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Dearborn: Where Americans Come to Hate Muslims

26 September 2012 General 6 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

In April 2011, pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran in Gainesville, Florida, sparking deadly clashes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One year later, he burned a Koran again, and no one paid any attention. That same month he came to Dearborn, Michigan, to protest in front of the Islamic Center of America, the nation’s largest mosque. “Islam has one goal,” Jones told the small crowd, and a much larger group of counter-demonstrators and police, according to theDetroit Free Press. “That is world domination.”

The defiant evangelists held signs reading “I will not submit” in English and Arabic. The mosque, which encouraged its members to avoid the rally, beamed back a message on its electronic billboard: “Happy Easter.” For Jones, this was a return trip to Dearborn, the heart of the country’s most Arab-American metropolis.

“When [Jones first] came, they came up and recited the pledge of allegiance in front of City Hall,” says Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly, Jr., a talkative and dough-faced Irish-American Democrat. He’s still incredulous. “Like no one had ever heard it before.”

Dearborn’s efforts to keep Jones away from the Islamic Center—he was at one point even preemptively arrested for failing to post something prosecutors called a “peace bond”—were earnest but likely unconstitutional. They were blocked in court. Plus, the man is truly relentless. Earlier this month, Jones helped distribute the now-infamous film mocking the Prophet Muhammed that prompted violent protests across the Middle East.

“The first visits by Mr. Jones were very costly,” says O’Reilly, who engaged me on metropolitan transportation policy, local 19th-century farming practices, and Henry Ford’s enormous Rouge auto plant before we arrived at the scheduled topic: people who dislike his city’s large Arab-American population. “Our county prosecutor used a law,” he concedes, “that perhaps stretched the intent to try to stop him.”

Dearborn, a city of 97,000 surrounded on three sides by Detroit, is a must-visit location on 21st-century America’s newly established anti-Muslim protest circuit. The entire city, right-wing critics erroneously claim, is subject to Sharia law. And they warn that the rest of America might soon be, too.

In June, Christian protesters made yet another appearance at the Arab International Festival. Signs threatened Muslims with a “LAKE OF FIRE.” The street fair, which includes standard items like a booth where someone guesses your weight in exchange for a dollar, soon descended into chaos. It was all documented for YouTube: angry young people surrounded the crowd of evangelists, who promptly announced that they were being “stoned” as an avalanche of profanity rained down alongside water bottles and a variety of objects that weren’t nailed down. Aside from one brief chant of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), the incident elicited largely secular profanities, including blunt and colloquial entreaties for oral sex. Other cries were more plaintive: “What are you doing here? What is the point of all this?” Amid the chaos, someone, perhaps accidentally, turned the debate over foreignness and belonging on its head, yelling: “Go home! Do you understand English?”

Islamic law is a rather hard-to-fathom reality here. Whatever sensibility has allowed for the un-protested construction of minarets in Dearborn also permits a notable degree of All-American licentiousness. The city’s main drag, Michigan Avenue, is lined with roadside temples to the commercialization of iniquitous flesh. And without an angry protester in sight. The neon signage on the enormous buildings housing the Pantheon Club and BT’s Executive Club are among the city’s most conspicuous landmarks. “If Dearborn practiced Sharia law,” O’Reilly wrote in a frustrated but playful open letter to Jones, “would we have three adult entertainment bars and more alcohol-licensed bars and restaurants per capita than most other cities?”

A street in Dearborn. Photo by Zoe Strauss

Then there’s the matter of the Dearborn Sausage Company, churning out its famous pork products across the street from a Southend mosque. Still, the idea that Muslims are imposing Sharia law here has become a staple in today’s conservative movement, and in the Republican Party as a whole. It’s not just strippers and sausage, they contend, but our very country that is at stake. Recall that in New York City, that supposed hotbed of cosmopolitan liberal tolerance, hundreds rallied against the construction of a mosque and Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan. Though it was modeled on Jewish Community Centers, detractors labelled it the “Ground Zero Mosque.” A debate contrived on right-wing blogs quickly became a front-page news story. Newt Gingrich joined a stampede of Republican politicians to announce his opposition.

