I remember the four words that repeatedly scrolled across my mind after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. ‘Please don’t be Muslims, please don’t be Muslims.’ The four words I whispered to myself on 9/11 reverberated through the mind of every Muslim American that day and every day after.… Our fear, and the collective breath or brace for the hateful backlash that ensued, symbolize the existential tightrope that defines Muslim American identity today.
Metro Detroit has the largest and most diverse Muslim American and Arab American communities in the United States. The diversity and expansiveness of these communities stems from two centuries’ worth of immigration history. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire and British India moved to the area for new economic opportunities or to escape unrest. A strong economic draw was the automotive industry, particularly the Ford Motor Company. Many of these immigrants found a home near Ford’s plant in Highland Park. In 1921, a group of Arab, South Asian and European Muslims established the first purpose-built mosque across the street from this Highland Park plant. Mosques, as well as the churches built by Christian Arabs, became support networks for newly arrived people.
The growth of these communities waned with the passing of the 1924 Immigration Act, which extended “national origins” quotas that drastically cut the number of immigrants into the United States from places outside Western Europe for the next four decades. This was just one of many examples in which immigration restrictions targeting Middle Eastern and Muslim populations had been part of broader pieces of legislation. With the introduction of former President Richard Nixon’s 1972 government surveillance program, Operation Boulder, the government’s attitude began shifting towards viewing Arab Americans and Muslim Americans as terrorists and security threats. This was, according to legal scholar Susan Akram, “perhaps the first concerted U.S. government effort to target Arabs in the U.S. for special investigation with the specific purpose of intimidation, harassment, and to discourage their activism on issues relating to the Middle East.”
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Muslims and Arab Americans became the center of targeted hate, anger and racism. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. spiked … from 28 such incidents nationwide in 2000 to 481 in 2001. During this time Islamophobia was on the rise. Islamophobia is the extreme fear of, and hostility toward, Islam and Muslims. It often leads to discrimination, hate crimes and more. This was backed by many policies and government practices that led to racial profiling and rhetoric that pushed more fear and hate.
Decades later in 2017, former President Donald Trump furthered an Islamophobic narrative when he signed an executive order that banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the country for 90 days, suspended entry to the country of all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and prohibited any other refugees from coming into the country for 120 days — exemplifying how deeply embedded the notion of viewing Arabs and Muslims as security threats is in American history.
Today’s resources will discuss the rich history of Arab American and Muslim American communities in Metro Detroit, the effects of the government’s attitudes and actions on these communities, and the diversity of Muslims across America.