Arab Detroit, Targeted Community

Against the Current, No. 157, March / April 2012

Frank D. Rashid

Arab Detroit 9/11:
Life in the Terror Decade
Nabeel Abraham, Sally Howell, and Andrew Shryock, Editors.
Wayne State University Press, 2011, 413 pages, $24.95 paper.

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, the Detroit area’s Arab-American community has attracted plenty of attention — albeit much of it misdirected. As one of the largest concentrations of Arabs and Arab descendants outside the Middle East, this community became a convenient source of media reports, an object of investigation by government agencies, and a target of hatred for Americans looking for someone to blame for the 9/11 attacks.

As the editors of Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade point out, in the past decade, “Arab Detroit, as both a place and an idea,” has emerged “as a target of opportunity,” a term with “multiple connotations.” They seek to explore the manifold ways in which “the Terror Decade has been ‘the worst of times’ and ‘the best of times’ for the city’s Arab and Muslim populations.”

The presence of the Arab population in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties, has indeed created a range of opportunities for the media and the government, but also, interestingly, for Arab Americans and their institutions. However, as this collection demonstrates, these opportunities come at an incalculable cost — “(t)he increased discrimination and harassment that followed the 9/11 attacks, the feelings of estrangement, and the persistent anxiety that things could get worse.” (5).

The editors point out that in the days following 9/11, commentators like the Detroit News’ Nolan Finley assumed that Detroit’s Arabs were covering for those responsible for the attacks and called on them to “smash the network within their own communities that provides money and shelter to terrorists. It’s the least they can do for their neighbors.” (3)

Of course, attempts to expose such connections fell flat. The government’s prosecution of supposed “terror cell” participants resulted in acquittals, overturned convictions, and the resignation of the government’s lead prosecutor. Investigations uncovered some financial support for Hezbollah, as well as crimes like interstate cigarette smuggling, but no material support for 9/11-style terrorism from the area’s Arab noncitizens or its U.S. citizens of Arab descent.

A Community and its Fears

Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade, like its predecessor, Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream, edited by Abraham and Shryock (Wayne State University Press 2000) for the most part offers serious analysis of the diverse groups of people and institutions known as “Arab Detroit.” (See for earlier review.)

Metro Detroit’s Arab population hardly reflects that of the Middle East, where the large majority of Arabs are Sunni Muslim. The majority of Detroit’s Arabs (including Chaldeans) has historically been Christian, mostly Catholic and Orthodox; the population is now about evenly split between Muslims and Christians. Detroit’s Muslim population is largely Shi’ite, not Sunni.

Arab Detroit differs from the Middle East in other ways. One of the most instructive essays in the new volume is Kim Shopmeyer’s chapter on Arab Detroit’s demographics, showing that the community, numbering between 130,000 (2000 U.S. Census) and over 400,000 (Zogby Worldwide 2002) is more established, better educated, and more fully integrated into American society than many Americans think.

Eighty percent of Arab Detroiters are U.S. citizens, and attitudes about gender, family life, and moral issues, while strongly influenced by their churches and mosques, are more diverse than might be supposed. Nevertheless, after 9/11, as Sally Howell and Andrew Shryock state in a 2003 essay reprinted in the collection, “Arab and Muslim Americans have been compelled . . . to apologize for acts they did not commit, to condemn acts they never condoned, and to openly profess loyalties that, for most U.S. citizens, are merely assumed.” (68).

Many Arab Americans now keep their political opinions — especially about U.S. Middle East policy — to themselves, and have reduced or severed contacts with relatives and friends in their homelands.

Howell and Shryock compare the treatment of Arab Americans and new arrivals to the World War II internment of Japanese, noting that modern technology — “credit cards, cell phones, and computers” — allows for a level of monitored and controlled behavior that makes detention camps seem almost quaint.

Noteworthy contributions here are Rachel Yezbick’s critical examination of the Arab American National Museum’s use of the “sanctioned discourse of multiculturalism” (295) and Nabeel Abraham’s analysis of “Arabs Behaving Badly.”

Yezbick argues that the “museum’s exhibits … have been directly influenced by the events of 9/11 and the politics of fear,” reinforcing “hegemonic understandings of what it means to be a patriotic ethnic American citizen.”  Although she considers these messages unintentional, she claims that “the museum’s narration of Arab American identities is consistent with the tone and temper of the dominant society’s values of culture, citizenship, and nationality.” (288, 290)

The museum’s most telling display, she feels, emphasizes Arab Americans’ service in the U.S. military, paradoxically reinforcing attitudes that marginalize the Arab American community: “In this act of patriotic display and sacrifice, the museum bears excessive witness to the crimes of modern history . . . by playing into a 9/11 politics of fear that has demonized Arab and Muslim identities.” (306-7).

Abraham’s essay focuses on the many ways that community leaders and their allies in local government control the news emerging from the community. Some of the troublesome behaviors he describes result from the inevitable misunderstandings that happen when cultures collide. Others include high school students’ ill-considered references to 9/11, an Arab woman’s theft of produce from backyard gardens, open criticism of U.S. support for Israel (including the booing of the National Anthem before a high school basketball game), and harassment of non-Arab residents in predominantly Arab neighborhoods.