“There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” he said, in what was either an associative non-sequitur or a suggestion that we emulate the Salafi monarchy. The proposed mosque, he said, constituted a “demand [for] our weakness and submission.”

Such pronouncements are an increasingly familiar part of what passes for mainstream political discussion in the United States. Protests against mosque construction have sprung up from Tennessee to California, and the number of Americans who believe that Muslims are intent on establishing Sharia law is growing. Former Congressman and anti-immigrant leader Tom Tancredo has occasionally proposed bombing the holy city of Mecca to demonstrate American resolve. U.S. Representative and House Homeland Security Committee chair Peter King last year held hearings on the “radicalization” of American Muslims. “Despite what passes for conventional wisdom in certain circles,” King somewhat defensively assured the assembled crowd, “there is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings.”

Michele Bachmann—who, like other Republicans, has accused President Barack Obama of going on an “apology tour” across Muslim-majority countries—warns that American judges have “usurp[ed], and put Sharia law over the Constitution.” It was only when Bachmann suggested that an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that she managed to arouse bipartisan condemnation.

A drive-in theater in Dearborn. Photo by Zoe Strauss

A drive-in theater in Dearborn. Photo by Zoe Strauss

Here in metro Detroit, the animus toward Arab-Americans has been far less pronounced. In 2004, longtime residents complained when a mosque asked to broadcast the call to prayer across the small city of Hamtramck, a once-largely Polish community surrounded Vatican City-like by Detroit that has in recent decades drawn large numbers of Bangladeshi, Bosnian and Yemeni immigrants. But Detroit’s much-publicized urban farms and a few stretches of hip new cafes notwithstanding, it is immigrants from the Middle East and Mexico who have revitalized portions of an otherwise severely distressed and deindustrialized metropolis. While many clamor for a walled-off Fortress America, Detroit’s acres of abandoned, burnt-down and demolished homes welcome anyone willing to mow their lawn and pay taxes.

Debbie Schlussel, a right-wing blogger who lives in the nearby suburb of Southfield, is one exception to the local equanimity. “You will not find one mosque in this area that is not extremist,” she tells me over kosher hamburgers. “They all are. You won’t find a mosque here where the imam will denounce Hizbollah or Hamas or homicide bombings against innocent people in Israel.”

Schlussel might seem extreme. After a right-wing terrorist went on a murderous rampage at a Norwegian summer camp in July, she charged that the campers supported Hamas. The Southern Poverty Law Center called her blog post on the subject “among the most coldly savage Internet postings of all time.” Her post after Osama Bin Laden was killed, in which she wrote, “One down, 1.8 billion to go,” might be a close second. But the political upheaval in the years since Obama’s 2008 election have proven extremity to be a matter of relative degree. Schlussel has thus cast herself into the center of a national debate. And so, reluctantly, has Dearborn.

•       •       •       •       •

The Debbie Schlussel famous for hating Muslims on the internet was, like most of her colleagues in the burgeoning anti-Muslim movement, a fairly marginal entity until recent years. A two-time candidate for the Michigan state legislature, Schlussel read articles from the Wall Street Journal and Commentary during childhood Sabbaths. In 1987, she was named “Outstanding Teenage Republican in the Nation.” “I have a picture of her next to Ronald Reagan,” gushed National Teenage Republicans director Barby Wells, thrilled when I called to ask about Schlussel. “She was so cute.” Today, the SPLC calls her one of ten members of the “The Anti-Muslim Inner Circle.”

Schlussel’s passage from suburban lawyer to an expert on “radical Islam/Islamic terrorism” who “works closely with several Federal law enforcement agencies, consulting on fighting the domestic War on Terrorism” was shaped in part by family history and geo-political conflict. But it has been fostered perhaps more than anything by her belief in Debbie Schlussel. She is the protagonist of the political drama that unfolds on her blog, from anti-Semitic professors she says persecuted her in college to the in-box full of death threats she claims to receive every day.

