With Us From the Start: The History of the Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.
Photo of the Yemeni mural on the side of the Sheeba Restaurant in Hamtramck, MI -Painted by Dasic Fernandez
In mid-February 2005, I boarded a jet and flew from Detroit, Michigan to Tel Aviv, Israel. At the time, both conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were taking place, and tensions were still high in the U.S. and abroad. I traveled throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories with Father Peter Vasko, O.F.M., liaison for the White House through the U.S. Embassy, in support of the Palestinians.
After five days in Jerusalem, learning about the political issues of the land, we headed for Jericho. As we pulled up to an Israeli checkpoint, Fr. Peter and Ahmad, our Arab Muslim driver, got off the bus to speak to a heavily armed Israeli soldier. I looked out the bus window, watching the three men standing in a huddle converse with each other. The soldier, armed with a machine gun of some kind, was just a young red-haired kid serving his mandatory two years. Calmly, Fr. Peter, in his long brown Franciscan robe, turned slowly back toward us. I would not say I was scared, but I was a little apprehensive. Fr. Peter climbed back onto the bus, and Ahmad sat back into his driver’s seat and closed the bus door. “They’re letting us in.” Fr. Peter whispered. “They haven’t let anyone in seven years.”
We drove throughout the territories, through Tiberius, past the Sea of Galilee, and, finally arrived at an eleven-thousand-year-old city named, Jericho. As I stepped off the bus, the sun was blinding, I tried to look at Fr. Peter, placing my hand over my eyes. “This place is considered a hotbed of terrorists,” he somewhat mockingly whispered, so no resident overheard.
Fr. Peter wanted us to understand while standing in one of the oldest cities on earth that the idea Palestinians were a dangerous people was absurd and that they had a right to the land and a good life just as everyone else did. At first, I didn’t really know what to think, but in time I realized he was right. I met the most gracious, most hospitable people I have ever met in my life. Unfortunately, I also discovered people–a culture throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories, being robbed of their homes and their land. People were dying needlessly; drug addiction and divorces were skyrocketing, and, families were just simply falling apart. Arab Christian and Muslim ghettos were being created by the Israeli Government and funded by our U.S. tax dollars. Checkpoint after checkpoint, ghetto after ghetto, American tax dollar after American tax dollar.
Before I left the country, there was a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. What happened in Tel Aviv and how American television announced the bombing was not the same. In fact, nothing was the same as I had been led to know by our politicians, religious leaders, and the media. It affected me in such profound ways that I never looked at our country or religions the same way. So, I stepped back and started really looking at the overall history of the U.S. and its foreign policies as well as religious leaders. I also looked at the Arab and Muslim population of my own home state of Michigan since it was the largest in our nation. Particularly, the city of Dearborn, a beautiful and peaceful place I loved for its ambiance, and, frequenting quite often for food, entertainment, and shopping. It occurred to me that no politician, media outlet, or religious leader was pointing out the history of the Arab and Muslim community here in our country and their contribution to the nation from its beginnings. The community was basically left to defend itself for acts they had no part in or condoned.
After the events of September 11th, 2001, many American Arab and Muslim organizations, in the state really tried to raise awareness by inviting in and sharing their culture hoping to lessen the fears and mistrust among the public. Arabs and Muslims have been a part of the American landscape since the foundation of the country. With countries like Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and many other nations being a part of Africa, North African Arab Muslims found themselves taken from their homeland and forced onto slave ships. However, the history of the large Arab diaspora in Michigan began in 1880, when the first wave of Middle Easterners migrated to the greater Detroit Metro area, including people from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel. Then, in 1889 to 1910 Iraqi Chaldeans also made a mass migration to Michigan making the Detroit area their largest settlement outside of Iraq. But it was auto magnate, Henry Ford, who in 1915, purchased 2000 acres of land in his hometown of Dearborn and built his famous Rouge Plant, the largest factory in the world at the time. Ford’s employment offers brought thousands of Lebanese, Yemenis, and those seeking to break away from the Ottoman Empire to America. This lifted the nation out of chiefly producing agriculture and into an “industrial power” known throughout the world. Over the next one hundred years, Arabs and Muslims from 22 countries would continue to migrate in waves to Michigan for reasons varying from displaced refugees fleeing persecution and war, to educated Arabs and Muslims seeking gainful employment and simply desiring a better life.
