STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. — Arab Christians here are trying to separate themselves from a boisterous Muslim community that has served as a punching bag for “terrorism” stereotypes since Sept. 11.
Many have moved to Detroit’s northern suburbs — Sterling Heights, Madison Heights, Farmington Hills and the Bloomfield areas — to get away from the high concentration of Muslims in Dearborn, said Pastor Haytham Abi Haydar of Arabic Fellowship Alliance Church. Other Christians, he said, have turned their backs on their Arab heritage and integrated with American culture.
But just like Middle Easterners often assume America is a Christian nation, many Americans assume all Arabs are Muslims. That’s made life in a post-9/11 world difficult for a group of people who is proving religion has no borders.
“On many, many, many occasions, if you’re an Arab, you might as well be a Muslim to many people here,” Mr. Abi Haydar said. “Unfortunately, the majority don’t see the dynamic that Christianity came from the Middle East, that Jesus was from the Middle East.”
Mr. Abi Haydar said some Americans know the difference and do not stereotype. “You can’t label all Americans as ignorant,” he said.
Still, there are many pastors and churchgoers who assume that all Arab Christians are converts from Islam, when, in fact, many have been Christians all their lives.
“I’ve seen a lot of Christians in churches here who don’t even know the difference between Arab Christians and Arab Muslims,” Mr. Abi Haydar said. “They think, ‘You’re an Arab. That means you’re a Muslim, or you converted from Islam.”
Many of these problems were brought on by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, when he started drawing attention to the Arab community after he masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Arab Christians hope the tension dies now that he’s dead, so they can move on.
Anti-Christian violence sparks fears of rising Salafi influence
Tensions – sometimes deadly – between Egypt’s Muslim and Christian communities are not a new phenomenon in the world’s largest Arab nation. But Saturday’s clashes between the two communities following the burning of two churches in Cairo’s Imbaba neighbourhood, have raised fears of the growing role of fundamentalist Salafi Muslims in Egypt.
An ultraconservative strain of Islam, Salafism is a salafist theology whose followers believe in emulating the first three generations of Muslims, theoretically rejecting any innovations.
While Salafism does not explicitly advocate violence, experts believe their extreme interpretation of Islam creates an environment where adherents are susceptible to radical ideology, making it “a bridge to extremism”.
A fringe group in Egypt, the Salafis - unlike the Muslim Brotherhood – do not have an organized structure.
From Qena to Cairo, Salafis grab the spotlight
Following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak - whose secular regime kept a repressive lid on Islamists of all stripes - Salafis have gained visibility in recent months.
On Saturday, they were at the helm of an angry crowd that surrounded Imbaba’s St. Mina church, claiming that a woman forcibly converted to Christianity was being held there.
The Imbaba clashes, which killed at least 11 people, came a day after a group of Salafis gathered in Cairo to protest the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The Salafis – along with the Muslim Brotherhood – are also believed to be responsible for last month’s protests in the southern city of Qena that led to the suspension of a newly appointed Coptic Christian governor.