Stores in Dearborn sell hookahs, hijabs, and accounting services. Photo by Zoe Strauss

Stores in Dearborn sell hookahs, hijabs, and accounting services. Photo by Zoe Strauss

The role she’s invented for herself is an expert reporting from behind enemy lines near a city she calls “Dearbornistan.” Schlussel began her study of Islam in 1998, when she made an undercover visit to the Islamic Center of America. Louis Farakhan, she says, preached for “jihad against all of America’s Jews and Christians,” and she wrote up the account for the Detroit News. Her blog, which started up full-time operation in 2005, is today dedicated to telling the world that Dearborn is under Sharia law, and houses a legion of Hizzbollah and Hamas sympathizers, along with terrorist cells. All primed to blow up Americans.

“I understood what my grandparents must have felt like at the beginnings of the Holocaust because I felt like I was at a Hitler Nazi rally,” she told me. “After I did that, I started going more undercover to more of their events and writing more about it. And then 9/11 happened and people started paying attention to these things.”

Nine-eleven. But for all the bold-faced language, Schlussel’s footnotes are rather prosaic. The University of Michigan, she frequently points out, “spent taxpayer money to build Muslim foot baths.” Worse yet? “In one case,” she tells me, “they got rid of a disabled bathroom.” She describes her alma mater as “Muslim-occupied territory.”

“Walmart” is another count on her indictment, because it “has agreed with the Muslim merchants that they will not charge a cheaper price on pita bread and certain other things.” The agreement, made after local store owners protested their “Always Low Prices,” seems unrelated to an effort to install a global caliphate. But Walmart, bête noire to the left and entrepreneurial hero to the right, was cut no slack: “Welcome to Islamofascist, Price-Fixing Walmart,” she wrote.

“We are changing [from] a country where there is a very distinct separation between church and state, to a country where that distinction remains but there is no distinction between mosque and state,” Schlussel says. What might seem like small matters take on gigantic proportions on Schlussel’s blog, where she directs a relentless and energetic focus on the Detroit metro area. Like a child staring at a Magic Eye book, patterns begin to emerge: today’s Muslims are yesterday’s Nazis, the people who slaughtered her family in Europe. Schlussel’s grandfather fled Poland in the 1900s to immigrate to Detroit, and the rest of the family perished. The kosher butcher he opened eventually grew into the major wholesale company Morris Kosher Poultry.

“My grandfather drove out all of his competitors,” she boasts. “He really made something of himself coming here, which is not bad for a guy who came here when there was no bilingual education. They didn’t speak English when they came here. And there wasn’t all of these welfare and entitlement programs to help them.”

•       •       •       •       •

Ismael Ahmed is one of the many local Arab-Americans who Debbie Schlussel calls an “Islamofascist.”

Most everyone else, however, knows Ahmed as a former executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and an associate provost at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He hosts a world music show, This Island Earth, on public radio station WDET each Saturday. When I tuned in this May, he was spinning the legendary Michigan punk rock band MC-5.

Clockwise from top: Executive Director Dawud Walid on radio station WNZK 690/680 AM in Southfield. Laila Alhusinni, a Syrian-American journalist who hosts Radio Baladi and Good Morning Michigan. A bulletin board at the Michigan Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Photos by Zoe Strauss

“I really think of this earth as an island, populated by all kinds of people,” he tells me, in his consistently jolly and bemused demeanor. “And in it together, whether they like it or not. The idea of an island is kind of copacetic. But I’m also a science fiction fan,” he says, referencing the 1950s book and film. “I love it when the spaceship is leaving earth and looking back… there are scientists of all colors and races working” and “you realize they’re [from] the same planet.”

Ahmed’s parents were “salt-of-the-earth working people,” raising him in Dearborn’s Southend. “Pretty basic factory worker and housewife.”

