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A Model Muslim City (Politically): Hamtramck, Michigan

October 14, 2010 by  


By Nargis Rahman, TMO Foundation

TMO Editor’s Note:  This is a research project, one of three sponsored by the TMO Foundation, a not-for-profit organization.

This is a research report by Ms. Nargis Rahman, a journalism student at Wayne State University, which considers the political progress made in Hamtramck, a suburb of Detroit–an exemplary city, a model for other cities where the Muslim population is substantial.

Dearborn, Michigan is often known as the Muslim capital of the United States. Just beyond the former home to Henry Ford who led the automobile industry, there’s a growing population of Muslims who have set an example in community and political involvement.

Hamtramck, Michigan is a small 2.1 sq. mile city nestled between Detroit and Highland Park, cities which have both gone through economic hurdles long before the national economic downfall.

Once a thriving Polish town, housing nearly three times as many people in the early 1920s, it has now become an international town with 20,512 people of Bosnian, Arabic, Bangladeshi, Polish, and other origins. 

Historian Dr. Thaddeus Radzilowski of the Piast Institute, a national center for Polish and Polish-American studies, said Polish immigrants came to pursue a better life in the United States since the early 1900s.

“Polish immigrants came to the U.S. because of hunger, poverty, foreign oppression, and religious persecution and to make a better life,” he said.

Many of the first Polish Americans died in Hamtramck, after building an “institutionally complete community,” he said.

This community attracted immigrant populations, including the Bangladeshi community in the late 1990s during the second migration, from Queens, New York.

According to the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies, the first migration took place in the 1960s when Bangladeshis fled the country to avoid political and religious persecution before the country’s independence from Pakistan.

The growth in populations lead to building institutions, which indicates a population will stick around said Dr. Radzilowski.

Institutions, such as places of worship, have increased in Hamtramck in the last decade with four mosques in Hamtramck: Al Islah Islamic Center, the Bosnian American Center, Masjid Imam Algazali, and Islamic Center of Hamtramck, which cater to the city’s Bangladeshi, Bosnian and Yemeni Muslims.

The Islamic Center of North Detroit (Masjid Al-Falah), Masjidun-Nur, Baitul Mukarram Masjid, Masjid Mu’ath Bin Jabal in Detroit border Hamtramck, attracting much of Hamtramck’s Muslim population, while the Muslim Center in Detroit is just minutes away.

There are nearly 20 churches, according to the Hamtramck Library website.

There is also one Buddhist ashram and a Hindu temple in Hamtramck, said Dr. Radzilowski.

A scent of Hamtramck

Visitors will soon be immersed in the scents of traditional foods from more than 20 ethnicities, voices of people with over 80 languages and welcomed by close-knit neighborhoods.

According to Dr. Radzilowski, Hamtramck is nearly half Muslim, with 44-47% Muslims, 46-54% of combined Christian groups, and less than 1 percent Jewish people. There is about 4-6% of the population with no professed religious group.

He said the numbers come from a combination of studying the 2000 Census and the ancestry of immigrants who tend to be from certain religious groups, as part of the Piast Institute, which doubles as a Census information center.

The Census does not directly calculate religions.

‘Do to others as you would want them to do’

In a city where residents can walk out onto their front porches and are almost guaranteed to see someone who doesn’t look like them on their street – religion isn’t always a major factor.

Sharon Buttry of Ministry of Missions at Acts 29 Fellowship, a Christina non-profit group, said the three major religious groups come together under the umbrella of the golden rule: Do to others as you would want them to do.

This extends into righteous acts; care for the poor, widows, orphans, and the needy, Buttry said.

“You look through two things: the golden rule and bring about community spirit of respect, despite differences,” she said.

Such a moment came when the city was divided between the Call to prayer, the right to announce prayer times on public speakers for Muslim prayer times, in April 2004 by a noise ordinance.

The Call to Prayer, Adhan

Issued by Al-Islah Islamic Center through Councilmember Shahab Ahmed, the Call to Prayer, or adhan, became a major reason to divide the city just six years ago.

In a nutshell, the Call to prayer amended the noise ordinance in April 2004, allowing prayer calls to be made by Hamtramck mosques for prayers that fall between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., “for a duration not to exceed five minutes.”

The city council unanimously voted to pass the ordinance. The voting then went to the public. The ordinance passed by a 55 percent majority, according to the Associated Press.

Citizens of Hamtramck were torn apart.

Ahmed said the ordinance gave power to the people to vote on how the prayer calls should be made, in terms of times and noise level.

“If someone makes a complaint, it could change the noise ordinance,” he said.

Non-Muslims believed it was unconstitutional to allow mosques to broadcast their faith to citizens, who were not all Muslims.

Neighbors in Hamtramck said the Call to Prayer woke them up and they didn’t understand what was being said in Arabic.

The mosque passed out flyers that translated and explained the Call to prayer. 

That wasn’t enough.

