The week before Election Day in Hamtramck, hundreds of Muslims packed the City Council chambers.
They were outraged over a complaint made by council candidate Susan Dunn over the Islamic call to prayer that is broadcast outdoors from mosques, which she said were too loud.
“That pumped up the people,” recalled Ibrahim Al-Jahim, a campaign adviser to other council candidates who was at the November meeting. “They realized that if this lady gets elected, she’s going to affect the community … bring hate, bring discrimination.”
The following week, three Muslim candidates out of six were the top vote-getters, winning council seats. After their inauguration this month, Hamtramck became what is believed to be the first city in the U.S. with a Muslim-majority City Council. Four of its six council members are Muslim, three of them immigrants.
The story of how that happened offers insight into the political ambitions of the city’s Muslim community in a time of intense debate about Islam in the West. And it shows how diverse groups — from Polish Catholics to Bangladeshi Muslims to African-American Protestants — can get along, city leaders say.
“In this little town, we manage to work our differences and to live together,” said Mayor Karen Majewski, who is part of the city’s Polish-American Catholic population. “Not in some kind of fantasy land, but with real issues, and real day-to-day conflicts and problems that come out. That’s the story that goes beyond the sensationalistic headlines.”
After the election, a backlash ensued, with some on the right saying the city would be governed by shari’a — or Islamic — law. The election results sparked international attention, with media outlets in France, Finland and Germany reporting on the city. Some expressed fears that non-Muslims and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people would not be treated fairly.
The City Council candidates are trying to assure the city’s residents and the public, saying they are committed to serving all residents, not just Muslims. Since the election, several rallies have been held in Hamtramck with Muslim councilmen and religious leaders condemning terrorism.
“We’re going to represent everyone,” said Councilman Saad Almasmari, 30, who immigrated from Yemen to the U.S. in 2009 and was the top vote-getter in the election. “We’re going to help all the community. … We’re all going to be under the Constitution, that’s going to be our roof. Whatever Hamtramck or Michigan law allows them to do, we’re not going to stop them.”
Almasmari and other councilmen say their focus will be economics, on spending wisely and trying to attract new businesses and investors to a city where vacant storefronts are becoming more common. They’re also concerned about high taxes and water bills in a city trying to attract young residents and artists.
The Muslim councilmen say the city won’t crack down on bars because Islam restricts alcohol, or on Christians, gays, women and others. They and others point out that Hamtramck’s top leadership in City Hall is mostly women: The city’s mayor, police chief, city manager, city controller, as well as the heads of the building department and economic development are all female.
“I don’t think it really matters if they’re Muslim,” said Cathie Gordon, 69, a Hamtramck city councilwoman from 2008 to 2014 who is of Polish and Italian descent. “They’re people just like us. It will have no impact on the city.”
Moreover, the city is still under the control of the state, which has a Transition Advisory Board appointed by the governor that must approve all major financial decisions in Hamtramck. And so a lot of power is out of the hands of City Hall.
Others, though, such as Dunn, say, “Of course, people are going to be concerned” about having a Muslim-majority council. Dunn has complained repeatedly about what she says are the high volume levels of the Islamic call to prayer, which can be heard five times a day from some mosques in Hamtramck. Estimates of the city’s Muslim population range from one third to more than half.
Dunn fears how non-Muslims might now be treated in Hamtramck, but rejects the idea that the city will come under shari’a law.
“It’s not true,” Dunn said. “If it were true, I’d be the first one to tell you.”
The city of 22,000 residents has been known for decades for its Polish-American Catholic population, but today, only about 12% of the city has Polish ancestry, according to U.S. census figures. The biggest ethnic group are Yemeni-Americans, who make up 24% of the city, followed by African Americans, at 19% and Bangladeshis at 15% to 19%.
About 44% of the city are immigrants, the highest percentage in Michigan. Poverty is a growing problem, with about 49% of residents at or below the poverty line.