“I still remember my father telling me, ‘you got a job at the Rouge plant and you’re fixed for life.'” Ahmed did follow his father to Rouge after leaving the Army. But his family was far from typical. His grandmother, Aliya Hassan, was born in Kadoka, South Dakota, in 1910 and moved to Detroit after being sent off to an arranged marriage with an autoworker. Hassan, a Muslim and an ardent feminist, would be married and divorced a few times. She moved to New York and became a colonel in the civil defense, and later worked as a private detective. Hassan became an activist, organizing Egyptian seaman into the Seafarers International Union and leading a demonstration in front of the United Nations in support of Egyptian nationalism.

By the 1960s, Hassan served as a key intermediary between the Middle East and the growing number of African-American Muslims, leading a delegation to meet Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. She was a close confidante of Malcom X, helping to organize his pilgrimage to Mecca. She once hid him from assassins and later, says Ahmed, washed his body after he was shot dead. Moving to Dearborn, she became ACCESS’ first director.

“She made ACCESS what it was,” Ahmed tells me. “Open to women, and women’s leadership in particular.” Hassan schooled young activists like Ahmed in the nuts-and-bolts of organizing the Arab community, and building alliances across a sprawling and segregated metropolis with a gaping deindustrialized wound at its center. After leaving ACCESS, Ismael Ahmed went on to serve as director of the Michigan Department of Human Services under Governor Jennifer Granholm, and is now vice chair of the state Democratic Party.

A woman mows her lawn in Detroit. Photo by Zoe Strauss

A woman mows her lawn in Detroit. Photo by Zoe Strauss

“Al-Qaeda uses rap music, hip-hop, and punk to recruit members,” retorts Schlussel, who led a smear campaign that some credit for denying Ahmed a post as an elected University of Michigan trustee. We’re still eating kosher hamburgers. “Does that make them moderate? Just because you embrace American culture doesn’t mean you’re not an extremist.”

The same goes for the Michigan Arab Orchestra, who I had just seen play to a packed house at the Detroit Academy of Music. “The Nazis,” she tells me, “had an orchestra.”

Local Jewish leaders, including Senator Carl Levin and Representative Sander Levin, have denounced Schlussel’s attacks on Ahmed. But Schlussel characterizes the liberal Jewish majority as radical Islam’s greatest enabler. “They’re liberals first and Jewish maybe one-percent of the time,” she tells me. “Look at the Jews who left Egypt and left slavery. That’s only 20 percent. Eighty percent of the Jews remained slaves in Egypt during the Biblical times….Just because the majority—you know, the majority of people in America at one time supported slavery, and treating blacks as three-fifths of a human. That doesn’t mean they’re right.” American Jews are in danger, Schlussel warns, like “the Jews of Germany in 1930. They felt the same way. And they were even more assimilated than the Jews here today.”

Counterintuitively, the most normal, upstanding or boring Muslim behavior are the signs of greatest threat in Schlussel’s world. A Muslim doctrine of dissimulation known as “taqiyya,”she says, permits adherents to lie. Mayor O’Reilly calls this way of thinking a “Pinky and the Brain” theory of American Islam, citing the 1990s cartoon mouse duo.

“Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”

“The same thing we do every night, Pinky – try to take over the world!”

•       •       •       •       •

When O’Reilly was a child, his Dearborn neighborhood was “so multicultural. Italians, Polish, Southerners,” he says. “I’m going to a place where I know someone from my town, from my village. That’s migration patterns everywhere.”

The largely Christian early Arab immigrants, including many merchants and peddlers, first arrived in Detroit in the 1880s, laying the base of family ties, churches, bakeries, cafes and Arabic-language institutions that would welcome future immigrants. In the early 20th century, large numbers of Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians joined the global proletarian tide sweeping into the area’s auto plants. The St. Maron Maronite Church was built by Lebanese Catholics on Detroit’s East Side in 1916, and the area’s first mosque opened in 1921 in the city of Highland Park, where Henry Ford first introduced the moving assembly line into automobile production.

“It is the sacred and religious duty of every Mohammedan here to be a good citizen of America and to learn the language of the country, without which we cannot understand each other rightly,” Dr. Mufti Mohammad Sadiq, the first imam of the area’s first mosque, told the Detroit News in 1921.

