July 10, 2014 at 7:16 am

Civil rights group: More advocacy needed to stem anti-Muslim bigotry

While Muslims have found greater mainstream acceptance in Metro Detroit and nationwide, more work is needed to address persistent discrimination and intolerance in workplaces, at school and elsewhere, a civil rights advocacy group said.

“America is a great place. We’ve come a long way as far as racism and bigotry, but we know that we have a long way to go and CAIR is dedicated to serving you, serving the Muslim community, and serving America in general in fighting this anti-Muslim bigotry,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR-MI, to a crowd at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn on Wednesday.

“Because we know that … when Muslims have full access in the socio-political environment and when there’s less anti-Muslim bigotry, we know that this makes America as a whole a much better place.”

Walid addressed about 100 community leaders and supporters gathered at the mosque Wednesday for updates on his group’s Muslim civil rights advocacy efforts. Financial contributions also were sought during the “iftar,” or breaking of the fast, for Muslims during Ramadan, the holy month marked by daily fasts between sunrise and sunset.

As part of the gains for Metro Detroit Muslims, Walid cited two recent zoning or planning actions in Macomb County involving Islamic groups. In one case, a zoning variance was granted allowing the Muslim Community of Macomb to worship and conduct religious services in Sterling Heights; another was for an Islamic Organization of North America expansion project in Warren. Despite opposition and some public comments that suggested bias against Muslims, both measures moved forward, he said.

Meanwhile, Lena Masri, CAIR-MI staff attorney, spoke about the group’s Safe Spaces program, which works with corporations, universities and other institutions to set “Muslim-friendly” policies. A newly hired project coordinator proactively reaches out to those groups, Masri said.

“What that does is create a positive environment where discrimination and some instances … don’t happen in the first place,” she said.

Instances where Muslims encountered challenges include visits to Dearborn by Florida pastor Terry Jones, who has burned Qurans, the Muslim holy book, and practices of border agents between the United States and Canada.

CAIR-MI filed a lawsuit on behalf of Muslim-Americans who reported agents detaining and asking about their religious beliefs and worship habits — inquiries Masri said were “completely inappropriate” and “have absolutely no relationship to national security.”

Chalynn Fields, a Muslim from Detroit who attended the meeting Wednesday to hear more about CAIR and its mission, said it helps to connect with leaders focused on protecting her religious freedoms and those of others in the community.

“The more the word is spread, the more people cannot be ignorant (of) their rights,” she said.

The meeting coincided with an online magazine report Wednesday that the National Security Agency and the FBI covertly scanned the emails of five prominent Muslim-Americans under the federal government’s secret surveillance program aimed at foreign terrorists and other national security threats.

The report in the Intercept, a venture by journalist Glenn Greenwald, said the targets included an attorney, a Republican political operative, a university professor and Nihad Awad, national executive director of CAIR. The Intercept said all five denied involvement in terrorism or espionage and had not been accused of any crimes.

The Intercept account said that a three-month investigation using classified documents obtained from former NSA contract systems analyst Edward Snowden showed that “the system for authorizing NSA surveillance affords the government wide latitude in spying on U.S. citizens.”

NSA and Justice Department officials denied Wednesday that American activists are targeted for criticizing the government. While not discussing the individual cases, officials said Americans are only targeted for email surveillance if there is probable cause.

But the White House on Wednesday ordered national security agencies to review their training and policy manuals in light of the article’s assertion that a 2005 government training document contained an anti-Muslim slur.

CAIR on Wednesday announced it had joined a coalition of more than 40 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, seeking action on the federal surveillance. In a letter to President Obama, the groups called on the administration “to provide a full public accounting of these practices and to strengthen protections against the infringement of civil liberties and human rights.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.