Abraham shows how the “containment system” occasionally works effectively to delay news of potentially sensationalistic events, like the arrest of a strangely behaving Arab man with a gun in a Dearborn park, while occasionally overreacting, for example, by censoring free expression of views on American foreign policy in a high school newspaper. This kind of serious and open examination characterizes most of the collection’s essays.

Uneasy Relations

The editors and contributors devote considerable attention to the uneasy relationship between Arab Detroit’s institutions and officials of local and federal governmental bodies, especially the Department of Justice and the FBI, as Arab and Muslim Detroit was, in Howell and Shryock’s words, “transformed, by an elaborate array of legal and extralegal means, into a domestic front in the Bush administration’s War on Terror.”  The Justice Department’s Mark Corallo (who would later play such an infamous role in prosecuting local Arabs), said that the Detroit-area investigation was “the largest. . . in the history of the United States.” (71, 73)

In addition to enduring dramatically increased FBI surveillance and diminished rights and privileges, many established organizations, actually received increased financial support with which, among many activities, they provided “sensitivity training for . . . the very law enforcement agencies that monitor the Arab community.”

In 2002 a Muslim religious leader remarked that his Dearborn congregation had seen “more positive developments after September 11 than negative ones” because of the increased demand for information about Islam. (71, 72)

This uneasy relationship continued in the rest of the decade. In their 2009 essay (an excerpt from a larger piece), Howell and Jamal examine the “mix of opportunity and constraint” that accompanied the increased attention to Arab Detroit from federal law enforcement agencies and then ask:

“If Arab Detroit’s exceptional nature sheltered it from angry, intolerant individuals bent on revenge, did it also protect Arab Americans from ill-informed federal agents who saw culprits and conspirators around every corner? Did it situate Detroit’s Arab organizations to capitalize on new economic and cultural possibilities that followed (and were part of) the backlash or did it force them to redirect their energies toward defensive educational and legal campaigns? Did it empower Arab Americans to influence policy on the national level now that many Arab ethnic associations were working closely with federal agencies?” (88)

The unprecedented, if misdirected, “probe” of Arab Detroit as a possible source of terrorist activities encouraged local Arabs to inform on one another, recruited them as translators, invited organizations to participate in a task force to establish “best practices” for questioning Arab and Muslim noncitizens, and in other ways attempted to build trust and confidence in federal law enforcement.

As Mark Corallo was pursuing his ill-fated prosecution of suspected terrorist cells in Dearborn, the CIA became a sponsor of the East Dearborn Arab International Festival, “its information booth,” the authors wryly observe, “conspicuous [amid] the falafel stands and carnival rides.” (93) Howell and Jamal question whether the benefits of these relationships in any way compensate for their liabilities.

In “Domestic Foreign Policy: Arab Detroit as a Special Place in the War on Terror,” William Youmans argues that the identification of Arab Detroit “as a special place in the fight against anti-American militancy is fictive, that it came out of purely symbolic interpretations of the place, rather than material realities or actual connections to the attacks of September 11.” (269)

Youmans asserts that the “special place myth” was advanced by “frenemies” (“enemies who share mutual commitments”) including not only governmental agencies and law enforcement entities, the media and right-wing anti-Arab activists, but also established elements of the Arab Detroit community seeking to work the system, take advantage of the opportunity to educate and inform, put their own slants on post-9/11 developments, and attract needed resources to carry out their missions.

While perpetuating the myth brings some advantages to Arab Detroit and its representatives, Youmans suggests, it also places them in competition with one another for these advantages, and adherence to a fallacy advanced by those with agendas that are antithetical to the community’s interests perpetuates other mischaracterizations ultimately harmful to Arab Detroiters.

Sally Howell’s “Muslims as Moving Targets: External Scrutiny and Internal Critique in Detroit’s Mosques” extends the “special place” myth to its inhabitants, who “have achieved a kind of sustained visibility that is highly contradictory.” They prove that America is free and tolerant and that Arabs/Muslims can accept democratic values, while assimilating into Western culture. On the other hand, they show that blessings of U.S. democracy do not apply to groups regarded by the government and its citizens “as the enemy/outsider within.” (152)

Using three case studies, Howell illustrates the ways in which interactions between the FBI and the growing number of Detroit area mosques have not only increased Muslims’ suspicion of the U.S. government, but also intensified divisions within the community. The third case study examines the conflicting reactions of local Arab Muslims to one dramatic event: the FBI’s killing of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah, a Black Muslim cleric, in Dearborn on October 28, 2009.

Diverging Communities and Identities

The Detroit area’s Christian congregations and cultural institutions, Matthew W. Stiffler and Yasmeen Hamoosh show, operating without such intense surveillance have continued, if not increased, their pre-9/11 growth. These comparatively affluent, established communities have long experience of negotiating their hyphenated status: part “other”— part “American.” While still affected by 9/11, they are more separated by time, space, religion, class, and disposition from other segments of “Arab Detroit.”