When Henry Ford moved production to Dearborn’s vast Rouge plant, Muslim workers followed—though the Arab-American population was still largely Christian. The city’s American Moslem Society, founded in 1938, is now the area’s oldest continuously operating mosque. Chaldeans, Iraqi Catholics who often do not identify as Arabs, joined a tide of more well-to-do immigrants after World War II. After 1970, Muslim immigrants arrived from Iraq and Yemen, alongside many Lebanese fleeing that country’s bloody civil war. The Gulf and Iraq wars have dispatched a new wave. The immigrants have found opportunities in a changing and troubled local economy, excelling in the sort of small business entrepreneurship that Jewish immigrants, and earlier Arabs, had skillfully managed a generation before. In Detroit, Chaldeans run most supermarkets and liquor stores, in part because they were tasked with handling alcohol in Muslim-majority Iraq. Lebanese own many gas stations.

“Arab Americans ended up here as soon as they opened the Model T plant,” says Ahmed. “It was every type of immigrant you can think of—except African-Americans.”

The absence of black residents in Dearborn is in some great part due to former Mayor Orville Hubbard, whose likeness graces a statue on the busy stretch of Michigan Avenue in front of City Hall. The statue appears to be a life-size replica. In the case of Hubbard, life-size seems diminutive. This man was an enormity, both physically and politically. A fat man, he weighed himself on an enormous scale outside his office. More notably, he railed against blacks and other minorities and became one of the North’s most prominent bigots.

“Housing the Negroes is Detroit’s problem,” he once said. “When you remove garbage from your backyard, you don’t dump it in your neighbor’s.”

Metro Detroit is profoundly segregated. When Jim Crow-style mechanisms failed, whites retreated to the suburbs, taking advantage of government-subsidized roads and mortgages. No suburb insisted on its whiteness so brazenly as Dearborn, a city where few of the many blacks who labored in Ford’s Rouge plant could buy a home.

“I’m not a racist,” Hubbard once protested, “but I just hate those black bastards.”

A street in Dearborn's Southend. Photo by Zoe Strauss

A street in Dearborn’s Southend. Photo by Zoe Strauss

The reputation outlasted Hubbard’s 36-year reign, which ended in 1978. In 1986, the NAACP launched a boycott of Dearborn stores to protest a racially charged proposal that would have barred nonresidents from city parks. The 1980 census recorded just 83 black people living in town. But the view from Dearborn City Hall has since changed dramatically. Today, the Smithsonian-affiliated Arab-American National Museum sits directly across the street. Spanish-speaking voices emanate from a nearby Lebanese restaurant’s kitchen.

An icon of bigotry in one of America’s most segregated regions has become, somehow, a beacon for diversity. “We’re the most racially polarized metro area in the country simply because people began to market themselves as fiefdoms,” says Mayor O’Reilly. “We’re not like them.” Still, the mayor is careful with Hubbard. “He was a showman. He was a PT Barnum,” he says. “That Keep Dearborn Clean” slogan, he concedes, “didn’t start out about race, but it certainly became that.”

“The people of Dearborn didn’t universally buy that stuff. They liked the services. They liked the community.”

Perhaps Dearborn accepts its Arab-American population because they have kept Dearborn clean—and relatively prosperous. Immigrants have restored it to what it looked like when O’Reilly was a kid. Retailers pack city streets and most homes are occupied. “Now with the Arab-American community here, Warren Avenue is back with these owner-operated shops,” the Mayor tells me. “I go there all the time. I love it.”

“The east side Warren Avenue was 80-percent vacancy and now it’s 100 percent occupancy,” says current ACCESS executive director Hassan Jaber. Jaber came to the U.S. from Lebanon during the civil war, though his grandfather lived in Michigan City, Indiana, throughout his childhood, working for Ford. “The city has seen the benefit of being a welcoming city.”

“We got used to this,” says O’Reilly. “It became a non-factor and a non-issue.”

•       •       •       •       •

When Barack Obama visited Detroit in June 2008, rumors circulated online, including through a viral chain e-mail: Obama had attended a madrassa during his childhood years in Indonesia. Obama, maybe, is something other than what he seemed. A Manchurian candidate. A secret Muslim.

