permit".

"As a precursor to any settlement, the city has detailed a number of public health and safety items that must be completed in the building in order to comply with International Fire Code and the state of Michigan building codes," Baker said over Facebook earlier this year, as WXYZ reported. "Some of the work in the building was completed without a permit. These public health and safety items are separate from the zoning issue, which was the subject of the Court’s opinion in the Department of Justice case."

The building housing the mosque is some 21,000 sq ft, with an 11,000 sq ft prayer area. The parking lot accommodates some 155 cars. The total costs of the project have been more than $ 3 million.

A representative of the group said on 15 September that they were not too hopeful they would see monetary compensation from the city for damages and legal fees.

The grand inauguration on 17 September saw several speakers, including Baker, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Masmari, Shaykh Mustapha Elturk and CAIR-MI Executive Director Dawud Walid. Imams and religious leaders from the greater Detroit area are also expected to be in attendance. The event raised funds for the new mosque.

Walid discussed the long struggle that the "community has endured to establish this centre and will call on Troy to settle the remaining portion of this case".

Muslim group wants $ 2 million from Troy after winning long fight over mosque

Inside the mosque in Troy

Christians of Troy have a problem

But Troy officials have flatly refused to pay the Muslim group’s monetary claim of $ 1.9 million. The claim for damages, court costs and attorney fees have accrued since 2014 when the group first sued the city after being rebuffed on another building — according to a report in the Detroit Free Press.

Since March, the two sides negotiated with little progress. The Muslim group's lawyer said she could justify the dollar claim, citing not only its own of expenses but also the similar million-dollar settlements reached after Muslims were permitted to build mosques in other Michigan locales including Sterling Heights ($ 1.5 million) in Macomb County and Pittsfield Township ($ 1.75 million) in Washtenaw County.

Troy Ethan Baker said he planned to attend the mosque’s ribbon cutting Saturday. But Baker said this week that the city shouldn’t budge on a payout because the monetary claim is excessive. "I can’t speak for the city," he said.

Still, in his view — and Baker is a lawyer — he said he thought the city should balk at settling "as long as the demand remains anything more than a million dollars." In fact, Troy recently filed a request with the court asking to pay nothing. Baker, known for attending virtually every ribbon cutting in Oakland County’s largest city, said he expected to speak at the event but was leery of what others might say. "I, of course, will welcome them to the community, as I would any other house of worship," he said. He said he’d heard that the group’s lawyers would speak.

"I hope they don’t. I’m hopeful they don’t try to embarrass me. I don’t want to go there and have people say things that put the city in a bad light," Baker said.

Yet, a federal judge in Detroit has already done that, in rulings that read like slam dunks.

US District Judge Nancy Edmunds relied on a powerful law that, since then-President Bill Clinton signed it 22 years ago, has given increasing clout to religious organisations in all kinds of disputes. Two US senators, strange bedfellows who rarely agreed on anything, had drafted the law: Orrin Hatch, the well-known Republican from Utah; and Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and the celebrated youngest brother of former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Though both men are now dead, they left behind a federal law that constitutional lawyers pronounce "rah-LOO-pah," for the acronym RLUIPA — short for the Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act.

records that Hatch wanted a Mormon group to be allowed to expand their temple over the objections of a historic commission that vetoed the Mormons' expansion plans for an aged structure. And Kennedy, citing experts who said religious faith often led to rehabilitation, wanted more rights for federal prisoners trying to worship behind bars, including Jews who’d been served pork on holy days and a Rastafarian who wasn’t allowed to grow dreadlocks in prison. RLUIPA’s effect in prisons rarely attracts attention, but the impact is hard to miss when it involves churches, synagogues and especially mosques, said Howard Friedman of West Bloomfield, a retired law professor and expert on RLUIPA.

"There’s been particularly a of discrimination against mosques after 9/11," and that triggered numerous lawsuits hinging on RLUIPA, said Friedman, who operates the blog "religionclause.blogspot.com." Friedman’s blogging has been busy lately, as the current US Supreme Court increasingly grants more powers and prerogatives to religious groups.

In the case against Troy, Edmunds did not merely agree with the Muslim group. Her ruling vigorously affirmed arguments that the US Department of Justice advanced. The department had filed a companion lawsuit against Troy after viewing the years of legal struggles fought by the Muslim group, called Adam Community Center. The group adopted that name because it sought more than a mosque. The Adam group wanted a building that would house not only a mosque but religious education classes, a library, gym and youth recreation area, conference centre, and banquet hall, according to the Department of Justice lawsuit.

Edmunds gave no wiggle room for Troy when it came to allowing the mosque. At the conclusion of her 31-page ruling, she declared that the city’s zoning rule was clearly illegal under RLUIPA. Back on page 11, her opinion recounts how Troy’s official decision process went badly wrong. Edmunds reviews the ominous chatter at a Troy Zoning Board of Appeals hearing in June 2018, when representatives of Adam Community Center sought permission to use a building they’d agreed to buy for $ 2 million — the defunct Sakura Japanese Steakhouse restaurant and banquet hall. Edmunds’ ruling says that one member of the city board "asked for clarification regarding the impacts of RLUIPA, but Troy’s Assistant City Attorney replied that the ZBA did not need to be concerned with RLUIPA."

According to a large sign in the lobby, the mosque will offer parties on religious holidays, community dinners, "Saturday school for Teens and Pre-Teens," five daily prayer periods and classes in the Quran — Islam’s scriptures. The efforts of Adam Community Center actually began with another restaurant site, the former Marinelli’s at 4924 Rochester Road — now Neehee’s Indian Vegetarian restaurant. Initially, the Adam group’s application gained preliminary approval from the city, said Amy Doukoure, with the Michigan chapter of CAIR — the Council of American-Islamic Relations.

