The six-member City Council of Hamtramck will consist of all Muslims starting in January, another historic first for the metro Detroit city known for its sizable immigrant population.
The newly elected mayor, Amer Ghalib, 42, is also Muslim, which means all of the city’s elected officials will be Muslim.
In Tuesday’s election, three candidates who are all Muslim were elected and will join three current city council members who are also Muslim. Five of them are immigrants and one is a convert to Islam with ancestral roots in eastern Europe.
Advocates with Muslim groups and experts say they do not know of any other city council in the history of the U.S. that is entirely Muslim.
Council members told the Free Press that religion will not play a role in their decisions.
“It’s important to remember that although we all happen to be practicing Muslims, we are elected through the processes set forth by the United States, Michigan, Wayne County, and Hamtramck,” Amanda Jaczkowski, one of the three newly elected Muslims on the council, told the Free Press. “We will all take an oath … to protect the Constitution of the United States, and that includes the concept of separation of church and state. I believe strongly in that separation, and although I will bring the Islamic values of honesty and integrity to the table, the policies that I promote and affirm will be what is best for all people of Hamtramck.”
Current city councilman Mohammed Hassan stressed the same message.
“Religion is not inside the (City Hall) building,” Hassan said. “It’s outside in the mosque and temple and the church. Not in City Hall.”
Hassan added that “nothing will change in council, we remain the same.”
“We respect all the religions,” Hassan said. “Inside the City Hall, we are responsible for the residents … we do our responsibility by the book.”
Khalil Refai, one of the three council candidates elected on Tuesday, was the top vote-getter.
Refai said he will be focused on policy issues and respects the religious diversity of the city, which was once known as a Polish Catholic enclave.
“I ran for office to solve everyday issues facing our community,” Refai said. “Fixing our sewers and lead pipes, finding creative ways to increase city revenue, and creating a more transparent, inclusive city hall are all important issues we heard during the campaign. I am looking forward to solving these issues with my colleagues. I am a proud Hamtramckan, and I love living in a community that has people with many different religious backgrounds.”
The percentage of Muslim residents in Hamtramck is not clear since the U.S. Census does not ask about religion.
But estimates based on Census ancestry data suggest that about half are Muslim. About 25% of the city is of Arab descent, most of them Yemeni, and an additional 27% is of Asian ancestry, most of them Bangladeshi, according to 2019 Census data. Almost all Yemenis are Muslim, while Bangladeshi Americans in Hamtramck are a mix of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.
There are also some Bosnian Muslims and African American Muslims living in Hamtramck.
Out of the six council members, three will be of Yemeni descent, two of Bangladeshi descent, and one who is white.
Hamtramck drew attention in 2015 when it elected its first Muslim-majority city council. The city’s population has spiked 27% over the past decade.
Hamtramck has a weak mayor system of government, where the city manager and other City Hall staff, most of whom are not Muslim, run the daily operations. The mayor’s annual salary is $6,372.
In both Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, the new city councils will each have three members who are Muslim. Voters in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck all elected Muslim mayors for the first time.
Seeking a fifth four-year term, Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski lost Tuesday to challenger Ghalib, a health care worker, who won 68.5% to 31.5%. Four years ago, Majewski had 30 more percentage points, defeating Hassan 61% to 38%. In 2017, Majewski got the support of some Yemeni-Americans to win, but this time, the community came out for Ghalib, an immigrant from Yemen.
The mayor in Hamtramck has always been Polish-American Catholic since it became incorporated as a city 100 years ago. But today, the city is only 6.8% Polish, according to 2019 Census data.
Majewski said she hopes to work with Ghalib on the transition. She said that people should not be afraid of different faiths and urged people not to make generalizations about Islam.
“I’ve always cautioned people to not think about Islam as a monolith,” Majewski said. “Remember that people come from different traditions within a shared religion. Individuals are different too, they come with different experiences, different interpretations of their faith and different priorities. I would always caution people against creating a monolith in their minds about any religion.”
During the campaign, Majewski and Ghalib clashed on LGBTQ issues: she favors flying the Pride LGBTQ flag outside City Hall, which he opposed. Ghalib told the Free Press last month his Islamic faith does not mean he opposes any group.
“People think because of my background and my religious beliefs that I will be anti-LGBT or something, but we are in America,” he said.
Majewski said she’s trying to reach out to Ghalib to help him learn about the role of mayor and also to introduce him to communities in Hamtramck he may not be familiar with.
Sally Howell, director of the Center for Arab American Studies and associate professor of history at University of Michigan-Dearborn, is an expert on the history of Muslims in the U.S. She said she hasn’t heard of any other U.S. city council in history with all Muslims as members.
Howell said the all-Muslim council in Hamtramck is “another barrier broken.”
“It reflects the population” changes in Hamtramck, she said. “And it also reflects the diversity of the Muslim community because you’ve got a white convert to Islam, you’ve got Muslims from the Bangladeshi community and you’ve got Yemeni Muslims.”
Rummi Khan, chief operating officer for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said: “We are pleased to see our community vibrantly engaged in the foundation of American democracy, our elections. This representation is a wonderful step toward realizing the promise of a government for the people, of the people, by the people for all Americans.”
Bill Meyer, a longtime activist in Hamtramck who has advocated for diversity and pluralism, applauded the election results, saying that racism by city officials has “prevented unified action in addressing city issues.”
“The new mayor has major challenges ahead in a city has been plagued with serious infrastructure problems, including flooding, lead in the water and crumbling streets and alleys,” Meyer said. “In addition, police and fire pensions have skyrocketed beyond the ability of this city, one of the poorest in Michigan, to afford.”
Adam Albarmaki, an immigrant from Yemen who is one of the newly elected members of the city council, said he will not favor one group.
“I owe it to the people of Hamtramck and my loyalty to them will remain intact,” he said. “Make no mistake, I do not represent the interest of a certain group over another. I will work diligently to ensure that the best interest of Hamtramkans is attained.”
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