By Rafael Narbaez, Jr.
Disputes or differences between members of the board of directors of a mosque or even among different groups within the community is not something new. Having done fundraising for dozens of mosques throughout the country, this was always a sad reality that I encountered when visiting Muslim communities.
Recently, I came to find out about such a distressful situation occurring (once again) at the Islamic Center of America on Ford Road in Dearborn. However, this standoff is different from previous encounters.
Usually, disputes in mosques are nationalistic in nature. A group from a certain Arab country make up the majority if not all the board of directors. A group from another Arabic or other national group doesn’t like the way the board is running things. They, too, would like to “serve” on the board. Tensions build and communication breaks down. Sometimes the second group will show up at the monthly board meeting uninvited and tempers flare. On occasion police have been called in to quell the situation.
These kind of scenarios are a sad commentary about Islam in America. If there is something positive that can be said about these matters in the mosque is that they are hardly ever a Sunni against Shi’a confrontation. Most of the time it’s Shi’a against Shi’a or Sunni against Sunni.
In the recent disagreement at ICA, a youth group in the community took exception to a yearly event held at the ICA for the past 11 years. The event features military officers from all over the world who are selected by the United States Department of Defense and come to America to study military strategies at the National Defense University (NDU) at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington D.C. This is the university where military personnel from the United States go to study war and military strategies.
Later, the Defense Department opened this university to include a class for military officers from other countries. The goal was for these officers to visit America and immerse themselves in the diversity of our country’s culture, including our freedom of religion. This ensures that NDU students are exposed to an exceptionally wide range of perspectives and fosters personal relationships and peer networks, which continue to serve NDU alumni throughout their careers.
Since religious strife is such a problem in some countries, the United States Defense Department also wanted the student officers to see how, in a free democracy like the U.S., religious differences are absolutely tolerated and cooperation between religious groups is encouraged, as in inter-faith movements in our country.
Where better to show this off than in Dearborn, where Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities peacefully coexist? And where better to show this peaceful coexistence between these Abrahamic faiths than at the Islamic Center of America? Considered the largest mosque in America, it is regularly featured throughout the U.S. and in many parts of the world as a beacon for religious tolerance. The Islamic Center of America was selected by the Defense Department as a must see for this group of military officers. The ICA agreed to host a morning breakfast, which included a benediction or prayer from a religious leader from all three monotheistic religions.
The problem that occurred recently at the ICA is that Israeli military officers were among those who participated in the annual brunch. Given the Apartheid policies of Israel against the Palestinian people, the youth and other members of the community objected vehemently to receiving Israeli military officers in the mosque.
A group of young Muslims decided to express their disparagement with the ICA for hosting this event by speaking out at an organized rally held in the prayer area of the mosque. The protestors recorded the event on their smart phones and shared it on social media.
I believe all communities of faith have issues and disputes; Muslims are no different. What is happening between the board, the youth and the community should have stayed between them and not been circulated on social media. I used to attend religious services at the ICA and have many friends there and have a fraternal affection for many of the brothers and sisters of the ICA; some have passed on and others are still there. These young brothers were probably 8 to 12-years-old when I went there. I moved to another town, but I try to stay up with what’s going on at the ICA. Although I have a lot of affection for the ICA, what they are going through, this is none of my business and that’s okay.
What I do consider my business and is the reason I am writing this op-ed is to stand up for my best friend and a good Muslim who was caught up in all of this. Eide Alawan is the interfaith director at the ICA. He has nurtured and facilitated a program where every week several groups of civic or religious groups from every religion come to the ICA to learn about Islam.
Some have Muslim friends or neighbors, but never been inside a mosque. Others have never met a Muslim. Many groups travel from different states to visit the ICA.
They spend a couple of hours at the most at the mosque. Eide explains a little of the proud history of Islam and the ICA community. People ask questions about the building, the minarets, calligraphy, why there are no chairs in the sanctuary, why we sit on the floor, Ramadan, fasting, hijab, Sunni-Shi’a differences; everything. Eide answers them all to the best of his ability. Except for Najah Bazzy, who used to field some of the questions, Eide handled it all by himself; week in and week out.
Eleven years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense approached Eide Alawan, due to his interfaith work, and asked if the ICA would host the officers for breakfast. Eide consulted with the ICA board and got their approval. In his initial meeting with the board about this matter, Eide told the ICA board members that there would be Israeli officers attending that breakfast. He mentioned this fact again the second or third year. To everyone’s knowledge, there was no objection.
I think the youth know that and don’t really hold Eide culpable in their sentiments about what has transpired for 11 years. My concern, however, is their desire to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Furthermore, to my knowledge, during those 11 years no groups or individuals approached the board to discuss this valid concern of theirs. Instead, they recently went into light-speed mode and begin making demands of the board. One of those demands was that their brother who had served Islam so well for so many years, Eide Alawan, resign. This was not a suggestion, a point of discussion— it was a demand.
Eide Alawan has developed the best program of dialogue between the three Abrahamic religions in the country. No other mosque, Sunni or Shi’a, that I know of, even gets close to what he has done at the Islamic Center of America. No church or synagogue has this kind of program. The Islamic Center of America is the crown jewel of peaceful open discussions between people of faith in the country, ever.
And all without pay, spending countless hours, after his full-time job, until 1:00-2:00 in the morning, sometimes, and all as a volunteer. He said to me once that he does it for the love of the community, the people who started in humble beginnings at Dix Mosque, before meeting in an old bank building, later taking the big jump to actually build their own mosque at Greenfield and Joy Roads. You will not find a humbler, loving and dedicated brother serving the Muslim community like Eide Alawan.
My concern with what is going on at the ICA right now is not that these young brothers want change, reform or new ideas. My concern is the way they are going about trying to bring change and especially when it comes to their demands and accusative demeanor. No chivalry, no humility; just in your face, Jack!
At the same time, I know they are young; they lack maturity. They probably see things differently and want a change or a better way of doing things for the good of the community; and that’s good. But you don’t make wild accusations or tarnish someone’s character or good name to make that change NOW— with no discussion or interaction. Step back and take a deep breath, young brothers.
I would kindly ask that you drop your demand for the resignation of the interfaith director of the ICA, Hajj Eide Alawan. Continue to seek improvements to the ICA by sitting down with the board. Continue to express your desire for change, give your suggestions and positively engage. But don’t close the door on the best outreach program in the country along with the brother who got it there.
We ask Allah’s mercy and forgiveness when we make mistakes and then His guidance to correct them for the benefit of all the community. Say Ameen!
Rafael Narbaez, Jr., a Muslim activist, works for a local human services agency