"But someone emailed the city and said it would become a mosque," killing prospects for getting approval, said Doukoure, a lawyer who represents those seeking a combined mosque and community centre in Troy. Soon after an exchange of emails, the Troy Downtown Development Authority recommended against granting approval, Doukoure said. Emails documenting the city’s start-stop decision process were attached to the Department of Justice lawsuit.

"Our application (for the Marinelli’s site) didn’t hide anything," because it mentioned that the community centre would have "a prayer space," Doukoure said. Still, the city refused its permission. So Adam Community Center’s board members tried other locations.

"They’d bring ideas for other buildings to the city and, every time, the city said this wasn’t going to work," she said. In a 2018 meeting of the Troy Zoning Board of Appeal, "more than one member said, ‘There’s nowhere in Troy for this (and) they should go to Rochester Hills.’ That’s on the videos" of the meetings, she said.

"They tried to buy a church. They submitted the highest bid, with a really good down payment and they were told ‘We will never sell to you, no matter how much you bid.’ It was very discouraging," she said. The sequence of these events is recounted in the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Troy and in Edmunds’ ruling.

After discovering the property of the former Japanese steakhouse and banquet centre, board members "thought this would be easy because it was already a large building with plenty of parking," said Doukoure. Yet, Troy’s zoning code "again made it impossible for a place of worship to occupy this commercial building," she said.

Things looked dour. Donors withdrew nearly $ 500,000 in pledges. What changed everything? RLUIPA.

"That law was enacted by Congress simply to say that you cannot zone religion, or a specific religion, out of your city," Dakoure said. Furthermore, under the law’s provisions, Troy must pay the Muslim group’s claims for damages, attorney fees, and costs, she asserted. Just how much is the question.

"Troy is basically asking the court to dismiss our case and not pay anything. Troy has strongly indicated that once there’s a final order from the court, they will appeal," Dakoure said. That would add to the years of legal costs for each side, she said.

Troy City Attorney Lori Grigg Bluhm was in Europe this week, but she responded to a Free Press email with a short note: "There is not much to report. The cases are still pending. A certificate of occupancy has been granted."

Grigg Bluhm referred to multiple cases because both the initial lawsuit filed by Adam Community Center and the subsequent case brought by the Justice Department are pending.

The name of the new mosque is First Jamiah Masjid of Troy. "Masjid" is an Arabic term meaning "place of prostration," according to online definitions, and confirmed by an imam at the new mosque; he declined to give his name. During daily prayers, Muslims kneel and touch their foreheads to the ground as a sign of submission to the will of God.

Until recently, members of the Adam group had been praying in the basement of an office building, the owner of which is a board member, according to legal documents. Lately, however, they’ve been able to bow and pray five times a day at the new site, still marked by a sign on Rochester Road as the long-gone Japanese steakhouse, members said.

On 15 September at the 2 PM prayer time, 12 Muslims assembled at one end of the big prayer room, with an imam, their name for a priest, standing in front. Multiple times in response to the imam's commands, they bowed, knelt, placed foreheads on the carpeting, stood, and then knelt again. Each had removed his shoes in the lobby. After the prayers, the imam spoke in English for several minutes of the obligations to Islam, including their need to "perform good deeds," to "act righteously at all times" and to "deal with people in the best of ways."

Later, Mahmood Sayed, a Troy resident since 2004 and owner of a three-store chain of clothing and shoe stores in metro Detroit, told a reporter: "We are all grateful to get permission for the mosque in Troy. It was a long struggle." Sayed is secretary of the Muslim group and one of four partners who bought the building, which will also have space for community dinners and a library, he said.

After more fundraising, he hopes they can add recreation space for children. A monetary settlement from the city would help that effort, he said with a smile. But Troy's officials could decide not to pay a settlement and instead to appeal the case. If they do so, the city could be forced to yield again before federal law.

On 26 August, in a reply to Troy’s latest legal motion, which seeks to have the Adam group’s monetary claim dismissed, the group’s lawyer included the following paragraph — words the judge would not likely welcome:

"At the time of filing this reply, the City of Troy Zoning Ordinance still contains the provisions that violated RLUIPA. The Defendants have not voluntarily made any changes or amendments to the zoning ordinance, or in any way indicated within the text or on their website or in any other written form that they in any way have ceased enforcement of that provision."

Muslims prefer Democrats in US politics

Since George W Bush-ordered invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslims in the US have increasingly got drawn towards Democrats. According to the report by a Boston-based organisation that works to increase American Muslim education and civic engagement, "at least 145 American Muslims, virtually all of them Democrats, ran for state or national public office in 2018. Of these, 110 were first-time candidates who represent an unprecedented rise for a diverse Muslim community that is typically underrepresented in American politics.".

In 2020, Democratic candidate Joe Biden received 69% of the Muslim vote, whereas Republican candidate Donald Trump received 17% (an increase from 13% in 2016).

American Muslim political engagement is increasing, as 75% of American Muslims surveyed by ISPU reported being registered to vote, an increase of 15% from 2016 data. In January 2019, Sadaf Jaffer became the first female Muslim American mayor, first female South Asian mayor, and first female Pakistani-American in the United States, of Montgomery in Somerset County, New Jersey. In June 2022, Republican candidate Mehmet Oz became the first Muslim to be nominated by a major party for the US Senate.

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