The Arab and Muslim Americans of Dearborn and the Detroit metro area have long been the target of fear-mongering and xenophobia, particularly in the post-9/11 era. But for more than a century, Christian and Muslim Arabs have made this part of Michigan their home.
“We’ve got families that are fourth or fifth generation American at this point. And we’ve got families that are still arriving,” says Sally Howell, a history professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
The initial wave of immigrants came in the late 19th and early 20th century from Greater Syria, Howell, the author of “Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past,” tells me in the latest episode of our global affairs podcast, The Pivot.
More recent migrants have come from areas afflicted with violence, including Iraq and Yemen.
The sons and daughters of the Detroit metro area’s Arab American communities include some household names. New York Jets head coach Rob Saleh was born and raised in Dearborn, graduating from the city’s Fordson High School. The Detroit-born Rep. Rashida Tlaib represents parts of her hometown as well as neighboring Dearborn.
The Political Rise of Metro Detroit’s Arabs
Tlaib is the national face of metro Detroit’s Arab and Muslim American communities. But their path to direct political representation had long been deferred.
While James Karoub, the son of an imam, was elected to the Michigan House in the 1960s, it was only in 1990 that Dearborn saw its first Arab American — Suzanne Sareini — elected to the city council.
Sareini’s path was forged by other local Arab women trailblazers, including Helen Mohammed Okdie Atwell, who led a successful fight against the city’s plans to convert the Southend area into an industrial park and displace residents.
Notably, the first Arab elected to public office in the city was not just a woman, but also a Republican. Dearborn has a way of defying tropes and producing political surprises.
The Arabs of Dearborn voted for the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1984 Democratic presidential primary. Howell says that while Jackson lost Michigan, he won in Dearborn — a feat she describes as “remarkable” given “the city’s segregationist history.”
Similarly, in 2016, Dearborn’s overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim American population voted for another outsider, Bernie Sanders, who would have been America’s first Jewish president had he won.
Dearborn’s Arabs are swing voters in a pivotal swing state. President Joe Biden may want to take seriously statements by locals that they will leave the presidential part of the ballot blank in the 2024 elections.
Black-Arab Solidarity in Metro Detroit
Initial political activism in metro Detroit’s Arab and Muslim communities took on a transnational form. During the First World War, local Arab Muslims advocated for an independent Syria. As a fallback option, Howell says, they proposed U.S. stewardship of the area, seeing America as a benign or even benevolent alternative to Anglo-French colonialism.
Decades later, metro Detroit saw alliances between Arab and black American activists — foreshadowing the emergence of the congressional group known as “The Squad.”
The two communities were bound together by similar challenges. Dearborn mayor Michael Guido ran on an anti-black and anti-Arab campaign, with his campaign literature referring explicitly to the “Arab problem.”
In the late 1960s, the black Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) led wildcat strikes to improve conditions for black and Arab autoworkers, who felt exploited by the big Detroit auto companies and ignored by the United Auto Workers (UAW).
And in 1973, when it was discovered that the UAW was investing in Israeli bonds, DRUM supported the push of the Arab Workers Caucus (AWC) for divestment. The endorsement of the Jackson presidential campaign too reflected “intersectional” or cross-cutting alliances.
A New Generation of Activists
“There’s been a huge generational shift” in local politics in recent years, says Howell. While older generations of Arab Americans “tried to play by the [conventional] rules” of politics, the younger generation of political activists is far less reticent to challenge institutional power.
Their assertiveness is to some extent the result of being treated like political pariahs. In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis actually rejected the endorsement of Arab Americans. Two decades later, a hijab-wearing woman was asked by the Barack Obama presidential campaign to move out of the camera shot at a rally in Detroit. The Obama campaign sought to obscure reminders of the Chicago politician’s Muslim ancestry.
Instead of running after candidates, metro Detroit’s Arabs and Muslims are now running for office themselves.
In addition to Tlaib, metro Detroit has produced Abdulrahman El-Sayed, who waged a Bernie Sanders-style campaign for Michigan governor in 2018. And in 2022, Dearborn elected its first Arab and Muslim American mayor, Abdullah Hammoud.
A century after the arrival of the first Arabs and Muslims in metro Detroit, it appears that their political moment has finally arrived.
University of Michigan-Dearborn Professor Sally Howell joins host Arif Rafiq to discuss the history of the Arab Americans of Detroit and Dearborn and their rise as a force that is not only reshaping the political landscape in Michigan but could also play a decisive role in choosing the next president of the United States.
- Sally Howell, History Professor, University of Michigan-Dearborn
Sally Howell is a professor of history at the University of Michigan–Dearborn. Her books include Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade (2011), Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past (2014), and Hadha Baladuna: Arab American Narratives of Boundary and Belonging (2022).
Old Islam in Detroit was named a Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan and given the 2014 Evelyn Shakir Award. Howell is also a curator of public history projects including the Halal Metropolis exhibition series, the Seen Jeem Podcast, and Unsettled Lives: Displaced Iraqis in Metro Detroit.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.