Though the Yemeni community is bigger and has been in Hamtramck longer, it was the Bangladeshi-American community that first acquired political power. In 2003, Shahab Ahmed, an immigrant from Bangladesh, became the first Muslim on City Council. Two years later, Abdul Algazali, a Muslim of Yemeni descent, was elected. By January 2010, half of Hamtramck’s City Council consisted of Bangladeshi-American Muslims.
In November 2013, Algazali narrowly lost a race for mayor against incumbent Mayor Karen Majewski by just 98 votes. Two years before that, in 2011, he lost by 124 votes. Part of the reason for his failure was that the Yemeni-American community was divided, with some supporting Majewski, who is a Polish-American Catholic. They also weren’t coordinating well with the Bangladeshi-American community, said community leaders.
But last year, the divisions within Yemenis and with Bangladeshis were bridged as the two communities united, resulting in a sweep of the top three seats. Almasmari had campaign fliers and business cards written in English, Bengali, Arabic and Polish, campaigning across the city.
On election night, Aljahim stirred some controversy when he said at a victory party for the Muslim candidates: “Today we show the Polish and everybody else,” according to a video posted on Facebook.
The remarks drew criticism from some in the Polish-American community, which led to a town hall meeting with the mayor and community leaders to reduce tensions.
Aljahim said his words that night were taken “out of context,” that he was referring to the divisions among Yemenis and Bangladeshis, not with non-Muslims.
“I would never discriminate,” Aljahim said.
Muslim-American voters were motivated by what they say was a number of issues, including Dunn’s attack on the call to prayer, which was approved of in 2004.
In September, Councilman Titus Walters died, which led to a legal dispute between city officials and the Muslim-American community over who should fill his seat. A non-Muslim candidate got the seat after a judge sided with the city.
Muslims in Hamtramck have also complained that there are no Muslims in the city’s police and fire departments, and no Arab-American Muslims at all in any city department. In City Hall, there are three employees who are Muslim, two of Bangladeshi descent and one of Pakistani descent.
And there are some tensions over the planned expansion of the Al-Islah mosque into a two-story large building in the heart of a business district on the corner of Jos. Campau and Caniff.
Bill Meyer, a longtime community leader who has been supportive of city’s Muslim community, says many of the disputes are more about “political infighting… It’s just personal stuff,” rather than disputes over religion.
Former Hamtramck City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Scott Klein says having a Muslim-majority council is a positive.
“It sets a good example for the rest of the nation that these folks are American, too,” Klein said. “Part of being America is being responsible for your own governance. … The nation’s attention will be on them … It’s up to them to show that people of Muslim faith are no different than anyone else.”
Klein’s experiences in Hamtramck touch upon the political development of the Muslim community.
In 2008, Klein, who is gay, proposed a city ordinance that would protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, income as well as sexual orientation. The council approved it, 5-1.
But conservative Christians with the American Family Association and Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor protested the inclusion of LGBT people in the ordinance as a protected group. The conservatives then reached out to the Muslim-American community, which allied with them and mobilized to put on the November 2008 ballot a proposal that would overturn the new city law. In October 2008, hundreds of Muslim Americans and some conservative Christians held a rally where speakers said the ordinance would lead to transgender men using women’s restrooms.
“There were death threats against me … coming out of the more radical ends of the Islamic community,” Klein said. “Two days before the election, I had received enough death threats that we were in communication with the FBI. It was concerning, very concerning.”
After the successful overturning of the ordinance, the political power of the Muslim community grew. The next election, in 2009, produced a City Council that was half Muslim.
But the Muslim-majority on the council vows they will be open to all groups.
Mohammad Hassan, 50, a mechanical engineer who immigrated from Bangladesh, has been on the city council since 2009. Hassan was not up for re-election, but some are hoping he runs for mayor in two years.
“There will be no discrimination” against anyone, Hassan said.
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