Just like all non-white, non-protestant groups have struggled to make a go at the American Dream, the Arab and Muslim populations have had the most difficult in recent times due to Islamic Terrorism. To help quell the backlash against the Arab and Muslim Communities, Arab Americans from around the U.S. raised money, and, in 2005, built the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn. One of the main purposes of the AANM is to dispel misconceptions about Arab Americans and other minorities. The museum features historical and cultural exhibits on American Arab and Muslim contributions to the nation that are often overlooked or brushed aside. An exhibit of special interest is that of Zammouri, also known by his slave name, Estebanico, the first recorded African slave. It is believed Zammouri, a Moroccan Arab Muslim, was taken from his homeland in about 1511 by the Spanish while he was still a child and spent 8 years sailing to St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in America – just like Jericho. In 1539, Zammouri was, either, caught in a battle between Native Americans and European Settlers and killed or killed by Native Americans. Arab Muslim slaves from North Africa would continue to be brought to America for 400 more years, and, just like African Americans today, many Arab-Americans, also, find it difficult to know their ancestry.
Another fascinating feature of the Dearborn area is that of The Islamic Center of America (ICA). The ICA is not only one of the oldest mosques in the nation, but also the largest and it provides basic Shia religious and learning services. The organization stridently seeks to educate the American society about Islam and the Arab culture. The mosque has been subject to vandalism, bomb threats, Quran burning, and, more recently, threats from President Trump as he suggested to close American mosques. However, the interfaith dialogue is strong enough within the Southeast corner of Michigan that people of numerous belief systems and ethnic backgrounds, including those representing the Jewish and Christian faiths, have stood up and defended the Arab and Muslim communities when attacked including those threats made by President Trump.
The mosque’s head Imam has quite a story all his own. Sheikh Ibrahim Kazerooni, also an adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy came to Dearborn after fleeing Iraq in 1974. Kazerooni was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein’s regime and upon his release escaped his homeland. He made his way throughout the Middle East and into England but fearful of Hussein’s secret police, Kazerooni, again, fled his home in England, and finally made his way to America.
Kazerooni held two Master degrees and received his Ph.D. from the University of Denver. He is also a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Human Trafficking. As an active participant in peacemaking around the world Kazerooni has received numerous awards for his humanitarian work including recognition with Congressional Record and the esteemed Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for his efforts in peace work to end the war in Iraq.
Unlike many mosques of the Middle East, mosques in Dearborn and the greater Detroit metro area, embrace women and children in prayer services, and, include separate areas for socialization like weddings, singing, and dancing. Women also hold significant leadership roles for the mosque’s various committees and within the greater communities. It is important to recognize that these types of accommodations are forbidden in many mosques abroad, but the Muslim community in Michigan has adopted a more western style.
For over 25 years I have loved making trips to the city for shopping at the Dearborn mall and eating a good plate of falafel afterward. As I learned in the Palestinian Territories, hospitality is a distinct virtue of the Arab and Muslim communities. Sharing food is fundamental to their culture and identity as it allows for families and friends to socialize whether for religious or cultural events. However, a local resident, Zahra Ayoub, said she is tired of hearing all the Sharia Law rhetoric and would just love to scream to everyone that the city of Dearborn is not under Sharia Law – it’s under “Shawarma Law!” Ayoub organizes Shawarma Law dinners around the community to dispel the notion that Dearborn is under Sharia Law. “Yes, we’re Muslim here. But I’ve been living in the city for 25 years. I have never seen somebody get stoned to death. … I have never seen a woman get beat up for not being covered.”
In the article, The Thriving Arab American Community of Dearborn, Michigan, author, Lori Erickson, of patheos.com, said it best when she wrote, “Anyone who says you can’t be both Muslim and American needs to go to Dearborn.”. The average citizen needs to remember we have a peaceful, thriving Arab and Muslim community here in our country – they’ve always been here. And, though, rightfully we should be concerned with Islamic Extremists, we should also not lump everyone in together – this was the message Fr. Peter was trying to send out in Jericho. The Arabs had always been a part of the land as long as the Jewish people had been. It is no different here in our country. The Arabs have been here as long as the white European settlers have.
Finally, Arab and Muslim residents of Michigan and those throughout the nation, such as the Palestinians, may dislike and even protest certain foreign policy decisions made by the federal government. However, the community also recognizes, rejects, and protests any extremists using the religion of Islam to promote an agenda contrary to the religion itself. This is quite understandable since the majority of all attacks made by Muslim extremists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, are against their own Muslim and Arab people and not westerners. And, if you follow the history of the U.S. money trail and military presence in the Middle East and surrounding areas, the Arab and Muslim anger begin to make sense. It is vital Americans find out for themselves, as I did, what is going on and why it is the way it is. Do not take the politicians, religious leaders, and the media’s word for it.
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