Dearborn Heights — One fearful thought gripped Bissan Harb when she learned about Sunday’s mass shooting in Orlando, the worst in modern American history: “Please don’t let it be a Muslim.”
Harb, 42, a business owner, mother of two boys and a Lebanese Muslim who has spent all but the first four years of her life in America, has seen how fear can spike after terrorist attacks, putting the Muslim community on the defensive and, in some cases, spurring a disaffected few to a radicalized response.
The Canton Township woman doesn’t worry about the temperament of her two sons, one in college and the other in middle school, but she doesn’t want them to be looked at like they have a “flaw, as a hazard.”
“I can teach my sons not to hate, but you don’t know what other parents are teaching,” Harb said during an interview at her insurance office one day after the Orlando shooting. The attack left 50 dead at a gay nightclub, including the 29-year-old shooter, Omar Mateen, a son of Afghan immigrants who grew up in Florida and professed loyalty to the Islamic State group.
“You don’t know what the media is teaching and websites. The proper form of religion does not allow you to hate, does not allow you to use violence, does not allow you to discriminate against anybody.”
In a region with one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East, Metro Detroit Muslims say they are sensitive to concerns their children, friends or relatives may become radicalized.
It’s not a widespread fear, but they acknowledge a select few might get lured to it as some Americans stereotype and discriminate against them in the wake of the Orlando shootings or the terrorist attack late last year in San Bernardino, California, when a husband and wife who declared allegiance to the Islamic State killed 14 people.
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for temporarily banning Muslims from the United States until the country improves its screening process.
Andy Arena, former FBI director of the Detroit office, said people who are most tempted to become radicalized are those who are “disenfranchised, kind of living on the edge, they don’t fit in society.”
He said families have to pay attention to warning signs and report them to law enforcement. He added that radicalization isn’t coming from mosques but rather when people are alone and tuning into internet websites that spew hatred.
“It’s almost impossible to find people who self-radicalize,” Arena said. “For the FBI or an intelligence agency to find this is a needle in a haystack. How do you stop that? The only way you do it is the people close to these individuals, they are going to see the change in behavior, they are going to hear certain things.”
Arena said racial and religious prejudice against peaceful Muslims can have a negative influence, too, and that it “plays right into what these radical, fundamentalist groups are telling them.”
Metro Detroit itself has not been untouched by terrorism.
Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Muslim, got a life sentence after his failed Christmas 2009 attack aboard a Detroit-bound airliner as part of an al-Qaida plot.
A 21-year-old Dearborn Heights man, Khalil Abu-Rayyan, has been in federal detention since Feb. 16 after a grand jury in Detroit indicted him on two gun-related felonies. While the grand jury did not indict Rayyan, a Muslim, on any terrorism charges, he had been under FBI surveillance since May 2015 for allegedly making threats about committing acts of terror and martyrdom in Metro Detroit.
Local Muslims say the insults and looks they receive or prejudice they experience don’t shake their love for America, whether they were born here or immigrated. But they also know propaganda of hate from terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State or al-Qaida, can also play on the fears of some Muslims who don’t have the support systems they enjoy.
Trump has suggested that Muslims need to report extremists within their community, saying “they know who they are.” But Metro Detroit Muslims say it’s difficult to know if someone has self-radicalized or taken on extreme views, particularly when they are loners communicating heavily through social media.
Imam Steve Mustapha Elturk, the leader of the Islamic Organization of North America mosque in Warren and a leader in the Muslim community in southeast Michigan, said the reality is “it’s not impossible” for a few sullen, lonely people to take on radical tendencies, “particularly for individuals who are lost in their identity.”
“How do we know? We cannot get into the minds and hearts of people,” Elturk said after a late-night Ramadan prayer service this week. “They could be coming to the mosque, but in most cases, they don’t. They are in their basements or in their rooms surfing the internet, going to these websites and no one knows about them. But still, who can peek into the hearts of people and see what they are going to do? We don’t know.”
Elturk questioned whether the attackers in Orlando and San Bernardino were real Muslims just as Christians, he said, may question the Christianity of Dylann Roof, who is white and is accused of shooting and killing nine black churchgoers, including a pastor, in a South Carolina church after praying with them in 2015.
“I hope we don’t associate his actions with the faith he supposedly belongs to,” saying Elturk, adding his congregation does a thorough job of educating youth and others about Muslim discrimination and how to deal with it.
But whether Muslims block out the prejudice aimed at them over these attacks, he added, “people are people. People are humans. People react based on their emotions and feelings. That is a fact. And the more you corner somebody, the bigger the chance is that they will react.”
Some Muslims in Metro Detroit say they strive to deal with discrimination calmly to avoid playing into stereotypes.
Hibah Ahmad, 22, attends the University of Michigan at Dearborn and wears a traditional head scarf that tends to bring her attention outside her native Dearborn. While boarding a plane in Florida last month, Ahmad said an older white woman refused to sit next to her.
But Ahmad said she doesn’t harbor ill feelings from the incident and would never retaliate.
“You don’t want to show them that they are getting to you,” said Ahmad, who is of Palestinian descent. “You kind of have to stay calm. You don’t want to show them the side that they think you are. They think that you’re violent so you kind of have to not be. She thinks that I’m this mean girl that’s going to blow up the plane.
“But I’m just going to be the calm, 22-year-old girl that’s going to smile and look at her like you’re crazy for wanting to move away from me.”
Neda Mohie El-Deen, 28, of Dearborn was stunned Monday afternoon when a middle-aged white man stopped her in the parking lot in the Great Lakes Crossing Outlets in Auburn Hills to verbally accost her.
Invoking the name of Trump and subtly referencing the Orlando shooting, he shouted, “Hey, you, homophobe, you (expletive) terrorist, I can’t wait for Trump to come to power and deport you and your kind.” Her retort: “I looked at him and smiled and gave him a thumbs up and walked to my car. What are you going to say to someone like that?”
El-Deen, who is from Iraq and wears a hijab, said she had never been talked to like that, even after 9/11. But she fears the more Americans attack Muslims, that maybe one person may have enough and turn violent. Her parents taught her to not respond to ignorance.
“But someone who is weak-minded can just wake up and be like, I’m going to be labeled as this anyway, they just could get weak at the moment and just go commit a violent act,” said El-Deen, a law student at Western Michigan University’s Auburn Hills campus.
“So it’s possible that if this (prejudice) continues. But it could happen with any kind of discrimination. It could happen if you continue to kill black teenagers, it could happen if you continue to shout against the gays and be homophobic.”
Mohannad Hakeem, a research engineer at Ford Motor Co. who teaches youth about the Quran at various mosques in the region, said Islamic teaching does not emphasize revenge against people and that “when wronged, don’t respond and try to get retribution.”
“I would tell the parents to be smart and watch their kids’ behavior and not let anyone play them,” he said. “And make sure you learn Islam from a person in front of you, not from a blog, not from a website.”