Detroit’s Massive Muslim Community Looks for Allies in the Trump Era

Fifty-five percent of Americans know very little or nothing at all about Islam, but this group wants to change that.
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Photo by RapidEye / iStock.

As thousands of Americans have protested President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending the travel of immigrants from seven Muslim countries, college campuses and communities in Michigan—home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States—are speaking out.

Two of Michigan’s top universities—the University of Michigan and Michigan State University—were quick to release statements against the order. Both, among the biggest public universities in the nation, stated earlier this week they would not disclose students’ immigration status.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel wrote, “The leadership of the university is committed to protecting the rights and opportunities currently available to all members of our academic community, and to do whatever is possible within the law to continue to identify, recruit, support and retain academic talent, at all levels, from around the world.”

Similarly, Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon said the executive order “runs counter to the global nature of our communities and our nation. At MSU, our core values are quality, inclusiveness, and connectivity, and this action is an impediment to each.”

“Religion has always been racialized in America.”

The order comes at a time when organizations throughout Detroit have been mobilizing against racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. The Muslim-led, non-sectarian group TAKE ON HATE has been working with a coalition of other organizations in the Detroit metro area, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan Chapter (CAIR-MI) and the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion.

“Religion has always been racialized in America,” says Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR-MI. “Because Islam in America is seen as non-white or a non-American religion, it is seen as a threat. At one time Catholicism was not seen as a white religion in America, when Irish people and Italian people were considered non-white. Irish people got absorbed into whiteness and thus their faith got accepted into white religion.”

TAKE ON HATE started as a campaign launched by the National Network for Arab American Communities. It has recently become its own organization, though still led by NNAAC, as it addresses the increased discrimination of Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Their organizing has involved more than 1,500 people of various backgrounds in the past year; the group recently released a “tool kit” called #TakeOnHateWithAction, a four-page informational flier on how to become an ally in the anti-hatred movement and how to organize, along with a list of anti-racism organizations to join.

“We cannot criminalize and target entire communities based on their nationality and origin. Now, more than ever, is the time to get organized and stand up for equality and justice for all,” said Nadia Tonova, director of NNAAC.

“When you say ‘Islamic terrorist,’ you really are contributing to the harm being done to Muslims.”

Last summer, the group facilitated a free, six-month workshop series on Race Identity covering such issues as anti-racism, overcoming implicit bias and micro-aggressions, and compassionate intercultural communication. Open to the public, the event series, hosted with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, attracted 350 people from all different backgrounds. Fostering multi-racial alliances is critical to the work of fighting racism, particularly after Nov. 8, says Aysha Jamali, senior communications specialist for NNAAC.

TAKE ON HATE collaborated on the workshop series with other groups, including The Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, which has worked to improve race relations for decades.

“The curse of our racial segregation is that we’ve got people who grew up in their formative years that don’t know ‘the other,’ racially or religiously,” says Speitzer, who referenced a Pew Research Center study finding that 55 percent of Americans know very little or nothing at all about Islam.

The Roundtable recently reached out to local and national media to set up meetings between the press and a delegation of Muslim Americans from different organizations, representing various demographics, including Indo-Pakistani, African, and African American, to help change the narrative and dialogue, and challenge them to tell stories of everyday Muslims.

“When you say ‘Islamic terrorist,’ you really are contributing to the harm being done to Muslims because you don’t say the religion of anyone else who does harm,” Speitzer says of how the media often refers to Muslims. One of the results of the meetings was a 10-story series about Muslim Americans in Metro Detroit that aired in September on the local ABC affiliate.

Speitzer believes these types of stories are a positive move toward normalizing Islam in the United States. “We inspired them to take the challenge and they overachieved,” he says. “There are many faces of Islam, and [media] should be talking to all those so [they] reflects that in the story when something happens.” There’s a long way to go though, says Speitzer, particularly when hatred and bigotry appears so widely accepted.

Moving Forward

As a leader in the Muslim community, Walid acknowledges that some people have “heightened anxiety.” But, he says, for the many who have been involved in fighting Islamophobia and racism for a while, they plan to continue “plugging away and challenging issues” as they did under the Bush and Obama administrations.

He says TAKE ON HATE’s collaboration with other groups is important.

“The Trump presidency might actually be good, as far as bringing people together,” he says, adding that we have to first awaken people’s consciousness to the reality that structural racism based upon white supremacy still exists. And that this systemic racism not only informs policing of communities of color and mass incarceration, but also connects to national security. “This, perhaps, is the hidden blessing,” he says. “We might actually be able to start a real movement to bring about some real change.”