Muslim Woman Leads ACLU Fight for Pastor’s Right to Condemn Islam

Muslim Woman Leads ACLU Fight for Pastor’s Right to Condemn Islam

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DEARBORN, Mich.—When a Quran-burning Florida pastor traveled to Dearborn, Mich., to denounce Islam at North America’s largest Muslim center, he found a fierce defender of his First Amendment rights.

She is a member of the religion that Terry Jones demonizes, and she has lived in Dearborn since her family moved there from Lebanon in 1986 when she was 4 years old.

She is 2003 Chips Quinn scholar Rana Elmir. She spent that summer as an intern with The Californian in Salinas, where she wrote lots of stories about rodeos and gang violence.

Today, Elmir is communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union branch in Detroit. Under normal circumstances, she would have had nothing to do with Jones and his associate, Wayne Sapp, who came to use her town as a soapbox to inflame people against her religion and what they called the threat of “sharia law.”

“I vehemently disagree with him,” Elmir said, but, “this is blatantly unconstitutional” to prevent him from speaking.

She said, “I stand up for his right to express himself because I value my right to express myself. … There’s nothing more empowering for me than to defend the right of someone to express themselves when I so passionately disagree with them.”

In Florida, Jones had held a mock trial of the Quran, or Koran, a book he says he has never read, and declared it guilty. He and Sapp soaked a copy in kerosene and set it on fire. Muslims around the world protested. About a dozen were killed in rioting at a United Nations compound in Afghanistan.

Jones’ next move was to protest in Dearborn at the Islamic Center of America.

A thousand Muslims, Christians and Jews linked arms, prayed and marched to demonstrate their unity and to protest Jones’ planned speech.

One organizer of the interfaith response was Michael Hovey, coordinator of ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit. Hovey said a protest against an imagined threat of sharia law was planned by a Michigan group called the Order of the Dragon. The group backed out after Jones said he would join it and Dragon leaders visited Dearborn and met with local clergy.

Dearborn residents did not, however, plan to stop Jones. Elmir said, “the Muslim community understands the First Amendment and that you counter hate speech with more speech, and not censorship.

“The Muslim community has been saying since this whole thing came up, that he has the right to say this and they are not going to stand in his way, but that they have that right, too.”

Elmir said Jones’ words cannot hurt her. “His speech, as bigoted and wrong as it is, doesn’t make me any less of a Muslim.”

The City of Dearborn, however, used a 19th century law to require Jones to post a $45,000 “peace bond.” He was called to court, ordered to pay the bond and put in front of a jury. It ruled that Jones and Sapp planned to breach the peace and they were handcuffed and jailed on a bond of $1.

They posted the $1 and flew back to Florida, having been tied up in court all day on the Christian Good Friday when they had planned to speak.

“He came for his 15 minutes of fame and our city officials gave him hours,” Elmir said.

Jones and Sapp returned on April 29 and spoke on the steps of Dearborn City Hall.

In his speech, Jones said, “Free speech is only valid when it allows us to say what you do not like, what I do not like … free speech is only good when it allows me to say what makes you mad, what angers you, what you do not like, what you do not agree with.”

Elmir savored the irony that she was a prime defender of Jones’ right to speak. “A woman who is a Muslim from Dearborn is his lead defender from the ACLU,” Elmir said. She said she is not sure he understands that irony.

“There’s no question that I’m at the ACLU for a reason,” said Elmir. “It’s for the First Amendment and it’s why I became a journalist.” When she came into journalism, she said, “I don’t think there was room at the time for what I do now: advocacy and social justice. I deal with systemic problems and solutions. I didn’t want to just count the bodies.”

A lifelong storyteller, she holds tightly to the right to do that. “If the First Amendment means anything, it’s when people with unpopular opinions get to express them,” Elmir said.

“I put a human face on the Bill of Rights.”
Photo: Joe Grimm

Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at since 1996.