If Southeast Michigan's claim to fame is that it's the auto capital of America, its claim to notoriety—in certain circles, anyway—is that it's the Arab and Islamic capital too. Around 300,000 Muslims live in the area. Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the nation's population but more than 40 percent of two cities in the Metro Detroit region, Hamtramck and Dearborn.
The former, a 2-square-mile town of less than 30,000 people, triggered a national freak-out last November when it elected a 4–2 Muslim majority to its City Council. The punditocracy's lead Muslim-baiter, Pamela Geller, instantly predicted Shariah, terrorism, and persecution of Jews in Hamtramck's future. A Texas Republican councilman, Micky Garus, earnestly declared that the "end of Western civilization" was nigh.
There was a similar outcry in 2013, when Dearborn elected four Arab Americans, two of them Muslim, to its City Council. The Family Research Council's Jerry Boykin quickly claimed that radical Muslims had made Dearborn off-limits to Detroit police. Dearborn was, in fact, already outside the jurisdiction of Detroit police—not because of Muslim machinations but because Dearborn is not part of Detroit. The accusation prefigured former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's imaginary no-go zones in Europe, especially France, where central authorities have allegedly lost political control to local Muslims who allegedly shoo away all nonmembers of the faith.
It isn't just fringy sorts like Geller and Boykin who worry about Islamic assimilation. Mainstream center-right scholars such as National Review Institute's Andrew C. McCarthy and, to a lesser extent, center-left ones such as the Brookings Institution's Peter Skerry have similar concerns, albeit typically expressed in more temperate language.
The standard rap against Muslims is that they are fundamentally incapable of embracing liberal democratic values because Shariah—Islamic religious law—rejects the separation of religion and state and imposes regressive sexual norms, especially on women. Therefore, the argument goes, towns like Hamtramck and Dearborn will always be in tension with American values, incubating terrorists in the middle of the United States. In this view, Dearborn will become another Molenbeek, the Belgian city where many jihadi attacks have been hatched, including the recent ones in Brussels and Paris.
But if you set aside the lens of Molenbeek and look at life as it is actually lived in Hamtramck and Dearborn, an entirely different picture emerges. Molenbeek is the second-poorest borough in Brussels. It has been caught in a downward spiral of poor education, high crime, and nonexistent social mobility. In 2014, 27 percent of Molenbeek's working-age population, close to 50 percent of which is Muslim, was unemployed. The opposite cycle is unfolding in Hamtramck and Dearborn even though, remarkably enough, they are ensconced right next to Detroit, the closest thing to Molenbeek's depressive economy in America.
I have lived in Metro Detroit for 27 years, about 20 miles from both of these towns. Since December 2015, I have visited them dozens of times and talked to scores of people—politicians, reporters, shopkeepers, academics, imams. Both are vibrant, diverse, and hopeful communities with populations that, like Muslims across the country, seem fairly happy with life in the United States. (A 2011 Pew poll found that 56 percent of Muslim Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, compared to 23 percent of the general public.) The Muslims of Dearborn and Hamtramck are indeed increasing their participation in political life, but that isn't a plot to turn the towns into little Shariahvilles—it's an effort to assimilate into American life.
Michigan's Muslim communities certainly have their troubles, but they aren't the insidious, subversive forces that Islamophobes imagine. They face the challenges of a community gradually adjusting to American life, generally successfully but with inevitable bumps in the road. Yes, Muslim attitudes on gay rights and censorship of religious speech are out of step with America's prevailing ethos of freedom. But they are no more heterodox than many minority populations before them, and those differences are hardly something a strong liberal polity can't handle.
A Tale of Two Cities
According to Sally Howell, a professor of Arab-American studies at the University of Michigan and the author of several books on Detroit's Arabs, Muslims in Hamtramck and Dearborn are assimilating very nicely. The median income of Detroit's Arab households, about half of whom are Muslim, is $31,700—on par with the region's median income of $32,824. Howell's 2003 Detroit Arab Americans Survey found that 25 percent of the area's Arabs report annual family incomes of $100,000 or more, compared to 16 percent of the general population. Among American-born Arabs (including Iraqi Christian Chaldeans), 94 percent have high school diplomas, 7 percent more than the general public. Identical percentages of both groups have college degrees, and over 31 percent of Arab Americans are self-employed, twice the figure for the general population.
And only 30 percent of Detroit's Arab Muslims go to mosque every month, compared to 66 percent of Arab Christians who attend church that often. Just 18 percent of the area's Muslims were active in their mosques, far less than the 47 percent of Arab Christians who were active in their churches. This is not what an incubator of zealotry looks like.