Polls showed that 10 percent of Americans believed Obama was a Muslim, and the candidate went to great lengths to assure voters that he was not (which, of course, is true). He snubbed Representative Keith Ellison, one of only two Muslims in Congress, and he had not campaigned at a single mosque. And though the campaign later apologized, it was a big deal for many here when Obama campaign volunteers told two Muslim women in hijab that they could not stand behind the candidate during a speech at the Joe Louis Arena.

An auto shop in Dearborn and a billboard advertising Miss Lebanon Emigrants USA beauty pageant. After winning the title in 2008, Rima Fakih went on to become what is believed to be the first Arab and Muslim to win the Miss USA title in 2010. Photo by Zoe Strauss

An auto shop in Dearborn and a billboard advertising Miss Lebanon Emigrants USA beauty pageant. After winning the title in 2008, Rima Fakih went on to become what is believed to be the first Arab and Muslim to win the Miss USA title in 2010. Photo by Zoe Strauss

Obama’s too strenuous denials of being a Muslim implied that there might be something wrong with being a Muslim. His campaign reflexively characterized the charge as a “smear.” And so as America’s hopes and fears poured into voting booths that November, America’s Muslims became the targets of increasingly paranoid scrutiny. “It’s a community that’s been under siege,” says Jaber, in his quiet voice. “It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.”

Anti-Muslim sentiment is, of course, not new. In the wake of September 11, anti-Muslim sentiment mixed freely with red-white-and-blue bunting and calls for military action. After the attacks, the U.S. government used the pretext of immigration violations to round up 1,200 largely Muslim non-citizens and detain them for months without charge.

But what’s most alarming, and at first blush confusing, is that anti-Muslim rhetoric has skyrocketed since 2008. Arsons and bombings have targeted mosques, and recorded hate crimes against Muslims increased by 50 percent in 2010, the most recent year for which FBI data is available. Surveillance by federal and local law enforcement has reached scandalous proportions, including a vast NYPD spy operation that tragicomically extended to a group of college students’ whitewater-rafting trip. This was uncovered by the Associated Press in aPulitzer Prize-winning 2011 investigation.

George W. Bush may have violated civil liberties and invaded two Muslim-majority countries. But he also, in his most empathetic Texan drawl, spoke about the need for tolerance. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” the president told his hosts at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. six days after the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, and less a month before the U.S. and Britain began the first bombing runs over Afghanistan. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”

Paradoxically, a president leading what many considered to be a modern day Crusade may have held the far-right in check. This is something that Obama has been unwilling and unable to do. In fact, Obama’s presidency has become the organizing principal for a brand new form of hate. The number of Americans who think Obama is a Muslim has increased since his election, reaching a high of an astonishing 17 percent. At times, polls have shown as many as 46 percent of Republicans to think so. One 2011 survey found that nearly half of all Americans believed that Islam is incompatible with our country’s values.

In 2010, Obama called off a planned visit to the Sikh Golden Temple on a trip to India, allegedly because of concerns that he would have to cover his head with a cloth to enter. Such a photo could be Exhibit A for his most zealous prosecutors. “What’s missing in the Obama Administration is the courage to even make statements made by the Bush Administration,” says Hassan.

•       •       •       •       •

When Mayor O’Reilly’s grandfather arrived in Detroit, immigrant workers crowded into the small homes on Dearborn’s Southend, across the municipal line from Southwest Detroit. “The Southend of Dearborn is the port of entry,” says O’Reilly. “And Southwest Detroit. They are the ports of entry for each new group of immigrants.” Today, a large portion of Southwest Detroit is known as Mexicantown [which I reported on for an earlier story], and the Southend is largely populated by working class Yemenis.

