Hamtramck–Home to the auto industryâ€”and American Islam
THE gym at Bridge Academy is full of children playing floor hockey. Boys and girls squeal as they chase the puck; a helpless teacher looks on. A homely American scene, except that most girls wear the hijab. This is Hamtramck, a town within the borders of Detroit, where the Muslim factor plays big in local politics.
In America as a whole, the fate of Muslims differs confusingly from the situation in Europe. American Muslims are in many ways better integrated and more successful. The constitutional right to freedom of religion protects their right to build mosques. But many report a recent rise in anti-Muslim prejudice, especially in parts of America where Islam is a little-known â€œotherâ€. Greater Detroit is different; Islam is a formidable force in public affairs. Michiganâ€™s first Muslim state legislator served in the 1960s. The first female Muslim legislator was elected last month. In Hamtramck, two out of six counselors are Muslim.
South-east Michigan has the countryâ€™s highest concentration of Arab Americans, about 40% of whom are Muslim. The first migrants were lured by the car industry. Now the regionâ€™s Muslim population, estimated to be at least 150,000, includes not just people of Arab descent but African-Americans and immigrants from Bangladesh and Albania.
Social solidarity has helped Muslims to thrive. The Arab Community Centre for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) has become a national model, offering succour to people of all faiths. The hub of Muslim activity is in Dearborn, west of Detroit: this is the home of ACCESS and of an Islamic Centre whose giant mosque dwarfs nearby churches. Two McDonalds outlets serve halal McNuggets. European officials often visit Dearborn to see its success, says Ahmad Chebbani, a civic leader.
Meanwhile Hamtramck (population 26,000) is changing from a Polish enclave into a growing Muslim one. Schools now compete for Muslim students, says Sally Howell of the University of Michigan. Mohamad Issa, who founded Bridge Academy and seven other charter schools, says his establishments are not religious; they canâ€™t be, as they get public money. But Muslims like the Arabic classes, days off for Muslim holidays and space for voluntary prayers. Detroitâ€™s public schools struggle to catch up; some offer Arabic classes and halal food.
Muslims in Detroit, thanks to strong institutions and numbers, feel better than elsewhere in America, though they still face prejudice, say Ms Howell and Amaney Jamal of Princeton University in a joint study. And no less than in Europe, local politics fosters odd alliances. Last month, Catholics induced Muslims in Hamtramck to vote down a gay-rights ordinance. Both there and in Detroit, Muslims and Latinos have co-operated to restrict racial profiling.
The familiar American saying that â€œall politics is localâ€â€”coined by the late Tip Oâ€™Neillâ€”is often taken to mean that defence contracts have as much to do with aerospace jobs as with security. But the Irish-Americanâ€™s adage also has some relevance to questions of faith.