None of this means that terrorists could never sprout in the Metro Detroit Muslim community, any more than school shooters can't emerge from lily-white neighborhoods. But viewing them as uniquely problematic is unfair both to them and to America's assimilative capacity.
There are important differences between the two towns. Hamtramck's 15,000-strong Muslim population dates back only about two decades, and it consists of everyone from blue-eyed, light-skinned Bosnians to swarthy Bangladeshis. By contrast, Dearborn's community has 100-year-old roots and hails predominantly from the Middle East. Its Muslim population is almost three times bigger than Hamtramck's—more if you count Dearborn Heights, its companion city.
Because the Hamtramck community is newer, it has an air of innocence, as if it hasn't fully comprehended how much post-9/11 hostility there is toward Muslims in America. Its politics are primarily driven by economic security and ties to the old world. Dearborn's community is more settled, savvy, and middle-class, and it is acutely aware of the harsh national Klieg lights pointed at it. Its political participation is a complicated coping dance motivated not just by its economic interests but also the need to cooperate with anti-terrorism efforts without ceding civil or religious rights.
These two towns, 10 miles apart, give us snapshots of two points in the arc of Muslim assimilation in America.
Thanks to Hamtramck's ridiculously low cost of living, it has long been a landing pad for new immigrants: Germans at the end of the 19th century, Poles three decades later, then other waves of Eastern Europeans and, since 1995, Muslims. No one visiting Hamtramck now can miss the strong Islamic imprint, given how dramatically the Muslim presence has altered the city's public spaces.
In the 1990s, Hamtramck embraced the New Urbanist approach to city planning, with mixed-use zoning and pedestrian-friendly design. By encouraging residents to walk more, planners pulled the new arrivals' customs outdoors, unintentionally making the Muslim presence more visible. It's almost impossible to cruise down Joseph Campau Road and Caniff Street, the city's two main drags, without seeing women pushing carts to grocery stores draped either in hijabs—headscarves—or in burqas, the head-to-toe black shroud that parts only at the eyes. Men with keffiyehs linger outside the kebab joints that flourish where Polish restaurants once stood. Muslim moms, children in tow, can be seen walking to the blingy Bangladeshi dress stores that have been elbowing out staid Polish boutiques.
There are about 35 bars in Hamtramck. That may sound like a lot, but there were 200 before Muslims started displacing Poles. Some of the former bars have been converted into mosques such as the Masjid Al-Iman Al-Ghazalli on Joseph Campau Street.They look like the poor cousins of Hamtramck's grand churches, especially the tall and majestic St. Florian that looms over the town. But what the mosques lack in grandness, they make up for in loudness when they blare the muezzin's summons ("Allah Hu Akbar") five times a day.
When the public call to prayer first came to Hamtramck in 2004, it became a flashpoint in the nation's culture wars—even bigger than the election that made the City Council majority-Muslim. Coverage of the vocal protests made it look like Hamtramck had become a cauldron of ethnic conflict. Fox & Friends' Pete Hegseth performed a typical hit job, finding an obligatory Polish American to say on camera that Muslims aren't "ready for Western culture yet."
The segment was neither the only nor the first to offer that kind of spin. Drive-by reporters come to the city, observe its altered appearance, ask loaded questions about tensions between Muslims and Poles, find out that one Muslim City Council member commented after getting elected, "now we'll show these Polish people," and dash out a piece confirming the narrative of ethnic tensions. (That comment, which every other Muslim council member condemned immediately, was a dig at a Polish opponent for making his religion an issue during the campaign.)
But Hamtramck's mayor, Karen Majewski, maintains that this narrative is profoundly misleading. For starters, she says, most of the people protesting the muezzin's call weren't locals but Christian fundamentalists sent from neighboring towns, some in Ohio. Greg Kowalski, a retired editor of the local Observer & Eccentric newspaper chain, confirms the same. Indeed, he says he was contacted by Christian attorneys in Chicago offering their services pro bono to stop the call. But Majewski insists the protesters didn't understand that the call was constitutionally protected speech; the council couldn't ban it any more than it could cut off the church bells that ring every hour. The council meeting that became the focus of protests was in fact never about banning the call; the aim was just to regulate its volume and timing.
Twelve years later, the call has become such a normal—even soothing—part of Hamtramck's auditory background that only visitors notice it anymore.