A building in Ford's giant Rouge complex in Dearborn. Photo by Zoe Strauss

A building in Ford’s giant Rouge complex in Dearborn. Photo by Zoe Strauss

The sprawling headquarters of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) is here too, in the shadow of Ford’s iconic Rouge factory, which, along with rail road tracks and a freeway, separates the neighborhood from the rest of Dearborn. It was founded here in 1971, when the neighborhood was largely Lebanese, Yemeni, Palestinian and white. Notably, it was largely Muslim at a time when most of Arab Detroit was Christian, and most were just referred to, erroneously or not, as “Syrian.” It was a neighborhood that Mayor Orville Hubbard wanted torn down.

In 1953, the Dearborn City Planning Commission began a decades-long effort to rezone the Southend for industrial use, and did everything it could to get people to move out: it actively neglected city property in the area, harassed residents, declared that FHA insurance was not available to homeowners, and generally just pressured people to sell their homes. The number of residential properties in the neighborhood plummeted by 25 percent between 1960 and 1970.

“When I came back from the Army they were tearing down my grandfather’s house, which was right next door to us. And all of the urban renewal became very personal,” Ahmed says. “It wasn’t just Arab-Americans, it was Southern whites and old Italian workers. In many ways it was an activist neighborhood, so growing up there you talked to people who had organized steel plants and the UAW.”

“The Syrians,” Orville once said, “are even worse than the niggers.”

An organization that came to be known as The South East Dearborn Community Council formed to fight Hubbard, and a federal injunction finally blocked the project in 1973. Businesses and churches, and 250 homes, had been demolished.

The urban renewal that threatened the Southend was replicated in working class, and often black, neighborhoods around Detroit and the country. The federal government had subsidized the highways and mortgages that helped white people move to the suburbs. Factories soon followed, rendering entire cities the ghettoized preserve of the poor. Municipal government’s response to decline was to make cities more suburban, undertaking massive development projects and highways that incited widespread protest.

In Dearborn, Hubbard’s effort to destroy the Southend provided the Arab community, which had long been active in the union movement, with its first major opportunity to organize as Arab-Americans. “That time was the tail end of the Vietnam War,” says Jaber. People like Ismael Ahmed “came back radicalized by what they’d seen [overseas], and wanted to put their energy into making sure the community is safe, and making sure people have the same opportunities.”

Today, many Lebanese have moved to middle-class neighborhoods or to more prosperous suburbs. ACCESS, which began in 1971 as a storefront operation teaching English and helping immigrants fill out government forms, has remained. “We made a decision to stay here,” says Jaber. “Symbolically, this is where we started and this is where we continue to make a commitment to the most vulnerable communities.”

ACCESS has an $18 million annual budget that funds after-school and employment programs, work to stop domestic violence, and public health services ranging from diabetes and breast cancer screening to HIV-testing, including a program that targets gay youth. About one-fifth of their clients are African-American. One afternoon in May, hundreds of children, largely Yemeni, thronged the organization’s parking lot for something called Fun Day: dunk tanks, moon bounces, and food.

Sixty-six-year-old Abdul Malik, a retired Chrysler worker, boasts that he is a grandfather of 26. “Honestly, I came to the United States to take care of my family. America take care of me. I love America.”

“It’s no big deal for me,” says an African-American Army sergeant from Dearborn Heights, in uniform. He is visiting with his daughter, who attends a nearby school. “They’re all Americans. You learn different cultures, new stuff.”

A group of Yemeni-American teenage boys wear another American uniform: baggy jeans and backward hats. I tell them that I’m writing about immigrants. “Immigrant? Yo immigrant!” They are pointing at 20-year old Nasser Obad, the one foreign-born among them.

“I came straight to Howell Street,” he says, affecting a swagger. His friends think the entire situation is hilarious. “The plane didn’t even land.”

“That’s my hood,” he continues. “I like my friends, I hate my cops. I hate the system.” A young boy standing next to him says that neighborhood, “except the pollution,” is great. “The girls are nice.”

•       •       •       •       •

Debbie Schlussel has an answer for even the most seemingly damning question. If ACCESS is attempting to propagate Sharia law, what of the Chaldean staffer I met wearing earrings and and a necklace shaped like a cross? “Listen, there are some Christian Arabs who are water-carriers for Islam,” she tells me, near the end of our hamburger lunch. “They are butt-kissers to Islam. It’s just plain and simple. They are dhimmis. That’s the Islamic word for the status of non-Muslims.”

