By Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
After growing religious tensions between some Christian missionaries and local Muslims, the annual Arab International Festival in Dearborn has been canceled for this year, organizers said Friday.
The announcement left many disappointed that a small number of aggressive extremists could ruin what had become a tradition in the eastern section of Dearborn, which has a significant number of Arab Americans.
The city and organizers were facing increased insurance and liability costs because of the tensions and lawsuits over the festival. Last month, the City of Dearborn had proposed moving the festival to a park instead of the traditional location on Warren Avenue in order to decrease conflict.
But Fay Baydoun, director of the American-Arab Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that it would have been impossible to organize a successful event in time at the new location. Baydoun said she hopes that next year’s festival will “come back better and stronger.”
The decision to cancel the festival comes after four years of tensions at the event between some Christian missionaries and local Muslims. Their encounters resulted in heated arguments, scuffles, some bottle-throwing and several lawsuits. A federal judge in Detroit last week threw out one of those lawsuits.
Last year, one group of Christian missionaries brought a pig’s head and signs insulting Islam’s prophet, which drew a strong reaction from some children. Earlier this month, the City of Dearborn apologized and paid an undisclosed amount of money to a group of Christian missionaries arrested in 2010 at the festival for disturbing the peace. They were later acquitted.
Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly Jr. did not return a call seeking comment Friday, but in a news release from the chamber, he is quoted as saying of the festival: “We look forward to its continued success promoting business that help drive the city’s economy and that make the community a cultural destination for visitors.”
Local Arab Americans were upset over the cancellation of the festival because the original intent of it was to highlight Arab-American businesses, which helped turn east Dearborn from a ghost town into a thriving commercial destination, said local leaders.
“It’s unfortunate there are groups who are seeking to create problems and incite people in a community where people are trying to build bridges of diversity,” said Suehaila Amen, 34, of Dearborn. “This festival was about creating a family atmosphere during Father’s Day weekend. And yet, there are those who do not wish to see people enjoy their life.”
Many Arab Americans from across the country attend the festival, Amen said.
Dearborn resident Majed Moughni also said he was disappointed in the cancellation, but added that he understands the decision, given the high insurance and logistical costs for what became an increasingly tense event.
“It’s not worth the cost,” he said.
In an attempt to create a more peaceful atmosphere, O’Reilly moved the location of the festival to Ford Woods Park. His plan would have allowed the festival to be in an enclosed area and would have required an admission fee.
But Baydoun said: “With the move to a new location, Ford Woods Park, we needed more time to ensure we provide a quality event that the community has come to expect from us.”
Over the years, the festival has attracted big donors, from Detroit automakers to the CIA.
There was concern that this year’s festival could become even more tense.
Quran-burning Pastor Terry Jones said he was planning to attend the first day along with the California man who brought the pig’s head last year. In 2011, Jones attempted to attend the festival, but was met by angry protesters who tried to block him as he walked. Police then asked him to not attend.
The decision to cancel the festival illustrates some tensions between its Arab-American organizers and Dearborn officials. O’Reilly has been pushing to move the festival for three years, but the Chamber of Commerce resisted because the purpose of the festival was to promote Arab-American businesses along Warren.
Earlier this year, the city indicated it would not be giving permits for the Warren Avenue location and asked the chamber to consider having the festival in the park.
Baydoun said her group respects free speech.
“We have no intention of preventing anyone from freedom of speech,” she said. “We just wanted a family-friendly environment.”
Since she was a teenager, Amen has looked forward to enjoying the festival. It was a time to reconnect with friends and family in a relaxed atmosphere of games and booths that celebrated diversity.
But now, “it’s gotten to the point where people don’t even want to take their children to the festival because they don’t want them to be exposed to these bigoted messages and hateful speech,” Amen said.
Some conservatives say the incidents at the festival happened because the city is under the influence of Shari’a, Islamic law, a claim O’Reilly has repeatedly dismissed as absurd.
Robert Muise, an Ann Arbor attorney who represents the California-based Bible Believers — the Christian group that brought a pig’s head and anti-Islam signs last year to the festival — said the cancellation of the festival was “disappointing.”
“However,” he added, “had the Christians’ rights been protected from the beginning, I doubt we would be at this point.”
Contact Niraj Warikoo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-223-4792