If anything, says Kowalski, a lifelong Hamtramck resident, Muslims have been far less aggressive in remaking the city compared to earlier European immigrants. The retiree, who volunteers at the Hamtramck Historical Museum, believes the current transition is far less contentious than the early-20th century conflict between the new Polish arrivals and the previously dominant Germans. The two groups already had some bad blood between them from the old country. Germans, who outnumbered Poles 10–1 in 1900, pulled every trick in the book to prevent the Polish from gaining power, including stopping voting at 4 p.m., one hour before the Polish factory workers got off. They also held citywide elections for City Council rather than electing representatives by district—a system that still persists—to prevent Pole-heavy neighborhoods from getting a foothold in the local government.
Nothing that Hamtramck's Muslims have done to the city's 20-plus ethnic groups is nearly as nasty. The animosities within the Islamic community are probably fiercer than the divisions between Muslims and everyone else. East-Asian Bangladeshi Muslims (20 percent of Hamtramck's population) don't have much in common with Middle Eastern Yemeni Muslims (also 20 percent), who don't have much in common with European Bosnian Muslims (7 percent) and so on. Over the past two decades, strong disagreements between these groups, but also within them, have broken out. For example, various Bangladeshi factions, who tend to be the most politically active group, fought so hard over whose favorite icon from back home should be used when picking honorary names for streets that the whole project had to be dropped. If Hamtramck's politics show anything, it is the crudeness of viewing Muslims as a monolith whose religious identity trumps its linguistic, cultural, political, and economic interests.
Unlike the Germans and Poles before them, the city's Muslim council members don't appear to have any unified goal, religious or otherwise. They seem to disagree as much among themselves as other council members over city spending, what to do about vacant storefronts, road repairs, and how to attract new business to the city.
A council seat is a part-time position that pays only $3,000 a year—hardly a road to riches. But it's attractive as a stepping-stone to higher political office or higher status.
Consider Councilman Anam Miah, a likable first-generation Bangladeshi Muslim whose wife is African-American. He has a teenage son and a college-age daughter; the latter, dressed in tight jeans and a sweatshirt, was helping repaint her late grandfather's old house when I met them. Miah works at Flexible Products, an auto supplier in a ritzy Detroit suburb, where he is also president of the local United Steelworkers chapter. He is active in Michigan Democratic politics and clearly hopes to make a bid for state office someday. He is a practicing Muslim, but Shariah law doesn't mean much to him. "I don't understand or accept it," he says. "You don't have to practice Shariah to be a Muslim."
Status seems to be the motivating factor for 28-year-old Councilman Saad Almasmari, who came to America from Yemen in 2009, learned English by 2011, became naturalized in 2012, and obtained the most votes of any of the candidates last year. Since immigrating, he also got married, had three children, and opened an ice cream business. He sought his seat to signal to his family back in Yemen that he had truly arrived: "It shows them that I have everything in America."
The diverse political motivations and interests of the Muslim council members make it difficult for them to come together as a block, notes Kowalski. It also makes them similar to local politicians everywhere. One of the few times they did unite was over a barnyard animal ordinance two years ago. A burgeoning urban farm movement pushed the council to allow small barnyard animals in backyards. But this threatened local Muslim merchants, who control the live chicken business in town. They successfully lobbied some of the Muslim council members to make an exception in the final bill. The upshot is that people can now keep rabbits, ducks, and pigeons—but chickens are a no-no.
"You can tie [that debate] to religion if you want," mused Majewski when queried about the incident. "But it's really got more to do with internal Hamtramck politics." In other words, the grandest Muslim conspiracy in Hamtramck aimed to advance not Shariah law but old-fashioned low-stakes crony capitalism.
Hamtrack's diversity is the stuff of multi-culti dreams. Nearly 30 languages are spoken in Hamtramck's schools and each street is a mélange of different ethnicities and nationalities. (Besides Germans and Poles, the town is home to Ukrainians, Bosnians, Mexicans, Albanians, Indians, and more.) Down the block from Miah's house sits the Queen of Apostles Church. Right next door is a K–8 charter academy that advertises halal meals. Miah's neighbor is a Baptist minister, and across from him is a Polish guy who has lived there for six decades.
Hamtramck is poor—at least 50 percent of its population consists of recent immigrants who work in trucking, cabbing, or house cleaning or run small mom-and-pop stores—but it couldn't be more different from Jindal's imaginary European no-go ghettos. In the last few years it has become a trendy spot for hipsters priced out of Detroit's reviving downtown but who want good ethnic eateries, a cool bar scene, and cheap housing. (The average home here costs $50,000; an Albanian house painter told me that's a third of what a home costs in his country.)