ACCESS’ work with the Latino community in support of immigrant rights, she cautions, is a ploy to convert them to Islam. “In fact, they’ve converted a lot of Hispanics who live in South Detroit. And I’ve met some of them.”

A troubled national identity has emerged as the id of American consciousness since 2008, when Wall Street upended what was left of the middle-class dream and a charismatic young man, son of a Kenyan father, was elected president to right it. For some Americans, the chronology and causality is a jumble: America is just plain different, and in a bad way.

In June, anti-Muslim missionaries stood outside the Islamic Center of America, quietly handing out Arabic-language copies of the New Testament and anti-Islam flyers to cars exiting the mosque. Most people just reached out of their car, grabbed a free Bible, and pulled away.

The rest of the country briefly had a view into Dearborn daily life in 2011 when TLC premiered the reality TV show All American Muslim. Lowe’s and pulled advertising from the show after a right-wing Christian group protested. The companies were roundly condemned, but the show was ultimately cancelled in March after its first season because of low ratings. TLC viewers primed for Toddlers & Tiaras or Jon & Kate Plus 8 maybe found it boring. The show was clearly too banal for Schlussel.

“That was the problem with this show All American Muslim,” she tells me at a strip mall not unlike a strip mall in Dearborn or any other American suburb. “They presented themselves that they’re like everybody else.”

Photos by Zoe Strauss, an installation artist and photographer living and working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the French-American Foundation-United States as part of the Immigration Journalism Fellowship. Other stories in the series include The Paradox of Mexicantown: Detroit’s Uncomfortable Relationship With the Immigrants it Desperately Needs andMillbourne Identity: How South Asian immigrants made one small town their own.

Daniel Denvir is a staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper and a frequent contributor to Salon andThe Atlantic CitiesAll posts »

Original post: Dearborn: Where Americans Come to Hate Muslims


  1. WOW what a long story. So long it took a grant to write it.

  2. Does detroit desperately need immigrants? Must be quite a boomtown

  3. Jane,

    yes detroit needs immigrants. the muslims may be able to save it. detroit needs anybody willing to move there. no it is not a boomtown, just the oppisite. it is dying. much like cleveland. and appearently west baltimore is in need of some new blood as well. you want to move there? some cheap houses. you got 5k, american, that’s like what 3k in pounds.

  4. Schussel was listening in on mosques back in the 80s-90s, they were angry, antagonistic, aggressive speakers there, talking about taking over the US and replacing its law and constitution with sharia.

    I wonder how much blame unions shoulder for the ruin of the city? The US needs reforms in several areas.

  5. QUIZ
    which religion wants to take over the world and impose their babbaric law?
    which religion had a prophet that was a child abuser?
    which religion that claims that if you die in a violent cause you go to Heaven?
    which religion that most people are afraid of?
    which religion that makes fun at other religions but demands respect from others?

  6. Wow, is my first thought.

    Secondly, do these conservative hateful people hear Hitler in their own voices and thoughts? Dearborn is beautiful and a mystical place. I live in Hamtramck, the OTHER Islamic town surrounded by the city of Detroit. I love my city. I love all of the different cultures and religions. We have mosques, Hindu temples, Catholic churches, Buddhist temple, Baptists churches, and several more. I love the call for prayer despite the fact I am not Muslim. My grocer is, my neighbors are. They do not complain about the bells of the Polish Catholic church. We should all embrace one another. And here in Hamtramck, we do. I have made friends with my Bosnian neighbors and their grandchildren say hello to me when they visit. All of the Muslim grocery store workers ask how I am and follow up on my life as I do theirs. My Bangladeshi neighbors give us vegetables from their gardens and the old Polish ladies are sweet and kind at the delis. We have made friends with the Albanian baker who always comes out from the back to greet me. Yes! Detroit does need more immigrants! We need people to come in and breathe new life into this place! I have never recieved a welcoming feeling or heard welcoming words in Southfield. We should all take another look. Islam is not hate.

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