Michigan Scholars’ Book Explores Arab-American Life in the Motor City

Ten years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Detroit’s large and nationally prominent Arab and Muslim communities have faced heightened prejudice, government surveillance and political scapegoating. But they also have enjoyed unexpected gains in economic, political and cultural influence, according to a new book recently released by Wayne State University Press.

Despite the backlash after the September 11th attacks, the Arab community continues to grow. There are between 200,000 and 220,000 Arab or Muslim Americans living in the Detroit area. According to officials, that group has grown by 25 to 30 percent in the past decade.

“This community grew, and it grew in surprisingly unique and unexpected ways,” says Dr. Nabeel Abraham, a professor at Henry Ford Community College and author of Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade, a book he co-edited with Dr. Sally Howell and Dr. Andrew Shryock, two University of Michigan professors. “It’s like the clouds from New York drifted over the country and cast a pall over other areas, including here.”

Arab Detroit 9/11 features essays from a diverse group of contributors who examine the impact that the terror attacks had on Detroit’s Arab community. The contributors include artists, academicians and community activists.

“Despite the climate of anti-Arab sentiments in the 1990s and early 2000s, the population is doing remarkably well today,” says Howell, an assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and an expert on Arab American history and culture. “This is really a book about this community and how it coped and survived during the terror decade. We look at law enforcement, right-wing media, the discrimination and the hostile treatment directed at this community.”

Howell says that, during the past decade, 15 mosques have been built in the Detroit area, and, in 2005, a new Arab American Museum was dedicated, pointing out that Arabs continue to flock to the region.

“This is a large community, a diverse community and a historically old community,” says Howell, who pointed out that, when Terry Jones, the controversial Florida pastor who gained international notoriety for threatening to burn the Quran tried to protest in Dearborn at the Islamic Center in April, he was silenced by the surrounding community.

In an unusual move, Wayne County prosecutors charged Jones with inflaming the Arab community. Even before he staged his protest, he was convicted of conspiring to “breach the peace” by a jury and ordered to pay a $1 peace bond and stay away from the Islamic Center and adjacent area in Dearborn for three years. A coalition of Christian leaders, including the Rev. Charles Williams II, who pastors the historic King Solomon Baptist Church, condemned Jones’ rhetoric.

“We do not agree with Terry Jones. We do not agree with his philosophy, and we want to continue to keep this region as unified as we possibly can,” says Williams.

In New York City, the ground zero mosque, which stirred an enormous amount of controversy the past year, opened its doors in September. The Islamic cultural center, located two blocks from the World Trade Center site, will include a 9/11 memorial. The center’s developer, Sharif El-Gamal, says that much of the controversy involving the center could have been avoided had he engaged with the families impacted by the terrorist attacks earlier in the process.

“We made incredible mistakes,” he says. “We didn’t understand that we had a responsibility to discuss our private project with family members that lost loved ones.”

Contrary to what many may think, the majority of Arabs in the Detroit area are Christians, not Muslims, though they are often viewed as monolithic by outsiders, experts say. With that diversity, Howell says Detroit should be viewed as a model for the rest of the nation, a theme that she says is conveyed in her newly released book.

“I hope that book will encourage people to recognize the diversity” and “the Americaness of this group,” says Howell. “We’ve also witnessed that Arab Americans have had their rights and privileges challenged in this decade, and that needs to be reversed.”