Future for Muslims remains uncertain
The Sterling Heights City Council last week reached a settlement with the American Islamic Community Center and the U.S. Department of Justice. Nevertheless, the implications of this case and the future of other cases are more jarring now than on the day the suit was filed in August 2016. If the political climate we are in is the barometer, for many this case may be the end of federal government intervention to protect civil rights in America as we know it.
In one of the most egregious violations of the federal law that prevents religious discrimination in land use cases, the city of Sterling Heights denied the community center a permit to build a mosque on land owned by a congregation member. The Department of Justice joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, indicating that, if necessary, the community center would have had the weight of the federal government behind it should litigation continue. With nearly 18 months since the public outcry and unapologetic discrimination toward Muslims displayed by the Sterling Heights Planning Commission, we are grateful that American Muslims in Sterling Heights will be ensured the same freedom to worship as their fellow residents.
But beyond the denial of the permit, the rhetoric that came from both city officials and too many Sterling Heights residents remains disturbing and disheartening. Some residents spewed vitriol against Muslims at city planning meetings and protests, and a planning commissioner did the same on a social media post. This vitriol that has been echoed on the national scale throughout the 2016 presidential campaign trail, and most recently by President Donald Trump’s administration.
The Sterling Heights case is nearly over, but its far-reaching implications have Metro Detroit and our nation on edge. We can reasonably surmise that the announced consent judgment would not have been the result in a Jeff Sessions’ led Department of Justice. Many residents opposing the mosque cited the need to postpone the vote to wait for Sessions’ nomination as attorney general to be approved. DOJ intervention is fact specific and, more importantly, policy driven.
Executive orders signed by President Trump banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entry into the United States, and the nomination of Sessions, who was previously rejected for federal judgeship amid charges of racism, has put the civil rights that so many have lived and died to protect, at substantial risk.
We live in one of the most culturally and religiously diverse metropolitan areas in the country, yet we remain among the most segregated. We should all remember how fortunate we are that we live in the most open and diverse nation in the world — once a haven for those seeking refuge from war, famine and poverty — yet our public rhetoric and not just that of Trump is becoming increasingly isolationist and hostile to those deemed “Other.”
Indeed it is the xenophobia that drove the city of Sterling Heights to violate federal law by denying its residents the right to worship freely is the precise sentiment that has propelled Trump into the highest office in the land.
Perhaps our metro area is a microcosm for our nation. If that’s the case, I have hope that the nation’s trajectory will parallel Detroit’s revival rather than Sterling Heights’ regression.
Fatina Abdrabboh is executive director of the American Muslim and Minority Advocacy League.