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Owner of new Dearborn coffee shop apologizes for anti-Shia comments

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 6/17/2021 Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press

The owner of a new coffee shop in Dearborn has apologized for past comments he made that some critics said insulted the beliefs and culture of Shiite Muslims. 

Hamzah Nasser, who opened Haraz Coffee House in April on Michigan Avenue, posted an apology on Facebook after he said he faced complaints and violent threats last week over comments about Shiites that he posted three years ago on social media. In the posts, Nasser, who is Sunni, criticized some of the cultural practice of Shias Muslims, according to screenshots made of the posts. 

Shiites, also referred to as Shia Muslims, are a minority group within Islam worldwide, but in Dearborn, they make up a larger percentage of the Muslim population than they do globally.

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"My previous social media posts emerged that demonstrated a lack of sensitivity and ignorance in all respects," Nasser wrote in a post June 10. "They included tweets and statements that I made many years ago, including bigoted commentary against my fellow sisters and brothers in the Shia community. Simply put, they were wrong. The posts and statements were insulting, disrespectful, misogynistic, and absolutely deserving of condemnation. For this, I am wholeheartedly sorry." 

The posts made several years ago by Nasser included negative observations about  some of the unique processions and religious ceremonies of Shiites. He also commented about a depiction of a seventh   century leader revered by Shiites.

Last week, someone had posted to social media Nasser's old tweets on Shiites. That led to a flurry of complaints on Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, with some making threats on social media or in phone calls. Nasser said that one of his employees quit out of fear.

"He was scared because of all the threats we were getting over the phone," Nasser told the Free Press. "People were calling on the phone. They were threatening. We had messages, we filed police reports, showed them the text messages, that were coming into our Instagram: 'We're going to put a bullet in your head,' things like that."

A Dearborn police car arrived at one point to the coffee house after some angry people had arrived, according to a video posted on TikTok.

Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad could not be reached for comment.

The apology and intense debate over the past week involving the coffee house reflects sectarian and ethnic tensions in Dearborn among its Middle Eastern communities during an election year that has led to some polarization, but also calls for unity.

On Sunday, a group of Arab American community leaders and some elected and government officials who are Shiite — including state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn; Dearborn District Judge Sam Salemy; Wayne County Executive Chief of Staff Assad Turfe, and Dearborn City Council President Susan Dabaja — rallied outside the coffee shop in a show of support and unity.  In addition to Lebanese-American Shiites, the Sunday rally included Iraqi-Americans, Palestinian-Americans, and several Yemeni-American leaders, organizers said.

a fire place sitting in front of a brick building: Haraz Coffee House in Dearborn on June 15, 2021. © Rodney Coleman-Robinson, Detroit Free Press Haraz Coffee House in Dearborn on June 15, 2021.

Another issue at play are tensions between some in the Yemeni-American community who have felt excluded at times by Lebanese-Americans in the city. Nasser is of Yemeni descent and his shop sells coffee from Yemen.

The anger directed at the coffee shop is the latest case in recent weeks in metro Detroit involving restaurants being targeted because of the perceived beliefs of the owner. 

While some were satisfied with Nasser's remarks, others in the Shiite community — who make up a sizable percentage of Dearborn's Arab-American population — are still calling for a boycott of his business.

"Those past comments were disappointing for the entire Muslim community," said Khalid Aun, a Dearborn resident who had raised concerns on social media about Nasser's comments. "The business has apologized, but it is up to the Shia community specifically on whether to accept the apology or not."

Speaking to the Free Press Monday, Nasser said that his past comments were part of a general discussion with people he knew and were not hateful. 

His past remarks were "comments on debates that happened years ago between me and my friends who are Shia Muslim," Nasser said.  "We used to have these religious debates ... but we never had hatred for each other."

Nasser said that his Shiite friends and other Shiites  have come to his defense over the past week.

"They were the first ones to come out and defend me that I'm not a person who hates anyone," Nasser said.

He noted that a group of Shiite  business owners recently posted their support for him on Facebook, writing that "we have read our brother's apology letter and we hereby accept his apology."

a store inside of a building: Haraz Coffee House in Dearborn on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. © Rodney Coleman-Robinson, Detroit Free Press Haraz Coffee House in Dearborn on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.

Nasser said that "for somebody to go back five years on my timeline and screenshot a bunch of comments, back and forth with friends ... this guy, whoever he is, or she is, they're just targeting my business. That's all it is." 

It's unclear who first started posting  Nasser's old comments. A video on TikTok featured some of  Nasser's old tweets with a voiceover making threatening remarks that suggested physical harm. Others posted screenshots of Nasser's tweets on Twitter and Instagram. Most who posted them appeared to be young and some had Instagram accounts that were private.

At the Sunday event outside the coffee shop, Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, led the unity rally, according to a livestream of the event by Dearborn Arabic.

"We are here today ... to stand together against extremism and against division," Siblani said. "We are here to say that our businesses are important to us, our community and unity is important to us.

"We can have differences in opinions, but when the discussion becomes so divisive and pulls us apart and drives us apart from each other, then it becomes a destructive discussion and we should stop it immediately."

Siblani told the Free Press the rally "isn’t a show of support for him. It is more a call for unity and forgiveness and most importantly a stand against division and extremism." 

Regarding Sunni and Shiite division in Dearborn, Siblani said  it "isn’t something new. Once in a while you will see it here and there. But it is not widespread."

During the Iraq War, tensions between some in the Shiite  and Sunni communities in metro Detroit erupted in acts of vandalism against Shia centers and businesses, the Free Press reported in 2007. At one point, a group of Shiite and Sunni leaders came together to pledge unity and call for an end to attacks on each other.

In recent years, some tensions have emerged also between the Yemeni and Lebanese communities, who tend to have more political and business influence in the city. For example, the four members of Dearborn City Council who are Arab-American are all of Lebanese descent.

Last year, the Yemeni-American community raised concerns about a beauty salon owner in Dearborn who said she didn't want more Yemeni customers because of their darker skin tones, reported the Dearborn Times-Herald Sunday Times. The owner later apologized.

Some have raised questions whether the posts attacking Nasser were tied to the intense race for mayor in Dearborn. Hammoud held a campaign event on June 7 at the coffee house, before the negative posts about Nasser appeared.

Hammoud and Dabaja did not respond to requests from the Free Press for comment. Nasser said he suspects a business competitor may be behind the posts.

In his apology, Nasser added: "I take full accountability for my past statements and actions, and affirm that they were made by a different man than I am today. However, beyond mere apology, I am prepared — as an individual and as a community member — to use this moment to mend riffs and strengthen ties within our community. ... I hope to earn your trust back over time, as I understand the pain and hurt I've caused."

Contact Niraj Warikoo at nwarikoo@freepress.com or Twitter @nwarikoo.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Owner of new Dearborn coffee shop apologizes for anti-Shia comments

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