The public turnout for the projected conversion of an existing closed public school building, slated for demolition, into a private cultural center, school, and mosque was announced by the Planning Commission to be the largest ever in its history. The place was West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, a western suburb of Detroit that is (or was, until the recent crash) the wealthiest community in the U.S. Attendance was about 250 – 275. It was mostly elderly, and many of them were Jewish. There was a good turnout from the local Muslim community. Media turnout was heavy.
The first half of the meeting was about drainage for the site – boring and interminable — it seemed deliberately so. That part of the meeting ended at about 8:15, and most people left, mistakenly thinking that the meeting was over. But it was just a warm-up for the nitty-gritty second half, about usage, building design, and financing.
The head of the purchaser organization, the Islamic Cultural Association (“ICA”), spoke: a gentle, humble physician, whose presentation was powerful, especially as given in his soft and humble style, factually detailed, and well prepared. Nevertheless, there were audience members who could not resist their urge to express hostility in the form of derisive laughter at some of his plainly reasonable and rational answers to questions. His explanation that funding for the anticipated $5 – 6 million project would come from private donations was met with a roar of laughter. Church construction projects are commonly funded this way, but for many, he had just confirmed that the project would be funded by unidentified foreign terrorist groups.
The ICA representative explained that the ICA is a Muslim community of 150 members, that has been an active presence in the prosperous communities of Franklin, West Bloomfield, and Farmington Hills for the past 30 years. He personally has been active in the community for the past 20 years. Most of its members are doctors, like himself. They have always had to rely on the goodness of other Muslim congregations to worship, and they’ve rented YMCA space for special events. They want their own space for prayer, classes, and cultural events, in their community, and have a right to find an appropriate place. Notably, while the Muslim population of Oakland County exceeds the Jewish population by a substantial margin, there are eight synagogues in West Bloomfield Township, alone. In fact, the current voting place for this mosque and school will be a synagogue in the same precinct. This will be West Bloomfield’s first mosque.
For me, the most telling moment followed an impassioned, powerful, and eloquent statement by a man who identified himself as a Jew who lives in West Bloomfield. He vigorously condemned the bigotry of the questions, as a Jew who remembered anti-Semitism firsthand, and emphasized, as we did in our joint statement [see ecumenical statement below], that diversity in the community should be welcomed and celebrated, for the new vigor and richness that it brings to local culture.
What I found so telling is that his remarks were the ONLY remarks that received spontaneous audience applause. This grateful outburst signified to me that, although the overwhelming number of public comments were complaints and whining about small details of the project, a significantly large silent presence there was disgusted by what they were hearing.
Status: No vote was taken. They’re going to spin this out for a while. A “walk through” of the property, for public understanding of the drainage issue (!), will be held in about a month. Note that the prior user of the property, a public school, made no provision at all for drainage, while the new owner has done so. The matter will next be heard at an October 23 commission meeting. By putting off the next discussion until then, the Commission finessed a subject of major controversy in this tempest in a teapot: whether to grant the ICA a temporary occupancy permit before resolution of an appeal in a pending lawsuit that apparently challenges the ICA’s ownership, on the ground that it bought the property under another name. The oral argument in that case is set for Sept. 12th. This temporary occupancy controversy revolves around fears — expressed at one point by one of the Commissioners — that “once we allow them onto the property, we’ll never be able to get them out.”
Indeed, hostile questions were asked by four of the seven commissioners.
Nevertheless, the Commissioners ran a fair and patient hearing, making sure every commentator had access to the mike. They publicly announced — at the outset of the hearing, when the attendance was greatest — that two letters had been received, both in favor of the project: our joint statement and another from the Maurice Sugar Law Center for Social and Economic Justice.
Names of all signatory organizations to our joint statement were slowly read aloud. You could hear a pin drop. The list represents an impressive cross section of the religious community: the Detroit Meeting of Friends (Quakers), Jewish Voice for Peace-Detroit Chapter, Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network, Pax Christi Michigan State Council, [Grosse] Pointes for Peace, and the Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East.