Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Donald Trump exits the stage at the end of a rally in St. Louis, Missouri on March 11, 2016. (MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump exits the stage at the end of a rally in St. Louis, Missouri on March 11, 2016. (MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Election 2016

Donald Trump’s success a ‘wake-up call’ for Michigan’s Muslims Add to ...

On Thursday, Muslim leaders in this Detroit suburb were saying that members of their community still felt safer here than they would in just about any other place in their country.

Then, late that night, while staff at the Dearborn-based Arab-American News were finishing up the latest edition of their newspaper, two men tried to break through their office’s bullet-proof door with a hammer.

As it turns out, the attempted break-in may have been nothing more than a failed robbery. But the wave of fear that it caused on Friday morning nevertheless seemed a fitting cap to an unsettling week in one of the unofficial Muslim capitals in the United States.

The source of considerable angst and reflection was this past Tuesday’s Michigan presidential primary. In one of the most Muslim-heavy states in the country, Republican front-runner Donald Trump – a candidate so overtly playing to Islamophobia that he pronounced during a CNN interview this week that “Islam hates us” – cruised to victory with about 37 per cent of the Republican vote. And in Dearborn itself, where nearly half the city’s roughly 100,000 residents are Arab-American and many country- or state-wide Muslim or Arabic organizations are based, Mr. Trump’s percentage was a couple of points higher than that.

Unsurprisingly, most of his votes came from the half of Dearborn that’s not really a Muslim capital at all. While the vast majority of residents on the east side of town are of Arabic descent – with roots primarily in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinian territories – the west side is primarily white. Of the 3,153 Dearbornians who voted for Mr. Trump, only about 500 live on the east side. (Christian Arabs, a small population here, may account for a few of those.)

But until recently, Dearborn seemed to be a success story of Muslims integrating into a city with a history of segregation, and a state that has seen more than its share of racial strife. Many have opened businesses on the west side, some have even moved there, and they are increasingly engaged civically, including on the city’s council. The town has attracted its share of attention from cranks: Right-wing bloggers have long propagated various bogus conspiracy theories, including that the city is under Sharia law, and the likes of Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones occasionally show up seeing attention. But even following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there wasn’t the degree of backlash for which many of its immigrant families braced themselves.

Now, with thousands of people with whom they co-exist either embracing Mr. Trump’s Muslim-bashing or proving willing to overlook it, Muslim residents have been given a reality check about how they’re perceived – and how much Mr. Trump has helped bring to the fore something ugly that was lurking below the surface.

“I think what is most troubling about this election cycle is that in Michigan, you would assume there is a certain familiarity with Muslims,” says Rana Elmir, who grew up in Dearborn and is now deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “And I don’t think what you’re seeing in those results reflects that familiarity and trust.”

Ms. Elmir blames Mr. Trump for stirring up fear and resentment that has led to people such as her mother, who lives in Dearborn and unlike her wears a hijab, recently getting cold shoulders in ways they did not before. But she also argues he is a “by-product” of politicians on both sides of the aisle more subtly legitimizing Islamophobia and dehumanizing Muslims through everything from domestic surveillance programs to restrictive immigration policies.

Others point to politicians beyond just Mr. Trump, too, though often just on the Republican side. Dawud Walid, who heads the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, drew a correlation with the rise of the Tea Party and its stoking of fears around terror incidents and threats. In terms of rhetoric, he said, George W. Bush’s first term – which included a post-9/11 visit to a mosque to make a call for tolerance – now “looks like the good old days.”

Tuesday’s results, though, were also a cause for introspection. Over lunch at a halal bistro, Laila Alhusinni, who hosts an Arab-American radio program out of Dearborn, called them a “wake-up call” about the need to better reach out. “Part of it is our fault,” she said, “for not building more of a relationship with our neighbourhood.”

Mr. Walid went a step further, saying that what is happening in this election year is impetus for Muslim communities to start “coalition-building” with “natural allies” that also have cause to feel marginalized, including Hispanics and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Meanwhile, there are signs of Muslim voters – who, broadly, have typically had low voter turnout – rallying behind politicians who reach out to them. Among the surprising elements of Bernie Sanders’s upset of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side of Michigan’s primary was that, even though she has generally done better than him with visible-minority voters, he easily bested her on the east side of Dearborn and other places with large Muslim populations, which came out in larger-than-expected numbers.

That no doubt had something to do with his relatively sympathetic views toward Palestinians in the Middle East conflict. But local leaders attribute it largely to the fact that he simply showed a lot more interest in their community, making multiple local appearances and putting out campaign materials in Arabic.

But increased voting-day engagement aside, there is worry that the current political climate will only encourage some Muslims to further retreat from broader society. One prominent community member, who asked not to be identified by name, said he recently decided against a run for state-level office because “the likelihood of getting elected with an Arabic name would be lower than previously.”

Thursday night’s crime notwithstanding, Dearborn has had few incidents of violence or harassment directed toward Muslims. But stories abound of residents recently being yelled at or threatened when they venture outside city limits.

While expressing confidence about the community remaining strong within Dearborn itself, Matt Stiffler – a manager at the Arab American National Museum, whose Lebanese family has been in the United States for more than a century – acknowledged a certain insularity has led some younger residents to virtually never venture beyond city limits. This week, they probably weren’t feeling much extra incentive to do so.

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier digital version incorrectly referred to the Twin Towers attacks as happening on Sept. 11, 2011. In fact, it was 2001. This digital version has been corrected.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular