- By Zhaoyin Feng
- BBC News, Michigan
Strolling down Main Street in Hamtramck, Michigan feels like traveling around the world.
In addition to a Yemeni department store and a Bangladeshi clothing store, you will find a Polish sausage shop and an Eastern European bakery. Church bells ring along with the Islamic call to prayer.
“The world in two square kilometers”: Hamtramck lives up to its slogan, with some thirty languages spoken over an area of 5 km2.
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This month, this Midwestern city of 28,000 hits a milestone. Hamtramck elects an all-Muslim city council and a Muslim mayor, becoming the first city in the United States to have an American Muslim government.
Once faced with discrimination, Muslim residents have become an integral part of this multicultural city, where they now make up more than half of the population.
And despite economic challenges and intense cultural debates, residents of Hamtramck from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds coexist in harmony, making the city an important case study for the future of growing diversity in America.
But will Hamtramck be an exception or a rule?
The history of Hamtramck, from its beginnings as a town of German settlers to today – it is America’s first Muslim-majority city – is engraved in the streets.
Shop windows display signs in Arabic and Bengali, embroidered clothes from Bangladesh and Jambiyas, a type of short, curved knife from Yemen, can be seen in shop windows. Muslim residents line up to buy paczki, a kind of Polish donut filled with pastry cream.
“It’s not uncommon to see some in miniskirts and tattoos and others in burkas walking down the same street. It’s all about us,” said Zlatan Sadikovic, a Bosnian immigrant who owns a cafe in the center of Hamtramck.
A stone’s throw from Detroit, which partially envelops the city, Hamtramck was once part of the epicenter of the American auto industry, dominated by the General Motors plant that straddles the “Motor City” border. The first Cadillac Eldorado rolled off the assembly line in Hamtramck in the 1980s.
In the 20th century, the city was nicknamed “Little Warsaw” as Polish immigrants flocked for working-class jobs.
The city is one of the stages in 1987 of the American tour of Pope John Paul II, born in Poland. In 1970, up to 90% of the city was of Polish descent.
However, this decade saw the beginning of the long decline in American auto production, and younger, wealthier Polish Americans began to settle in the suburbs. This change makes Hamtramck one of Michigan’s poorest cities, but affordability attracts immigrants.
Over the past 30 years, Hamtramck has once again transformed into a drop-off point for Arab and Asian immigrants, especially those from Yemen and Bangladesh.
Today, a significant portion of the city’s residents – 42% – are foreign-born. More than half are said to be practicing Muslims.
The composition of the newly elected government reflects the changing demographics in Hamtramck. The city council is composed of two Americans of Bangladeshi descent, three Americans of Yemeni descent and one American of Polish descent who converted to Islam.
With 68% of the vote, Amer Ghalib becomes the first Yemeni-American mayor of the United States.
“I feel honored and proud, but I know it is a great responsibility,” said Mr Ghalib, 41.
Born in a village in Yemen, he moved to the United States at the age of 17 and first worked in a plastic car parts factory near Hamtramck. He then learned English and received medical training, and today he works as a health professional.
Rather than being a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl,” Hamtramck is more of a “seven-layer cake” where different groups maintain their distinct cultures while living closely together, emphasizes Amanda Jaczkowski, elected member of the city council. “People are always proud of their particular culture, whereas if it were assimilation, we would lose that uniqueness.”
“When you live so close to each other, you have to overcome these differences,” adds Ms. Jaczkowski, 29.
But Hamtramck “isn’t Disneyland,” recalled Karen Majewski, the outgoing mayor who will serve 15 years before retiring. “It’s just a small place. And we have conflicts.”
Friction arose in 2004 after a vote to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer publicly. Some residents have argued that banning bars near mosques hurts the local economy.
Six years ago, when it became the first American city to elect a majority Muslim government, the world press came to Hamtramck. At the time, some media outlets portrayed a city “under pressure” from the influx of Muslims. A national TV host asks if Ms. Majewski was afraid of running for mayor.
Some have even speculated that a Muslim-controlled city council could impose Sharia law.
“In Hamtramck people roll their eyes at this kind of talk,” says Ms Majewski.
She said she was “satisfied” that Hamtramck has been a welcoming community, and that it is “natural” for new residents to vote for those who understand their experience and language.
The United States Census Bureau does not collect information on religion, but the Pew Research Center think tank estimates that in 2020 there were about 3.85 million Muslims living in the United States, or about 1.1% of the total population. Muslims are expected to become the second largest religious group in the United States after Christians by 2040.
Despite their growing presence, Muslims in America are often the subject of prejudice.
Twenty years after the September 11 attack, Islamophobia still haunts Muslims and other Arab Americans.
Nearly half of American Muslim adults told Pew in 2016 that they personally experienced some form of discrimination when then-candidate Donald Trump proposed barring American immigrants from Muslim-majority countries from entry.
The researchers also find that Muslims of all religious groups consistently receive the most negative views from the American public.
More than half of Americans say they don’t know Muslims personally, but those who know a believer personally are less likely to think Islam encourages violence more than other religions.
Hamtramck is a living example of how personal knowledge can curb Islamophobia.
When Shahab Ahmed ran for the city council shortly after the September 11 attacks, he faced an uphill battle.
“All over town were pamphlets saying I was the 20th hijacker who couldn’t fly,” said the Bangladeshi-born American. After losing the election in 2001, Mr. Ahmed to the neighbors to introduce himself. He was elected two years later and became the first Muslim representative of the city of Hamtramck.
Since then, support for the Muslim community in the city has grown.
In 2017, when the Trump administration imposed the travel ban, residents gathered to protest.
“In a way it has mobilized and united a lot of people because everyone knows that to live in Hamtramck you have to respect other people,” said Razi Jafri, co-director of the documentary “Hamtramck, USA”.
Nationally, Muslim Americans have also become more politically visible. In 2007, Democrat Keith Ellison of Minnesota became the first Muslim member of Congress. The current US Congress has four Muslim members.
On Election Day in Hamtramck this month, dozens of residents gathered outside a polling station to greet each other, many displaying their Election Day memorabilia, “I voted” stickers.
Immigrants were enthusiastic about participating in democracy, says Ms Jaczkowski. “It’s something very American to be able to bring people together.”
But as in the rest of the country, intense cultural debates take place in the city.
In June, when the city council approves the placement of a gay pride flag in front of city hall, some residents are outraged. Several pride flags hung outside private businesses and houses have been demolished, including one outside a vintage clothing store in Ms. Majewski’s downtown. “It sends a very alarming message to people,” she says.
Marijuana has also become a source of controversy. The opening of three dispensaries in Hamtramck aroused the consternation of certain members of the Muslim and Polish Catholic community.
Other residents are concerned about the lack of political participation of women in conservative Muslim communities.
On election night, Mr Ghalib, the elected mayor, was surrounded by a cheering Yemeni-American crowd at a post-election party that served baklava and kebab. More than 100 supporters were present, all men.
Women took part in his campaign, Ghalib says, but gender segregation remains traditional, even as challenged by younger generations who have become “Americanized,” he adds.
Hamtramck also faces challenges that all cities in the Rust Belt have, from dilapidated infrastructure to limited economic opportunities. Heavy summer rains flooded the city’s sewers and flooded many homes.
High levels of lead are found in samples of the city’s drinking water, attracting national attention.
Almost half of the city lives below the poverty line. These are just some of the pressing issues the city’s new leaders must address.
“What does democracy look like in a predominantly Muslim city? Like everywhere else, it’s messy and complicated,” says documentary filmmaker Jafri. “Once the novelty wears off, the work has to be done.”