• February 11, 2018
  • Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra)
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A presentation on the History of Islam in Dearborn packed the McFadden-Ross House Feb. 7 as the Dearborn Historical Society hosted University of Michigan–Dearborn Associate Professor Sally Howell. 

Howell, director of the Center for Arab American Studies and an associate professor of history, has written “Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past,” “Citizens in Crisis: Arab Detroit after 9/11” and “Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade,” and is currently working on “Halal Metropolis: Mosques, Markets and Neighborhood Development.” 

Howell dispels the notion that Islam is a religion of recent immigrants, when in fact the Detroit area was home to thousands of Muslims in the early 1900s, primarily from Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire and British India. When immigration laws were liberalized in 1965, new Islamic immigrants found Detroit’s established mosques to be Americanized and unorthodox. 

Howell said the Muslim population in the early 1920s was not very religious, the buildings used for services were not really mosques, they were not politically active, and the Muslim community was divided along ethnic and racial lines. 

“If you are a new minority religious community to America, you have some challenges you have to face,” Howell said. “You have probably never had to organize a house of worship by yourself. They aren’t voluntary organizations the way American institutions are. So you have to build these viable institutions, and that’s hard.” 

She said the Armenian Genocide, which was carried out by Ottoman or Turkish Muslims against the Armenian Christian minority, was often covered by newspapers during the early 1920s. “Muslim violence against Christians were very common in the media, so the Muslim community in this period had a lot of work to do to represent their faith the way they understood it,” Howell said. 

She said the original Turkish immigrants didn’t have families in America because the Turkish government at the time would only allow men to immigrate, not women. She said the people who first started building the mosques that would survive were the Syrians, because they had their families with them. 

“They wanted to educate their children, they wanted to find marriage partners for their children,” Howell said. “They were really building these institutions – the ones with staying power – for families.” She said you also needed institutions to bury your dead, follow your religious holidays and perform weddings. 

Henry Ford imported Muslim workers from India because he wanted to build plants over there, and he wanted to teach them to manage a factory. “So there were Indians here even though there were racial exclusion laws that made it impossible for Indians to naturalize,” Howell said. 

She also emphasized a key point that was relevant during this time period, expressed in a quote by Mufti Mohammad Sadiq: “The religion of Islam treads underfoot all racial prejudices.” Howell said when black Americans were migrating north to escape the Jim Crow conditions of the South, they were the most receptive to new religious ideas, and some were open to the message of Islam. 

While most religions point the way to salvation, Islam was more open to people of other ethnicities, which resonated with black Americans. In Dearborn, Mayor Orville Hubbard, who was an acknowledged racist and anti-Arab, was known for his attempts to demolish the south end of Dearborn. 

However, he always attended Arab community fundraisers. “Why would he come to their fundraisers?” Howell asked. “He loved raw kibbeh. If there was raw kibbeh, he would be there. He was also a politician, and he was a pretty good one.” 

Howell noted in a photo taken in a mosque in the 1950s that none of the women were wearing hijabs, the scarf worn around the head and chest. During the time period, in middle class Arabic communities overseas, women did not wear the hijab — only the elite and peasant women did. 

During the 1950s immigration laws designed to limit the number of Catholic Europeans from entering the country also impacted Arab immigration. “The immigration laws that were passed in 1965 were like another part of the Civil Rights Act,” Howell said. “The descendants of Roman Catholics immigrants from eastern Europe and southern Europe said ‘Look, we are citizens, too, change those laws so they don’t continue to discriminate against us.’” 

When immigration was restricted during the 1950s, she said an intense period of Americanization began. Some in the Muslim community worried about the danger of traditions “melting away” with the resultant loss of cultural identity, “drifting away on the new American ocean.” Howell said the Muslim community was also experiencing the prosperity of the 1950s, and were becoming even more Americanized as a result. 

When immigration opened up after 1965, the new immigrants from the Middle East were judging the Muslims who had been in Dearborn for generations. “The Muslims of Dearborn, who had been here 60, 80 years, were as Dearborn as you could be — suddenly they were a minority, too,” Howell said. “They had wars happening in the Middle East, new groups were coming, and they judged them.” 

She said the new Muslim immigrants judged the Muslim community they found in Dearborn, and the Yemeni and Palestinians instituted changes, including women wearing the hijab to services. It created a serious rift in the community. 

By the 1980s, the Iranian revolution had happened, the oil embargo occurred and there was a rise in Islamophobia. “Islam itself has changed over the course of this last century, so Islam here in America has changed, and a lot of these institutions have this sort of tension between their desire to be religiously pure, or people associate Islam with overseas, another place,” Howell said. “We still don’t think it is authentically American.” 

Howell said the African slaves brought to America were Muslim, and it has been a part of the country’s DNA even before it was an independent country. “Here in Dearborn, given the long history of Islam in this community, I hope we’re coming to a point where we recognize that,” Howell said. 

For information about upcoming events at the Dearborn Historical Society, visit thedhm.com. An Interfaith Forum will explore prophecy from an Islamic, Christian and Jewish perspective from 2 to 4 p.m. Feb. 18 at Sacred Heart Church in the parish hall, 22430 Michigan Ave., Dearborn. 

Sponsored by the Committee to Promote Better Understanding of Islam – the Islamic House of Wisdom Interfaith Committee and Neighbors in Faith, it will discuss what it means to be a prophet and who is called to be one, how each faith understands prophets and their mission, prophets common to the three faiths and whether there are present-day prophets. 

The speakers include Imam Mohammed Elahi of the Islamic House of Wisdom; Dr. Robert Fastiggi, professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary; and Dr. Howard Lupovitch, Wayne State University Professor and director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic studies. 

By Sue Suchyta


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