The Orthodox and Catholic (Chaldean, Maronite, and Melkite) Arab communities have been present in the area for generations and now live mostly in northern and eastern suburbs, Dearborn, the downriver suburbs, and Hamtramck. They are composed of individuals who used their entrepreneurial proclivities to gain a foothold in this country and have since become well represented in medicine, law, business, industry and education.

More likely than Muslims to identify as “American,” Christian Arabs and Chaldeans also more easily retain their transnational relationships, more freely engage in charitable financial support for people and institutions with their countries of origin, and more openly express their positions on political and social issues including opposition to the Iraq war and to U.S. support for Israel, because they operate under much less suspicion in the post-9/11 environment. Both communities include more Republicans than do other Arab American populations.

Stiffler describes “flexible identity” using the example of Livonia Michigan’s Antiochan Orthodox congregation of St. Mary’s Basilica. As Stiffler uncritically explains, when the congregation held a festival to raise funds and introduce their religion and culture to their neighbors, it was purposely identified as “Arab, but not too Arab.” (121)

Sahara Fest, the name chosen for the event, according to one planner, “kind of implies Middle Eastern, but it doesn’t.” (116) While the festival featured Middle Eastern foods (most of which originate far from the Sahara), its organizers debated whether to “leave the Middle East out” of publicity materials. (118-19) The desire not to alienate non-Arab neighbors and to emphasize noncontroversial elements of Arab culture (like food) results from a century-long negotiation with the larger society.

Four memoirs, two by young women and two by older male poets, provide repeated instances of this negotiation. Mujan Seif, a high school student of Chaldean and Jordanian ancestry living in Detroit’s wealthiest northern suburb Bloomfield Hills, testifies that she has not experienced any anti-Arab bigotry, that “growing up Arab in the post-9/11 decade was happy and safe” (220), revealing attitudes affected as much by her American peers as by her ancestry.

The same dynamic appears in the essay by Khadigah Alasry, a Yemeni Muslim in her twenties. However, her more insulated upbringing among other Muslims in Dearborn leads her to appreciate her ancestry and to political and cultural activism.

Poet Hayan Charara provides a candidly revealing insight about hyphenation and internalized suspicion. In the months following 9/11, resentful after being investigated by the FBI and stopped repeatedly at airports, he thinks of each of his many Arab American acquaintances, none of them terrorists, and considers the inaccuracy of media portrayals — and yet, he confesses, he does not always feel indignant about these representations, even sometimes succumbing to them.

Sitting in Dearborn’s Al Ameer restaurant, Charara surveys different patrons and cannot suppress the thought, “They just might be terrorists,” while recognizing that they just might regard him in the same way.

Integration and Separation

As much as anyone, Lawrence Joseph in his poetry has explored this hyphenation by asserting his Arab heritage, his American identity, and his Detroit upbringing. His essay, comprising different prose pieces and interviews connected by an autobiographical narrative, reaches further back into the roots of Arab Detroit than do most others in the collection.

As in his poems, Joseph, a third-generation Detroiter now in his sixties, tells the stories of his grandparents’ emigration from Lebanon and Syria, their arrival in Detroit, their struggle to establish themselves as citizens and merchants in the early 20th century, and his experiences in his father’s inner-city store. Joseph and his wife left Detroit for New York in 1981, where they endured the trauma of 9/11, spending 24 hours separated, each not knowing if the other was alive.

In a conversation with a friend about “changing Arabness” he observed the ways in which Arab Detroit has changed: its increasing diversity, its presence throughout the metropolitan area, its influence on the culture, politics, and economy of the region: “Arab Detroiters are an integral part of Detroit’s history now. Arab Americans are an integral part of American history now.” But then he adds, “In my lifetime, Arab American experience has become increasingly racialized and increasingly violent.” (264)

This experience of violence, which Joseph explores in his four volumes of poetry, remains one source of separation from the mainstream. His poems trace the journey of his ancestors from the “burning cities” of Lebanon to the “burning cities” of America. Violence — whether experienced in labor-management battles, in small inner-city businesses where societal injustice produces violent crime, in the insurrection of 1967, or the attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath — has proven unavoidable for Arab Detroiters as for much of the world’s population..

Nevertheless, for generations members of persecuted minorities have left their Arab homelands in search of peace and prosperity in southeast Michigan. They have brought with them a business sense that allowed them to survive and even to thrive in the American marketplace, if not as capitalists themselves then as beneficiaries of the system — as when in the 1920s, my Lebanese immigrant grandparents moved their family from small-town Illinois to Detroit, not to work in auto factories or manage them but to sell groceries to those who did.

Over the last century, many descendants of my grandparents and their relatives have sought to join the mainstream, retaining their Arabness when convenient, but in other ways accepting the American cultural values: “Arab, but not too Arab,” affected no more than other Americans by the terror decade. Others, who balance both sides of the hyphen, find this trend troubling.

Abraham and Shryock’s first Arab Detroit collection bore the subtitle From Margins to Mainstream, connoting not only a range of possible locations for Arab Americans but also movement toward the mainstream over time. As this provocative second collection suggests, much of Arab Detroit remains separate from the mainstream. It’s probably just as well.

March/April 2012, ATC 157