Abdul Motlib, president of Al-Islah Islamic Center said, the City Hall was full of protesters in the public hearing for the ordinance in a video about the ordinance, for the Building Islam in Detroit project.
Motlib didn’t think it was a big deal, as Muslims traditionally heard these prayer calls “for [the past] 1400 years.”

Muslims said the Call to prayer is like the Church bells heard from a handful of churches around the city.

Former city councilman Abdul Algazali said, the issue was nothing personal against Churches.

He said all Muslims have to believe in Jesus Christ – but as a Prophet rather than God or son of God – in order to have faith.

“To complete religion, one must believe in Jesus,” said Algazali, referring to his respect for Christianity.

Council members Catrina Stackpoole and Tom Jankowski believe the issue still rubs people the wrong way.

Stackpoole said there is no uniformity on the issue.

Some people do not mind the diversity in town and say ‘What’s another ethnic group,’ while others are afraid of letting the minority become majority, said Stackpoole.

“It’s intruding on people’s lives but people are still not interested in ‘war,’” said Stackpoole, of citizens who oppose the Call to prayer.

“It’s not going to help the city if we have an ethnic-religious conflict,” she said.

Jankowski, who was Mayor at the time of the conflict, said non-Muslims don’t like the Call to prayer.

He said, at the time community leaders from the Muslim community said, “We don’t need this,” referring to the point of contempt.

“There was a small group that pushed and a city council who wanted to be re-elected, insisted it was the way to go. It caused a lot of problems and bad press,” Jankowski said.

He said the situation wasn’t handled right, pushing away from people visiting Hamtramck.

Although the issue was never challenged in court, Jankowski said it goes on.

Looking back, Jankowski asks himself “Was it worth the fight?”

“There’s some people who resent it; who hear it and cringe,” he said.

Secretary of Al-Islah, Masud Khan, told the New York Times he understood the insecurity felt by the people in 2004. 

‘’It’s human nature,” he said.

‘’You feel an invasion. It could happen to me also.”

The story was picked up by national newspapers including the New York Times, USAToday.com, CBS News and the newswire service, Associated Press.

Councilmember Ahmed, who was the only Muslim on the board at the time, had to persuade the city council to okay the ordinance. He said it was like political suicide to try and convince political opponents on a religious matter. But he did it anyway.

“Politicians want to stay away from religion,” he said.

Mayor of Hamtramck, Karen Majewski, who was city council president at the time, said the council unanimously voted in total to allow the controversial prayer calls.

Majewski said any time an immigrant population comes into the city, changes are bound to happen. Not everyone will like them.

According to the Bringing Islam in Detroit (BIID) program, Researcher and Assistant Professor of history at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, Sally Howell, said Detroit mosques have been broadcasting the call to prayer since the 1970s. Dearborn has broadcasted the adhan since the 1980s.

Imam Hamood of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn said, although the city’s mosques can say the adhan on loudspeaker, not all do.

Like in Hamtramck, prayer calls can be put to a halt if neighbors complain.

Similarly Masjid Al-Falah in Detroit does not have the authority to recite the adhan, due to neighbors’ complaints.

Imam Abdul Latif of Masjid Al-Falah said having the prayer call on loudspeaker does not significantly increase mosque membership, although membership increases gradually on its own.

“They [people] don’t come to the masjid because of the adhan,” he said.

“If we start giving adhan non-Muslims will leave from this community and that’s not good,” Latif said.

He said one particular neighbor said she felt safe among the Muslims, although she is against the loudspeaker calls.

“We don’t want to bother them,” he said, referring to keeping unity among interfaith groups.

Unity is just what was lacking when the call to prayer created tension in the Hamtramck community.

Ahmed, who is serving his third time on the Hamtramck City Council, needed FBI protection from April-November 2004 from anonymous callers and threats, which flooded his driving school and law office, Shondhan Enterprise Inc. in Hamtramck.

“What does he look like? What is his car model? When does he come and go?” his secretaries were asked, Ahmed said.

The tension topped-off the November 2001 elections when Ahmed lost in the city council elections after the 9/11 attacks.

With a grim face, Ahmed remembered the hatred spread in the community in the forms of flyers “with made up stories” about him. He said his supporters’ windows were messed up.

This time (after the call to prayer threats) Ahmed called the FBI in Detroit.

“They came within minutes. They had been watching the whole time,” he said.

The protection ended seven months after the ordinance was in action.

Looking ahead, Ahmed said the battle paved a path for other Muslims and Bangladeshis on board. 

“It should get better for the community if it doesn’t divide. I was alone then, now I don’t have to explain myself,” he said, referring to the time on the board when he was the only Muslim and Bangladeshi member.

Buttry, a resident of Hamtramck, said religious freedom was healthy for the city.

“I promoted the Call to prayer and have respect for religious liberty of different faiths other than mine,” said Buttry, a Baptist Christian.

“When I lived on Holbrook Street, I could hear the Call to prayer from three mosques,” she said.

Ahmed enjoys the prayer calls, which can usually be heard all five times during longer summer days, and sometimes in Ramadan.

“People hear the Call to prayer during fasting [Ramadan] to break fast or stop eating to begin fast,” he said with a smile.

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