"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Dearborn, Michigan. America's Muslim Capital

Did you know that Dearborn, Michigan is home to more Muslims outside the Middle East other than Paris, France? In 2003, Dearborn had 100,000 Americans of Arab descent that represent various nations and persuasions: Arab Christians, “moderate” Muslims, and even some Muslim “extremists.”

Dearborn is divided into three sections. Southfield Freeway separates the city’s Western and Eastern worlds, roughly demarcating three neighborhoods: Southend is mostly populated by Yemenis; East Dearborn is a bustling Lebanese community of Arab restaurants, bakeries, and halal butchers; and West Dearborn’s residential streets remain populated by Italian and Polish immigrants.

Muslims have been a presence in Dearborn since the 19th century, when men from the Lebanese Biqa Valley, working as peddlers and traders, followed a larger number of Lebanese Christian émigrés to the U.S. When Henry Ford began to offer generous five-dollar daily wages for workers at his Highland Park assembly line in 1913, Detroit became the predominant destination for Lebanese immigrants. Immigration accelerated when Lebanon’s economy fell apart in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse at the end of World War I. The restrictive National Origins Act of 1924 reduced Lebanese immigration to a trickle, but over the next twenty years, wives and dependent children, whom the Act still allowed to immigrate, gradually reunited with their husbands and fathers. In 1927, Ford shifted operations to the Rouge River plant in his native Dearborn, and a Muslim neighborhood soon followed.

By the close of World War II, the Dearborn population numbered about 200 families. Most subsequent immigrants–Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi–arrived in Dearborn as political refugees, with only Yemenis coming to Dearborn in this period primarily for economic opportunity (see sidebar). Collectively, the communities in Dearborn represent the second largest concentration of both Arabs and Muslims outside the Middle East, behind only Paris.

So far, the development of Dearborn seems like that of any other American city in which there has been a large influx of immigrants. The development of the mosques tells another story.

East and West in Dearborn Mosques

The evolution of Dearborn mosques reflects the ongoing debate since the late 1960s between conservative and liberal elements of American Muslim society. Conservative movements, including Islamic revivalism, can be traced to Middle Eastern influences such as the Iranian Revolution, which parts of Dearborn embraced when the spiritual guide of Hizbollah, Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah, spoke to an enthusiastic audience of Shi’a refugees in neighboring Southfield’s Bonnie Brook Country Club. More religious than political in appeal, Islamic revivalism tries to stem the tide of integration into non-Islamic American society. Liberal movements descend both from the secular pan-Arabic movement pioneered by former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser–Nasserism–and from American influences such as the Civil Rights Movement. Liberals work to construct a distinct Arab American identity and incorporate it into mainstream American life.

It wouldn’t be hard to imagine what would happen if a Christian pastor or priest made the attempt about which you are to read. In fact, they have, but were evicted by the law and their efforts to change the tone of the congregation was nullified.

Dearborn Mosque–the second mosque ever built in the nation–was gradually raised on Southend’s Dix Road between the 1930s and 1950s. In 1976, it saw the conflict between Americanizing and Arabizing ideologies come to a head when Palestinian-born Hajj Fawzi, leading a group of Yemeni and Palestinian immigrants called the musalee’een, broke into the mosque one Friday when it was closed for prayer and occupied it. Later, they wrested legal control of the mosque, through board elections and litigation, and invited to the imamate a young Yemeni sheikh of the conservative Wahhabist tradition. The new imam banned a women’s group from the mosque when they protested his prohibition of weddings and fundraising events from the mosque’s basement. And he required women who wished to attend the mosque to enter through a side door, don hijab, and keep to certain areas of the mosque.

The sheikh’s tenure was short–he was forced to resign and return to Yemen after molesting a twelve-year old girl–but the Yemeni and conservative takeover of the mosque was complete.
With time it has come to reflect the Yemeni Zaydi sect of Sunni Islam and has become known as the Yemeni Zaydi Dearborn Mosque. Only Arabic has been spoken there in the past twenty years. In the early 1980s, the musalee’een began to broadcast the daily calls to prayer over loudspeakers, to the annoyance of some Southend residents. The city of Dearborn attempted to end the broadcasts but was prevented when the courts ruled that the broadcasts constituted the Muslim equivalent of church bells.

In other words the sheikh’s short tenure was enough to affect a change toward extremisim.

More liberal observers of Islam founded their own places of worship. In the 1960s, the most significant of Dearborn’s–and the nation’s–mosques was founded by the highly educated, English-speaking Lebanese Imam Mohamed Chirri. Invited by a group of Dearborn Muslims to serve as the imam of a new place of worship, Chirri began fundraising for a mosque on Joy Road, several blocks across the Detroit border from East Dearborn. Imam Chirri, having befriended one of Nasser’s acquaintances in Lebanon, raised $44,000 from Nasser himself, $7,000 from Jordan, and sizable amounts from the local community.

Imam Chirri’s support for the Americanization of the Islamic community was so pronounced in the 1950s and ‘60s that the imam often appeared in public wearing a business suit and no turban. At the mosque he founded, the Islamic Center for America, or the Jami’, English and Arabic were used equally, and Sunday services for a time became the principal services of the week, drawing whole families as well as men.

