STERLING HEIGHTS — While the Sterling Heights planning commission denied a mosque project last year because of technicalities, anti-Muslim protesters celebrated the decision as a triumph.
Bias was also prevalent inside city government, emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed.
Although petitioners for the mosque were known Muslim community leaders, Sterling Heights officials privately questioned if they had ties to terrorism.
On Aug. 19, 2015, two residents sent a joint email titled “Mosque vetted?” to Mayor Michael Taylor and then-City Planner Donald Mende, urging the city to check if the names of participants in the mosque’s development are on the terrorist watch list.
Mende, bewilderingly followed through with the residents’ request by sending an email to then-police Chief Michael Reese with a list of people involved with the mosque project.
The same day, Reese emailed John Berg, the current chief who was a captain then, ordering him to contact the FBI to see if the individuals are connected to terrorism.
“John, can you contact Marc Davis at the FBI and see if this mosk (sic) or Sayed Najah Al-Hussaini and Jaafar Chehab is on their radar,” Reese wrote to Berg.
Muslim activist Asha Noor was furious when she learned the content of the emails.
“Does that happen with a church? Does that happen with a synagogue? Does that happen with Buddhist and Hindu temples?” she said. “That is outrageous. This is clearly an attempt by the city to ensure that Muslims are not given their constitutional right to assemble and to have a place of worship.”
Noor added that the call for “vetting” Muslim Americans is a form of profiling that disenfranchises tax-paying citizens in their own country.
She said the officials’ behavior shows that Sterling Heights is not a welcoming and safe community for Americans of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Noor singled out former Police Chief Reese in her criticism.
“He’s going from the role of a civil servant and protector to the role of an antagonizer, who is putting Muslims’ lives at risk by supporting this line of thinking, by conflating Islam with terrorism,” she said.
Mayor Taylor said he finds no wrongdoing in Mende’s and Reese’s conduct, adding that Sterling Heights was simply addressing residents’ concerns.
Taylor, however, added that he is only responsible and aware of the emails the he sends. The mayor said petitioners who want to build a house of worship in Sterling Heights or anywhere in the United States should not undergo a security check.
“The city is very proactive when it comes to receiving complaints from residents, whether it is a complaint about noise from the neighbors, whether it is a complaint about grass growing too high, whether it’s a complaint about fireworks,” Taylor told The AANews. “In this case, there was a complaint about people building a mosque. I don’t think the police department did anything wrong.”
He added that there is no indication that city officials themselves had a suspicion that the people involved in the mosque project were terrorists.
Mende, who was supposed to be unbiased, was counting the votes before the final argument by the petitioner.
The mosque was denied in a highly publicized hearing on Sept. 10. But eight days earlier, some planning commissioners had already made their votes known to Mende. The city planner emailed City Manager Mark Vanderpool, informing him that at least three members of the committee will deny the mosque.
Asked about the mayor’s comments, Mohammed Abdrabboh, an attorney who is on the legal team of the petitioners, said the emails speak for themselves.
“Rather than speculate, I am looking forward to asking these questions under oath to people who sent and received the emails,” he said.
Abdrabboh said the comparison between residential complaints and religiously biased concerns is invalid.
“You have to have some type of evidence under our criminal justice system in order to investigate somebody,” he said. “Unfortunately in the climate that we’re in, people throw the ‘terrorist’ word around very loosely. It is the ugliest word in the lexicon of the American language today. It tarnishes people’s reputation. It leaves a stain on innocent people that they sometimes can never shake.”
The Sterling Heights mosque controversy stirred tensions and animosity between Arab American Muslims and Chaldeans. At the day of the final zoning commission hearing, Take On Hate protesters, who were advocating for the mosque, reported being spat on and roughed up by Chaldean demonstrators.
Chaldean residents made extreme Islamophobic statements at a city council hearing discussing the project.
“All Muslims who live in America are on food stamps. They are killers,” an elderly Chaldean infamously said in August 2015. This sentiment was echoed by hundreds of Chaldeans who booed imams and chanted against Islam outside the planning commission meeting on Sept. 10.
The emails showed that the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Chaldean community was shared by individuals in leadership positions.
Mayor Taylor had objected to the mosque in the name of protecting the Chaldean community.
“My heart breaks for the Chaldeans in Iraq and throughout the world who are being terrorized by Islamic terrorists,” Taylor wrote on Facebook, early September. “I will do everything in my power to protect, support and defend the Chaldean population in Sterling Heights. I have nothing to do with the mosque and don’t want it built there.”
Taylor later retracted his position, saying that he supports constructing the mosque at any other location in Sterling Heights.
On Sept. 12, 2015, Michael Shallal, an employee for a Department of Homeland Security contractor who had run for state rep., lauded Taylor for his opposition to the mosque.
“I just wanted to congratulate and commend your effort, and sound decision blocking the building of a mosque on 15 mile Rd., which could have affected residents of your city 😉 on many levels,” Shallal wrote in an email to Taylor.
He then went on to say that the Muslim house of worship would have compromised the peace of mind of the Chaldean community.
Shallal sent the message from a Hotmail account. But he signed off on the email in his official capacity as a senior intelligence analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, including his DHS email and office phone number.
The American Muslim Community Center filed a lawsuit against Sterling Heights on Wednesday for rejecting the mosque.