An Attempted Moderating Ideology Is A Failure

Imam Chirri sought to construct the Jami’, as an ideologically broad church, and served well as statesman both in responding to pressures from his more conservative constituencies as well as in casting a favorable public image of his religion in America. He was always grateful to Nasser for financial support, defending him publicly when Nasserism had waned as a popular Arab ideology. Initially distancing himself from the Palestinian cause–early on, he counseled Palestinian activists to resign themselves to the reality of Israeli’s statehood and the need for a two-state solution–as his mosque filled with Lebanese refugees, Chirri became publicly opposed to Israel.

In response to the conservative desires of recent immigrants, some changes have taken place–hijab is now common practice, where it had not been before, and the use of the Center for wedding dances and other communal celebrations, common until the 1960s, has ceased. Some Americanized Muslims in Dearborn feel that the arrival of more conservative immigrants has diverted the earlier project of creating an Islamic community that was at once truly Islamic and American.

Look who has caught a U.S. president’s ear!

Imam Chirri died in 1994 and was succeeded by Imam Sayed Hassan Qazwini. Both attained positions of national prominence as the day’s most visible imam during their tenures; Qazwini occasionally serves as an informal consultant to the White House on American Muslim issues. And on a more local level, Qazwini has undertaken projects of unprecedented scale in the community, including a new $15 million complex near the two college campuses on Ford Road and a Muslim American Youth Academy with 170 day students, from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Chirri’s project to balance the left and right of Dearborn’s Muslim populace did not go uncontested. Rejecting the centrism and Americanization of the Islamic Center, several more conservative mosques were founded in Dearborn in the 1980s. Most recently, the Karbalaa Islamic Educational Center opened in 1993 as a community center for Iraqi Shi’a refugees. The center lies in a 6,000 square-foot hall on Warren Avenue that had earlier housed a nightclub–Club Gay Haven.

A successful outreach and social services program called ACCESS “emerged when a group of young, second generation Arab Americans, influenced by the war in Vietnam and by contact with the Black Panthers,came together to become more politically involved with the local Arab community. Over decades, ACCESS has been expanded to include health care, literacy programs, English lessons, bureaucracy navigation, employment counseling, a newspaper, the Arab American News (or Al-Watan), Arabic-language programming on public-access cable, and a highly active American Arab Chamber of Commerce. Some village communities have formal institutions as “There’s not one Arab organization that the entire Arab American community embraces.”

The School Board Has Been Re-Focused

Starting in February 2001, Dearborn Public Schools began accepting proposals from halal food distributors to provide food to its 28 public schools. Halal foods are those that are ritually acceptable to Muslims. Bob Cipriano, the district’s business manager told the New York Times, “The whole point is to give foods they can eat, so they’re nourished and can function in the classroom.” Eight years earlier, Dearborn schools banned pork from their lunches to accommodate Muslim dietary guidelines.

This is well and good, but what who looks out for non-Muslim students that are forced to submit to NEW accommodations that are being made to a religious group that is being educated at taxpayer expense in a public school? Isn’t this a violation of the separation of church and state? Would a Muslim country make such accommodations for non-Muslim students attending a state-supported school?

The then “white” mayor was criticized for “failing to knit together the growing Arab, the declining Italian American, and other white ethnic communities” as they have no organizations in common-civic, religious, or otherwise.

Is this a racial issue or a religious and ethnic issue? Some Arabs and Lebanese are Caucasian? Perhaps race is an issue because race is a hot-button item that rallies Leftist organizations such as the ACLU to a cause. Of course we all realize that Islam is not a race and that playing the race card is nothing but an attempt to inflame a situation.

White elected officials, with the exception of the school board officials already noted, boast of their “good ties” to the Arab community while complaining off the record of its growing influence within the city. While Dearborn’s white residents brag about how well their city weathered the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Arabs are quicker to remember the broken storefront windows, the threatening 2 a.m. telephone calls, and insulting highway graffiti. They also remember Abed Hammoud’s sudden setback on September 11, the day of Dearborn’s mayoral primary. Arab Americans feared leaving their homes to go to the polls while whites made an abrupt decision to vote for Dearborn’s Italian American candidate.

Many American cities have non-Caucasion mayors, today a non-issue, why then would this be a racial problem in Dearborn?

Yet Hammoud also worries about the inevitable ramifications that will ensue the election of an Arab mayor. Unprepared for this eventuality and without a groundwork of cross-communal understanding, the white community will flee the city to further removed white enclaves–a new brand of white flight for the 21st century. Ideally white society will grow to incorporate the growing Muslim community in their midst, just as most of Dearborn’s Muslims continue to shift focus from their countries of birth towards a distinctly Arab, but very much American, civil society in their new home–an assimilated political stance directed not towards Lebanon but to Dearborn city hall, Lansing, and Washington.

Why would the non-Muslims of Dearborn “flee the city?” Race isn’t the issue, the issue is the forced accommodation to Muslim customs. Earlier in the 20th Century, Muslims attempted to moderate and integrate, but the effort was sabotaged by extremist elements. As Dearborn goes, so goes the Muslim communities in the rest of the United States.

Read the rest.


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