Occasionally tensions do break out. Old-timers kvetch that their neighborhoods are transforming. But the real news is just how well everyone gets along, especially in a city where people are crammed in 20-foot-wide, two-story, two-family homes with just enough space to fit maybe two trashcans between houses.
The most vivid illustration of Hamtramck's ethos is the Al-Haramain International Food Market, the city's most popular shopping destination. In its cramped aisles, prim, older Polish ladies with coiffed hair, hipsters in skinny jeans or short skirts, and Muslim women in burqas literally rub shoulders—and carts. The store offers a greater variety of produce, spices, and meats than Whole Foods, but at Walmart prices. The only Islamic thing about it besides its Yemeni owners is that it doesn't sell pork or non-halal meat. That you can buy from Bozek's Polish market, right across the street.
Al-Haramain represents the live-and-let-live version of Islam that has established itself in America. "I don't see much radicalization among Muslims in Hamtramck," observes Andriy Zazulya, a Ukrainian student in his mid-20s who came to America with his family nine years ago. "They have the same aspirations as every other immigrant group here. And the immigrant bond that we all share is much stronger than any religious differences."
Arab Americans started flocking to Dearborn at the turn of the 20th century when Henry Ford announced that he would begin paying his workers $5 per day. Dearborn police literally ran a taxi service for Ford, waiting outside the train station to pick up arriving immigrants and driving them straight to his auto factories.
At first the influx was mostly Christian. But Muslim numbers ticked up every time war broke out in the Middle East. The first wave of refugees arrived during the 1975 civil war in Lebanon. By and large they stayed out of politics, mobilizing only when directly affected—like to defeat Dearborn's bid in the mid-'70s to level their homes on the south side of town to make room for an industrial park. Running for elections—considered dirty business where they came from—wasn't these immigrants' cup of tea. But they did vote.
It's rarely remembered today, but American Muslims were turning solidly Republican before 9/11 interrupted the process. That makes sense because Muslims are naturally conservative, argues Osama Siblani, a Lebanese-American engineer who founded the Dearborn-based Arab American News in 1984. George W. Bush was the community's clear favorite in the 2000 election, because he combined his conservatism with calls for a "humble" foreign policy and opposition to racial profiling. Siblani's paper gave Bush a ringing endorsement, and the Republican went on to win 71 percent of the national Muslim vote, prompting Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, no dove, to identify Siblani among the people Bush should thank for his victory.
But even before Donald Trump called for banning Muslims from the U.S. and Newt Gingrich laid out a proposal to require loyalty oaths, the GOP started to lose the Islamic vote. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, hawkish Republicans began to demonize Shariah and questioned Islam's compatibility with American values. And as some in the GOP rejected Muslims, they returned the favor. In the 2016 presidential primaries, 59 percent of Dearborn's Muslims voted for Bernie Sanders, a Jewish socialist. In Michigan, they helped fuel his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.
That's not the only political shift in the Islamic community. On the very day the hijackers flew their planes into the Twin Towers, Dearborn was holding primaries. Eleven Arab Americans were vying for mayor, City Council, the Board of Education, and other offices—the highest number to date. But the attack depressed Arab-American turnout, allowing opponents to capitalize on a surge of anti-Arab sentiment in a city with a long history of racial animus. Orville Hubbard, mayor of Dearborn from 1942 to 1978 (whose statue adorned the city square till 2015), was an unrepentant segregationist whose motto was "keep Dearborn clean." Originally directed at blacks, that sentiment paved the way for Michael Guido's successful 1985 mayoral campaign that made dealing with the city's "Arab problem" its central plank.
All of this was prodding Arab Americans to become more politically engaged at the turn of the millennium. Alas, September 11, 2001—the day they were poised to break through into local politics—became the day of their rout.
But after a period of retreat, the community remobilized. One issue that spurred action was a desire for more resources to help absorb refugees of the Iraq War, many of whom were clustering in East Dearborn and straining public services, especially schools. Dearborn authorities wanted to simply bus the kids to West Dearborn schools, but Siblani used his newspaper and his clout to campaign successfully for a $150 million millage to build three new schools in East Dearborn. Arabs also sought and won spots on school boards, campaigning to address the special needs of Muslim kids, such as halal lunches and bilingual education.
Rashida Tlaib—an attorney who in 2008 became the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan legislature—recalls another challenge at that time: explaining some of the community's habits to the broader public. For example, many Arab families for decades had been turning their garages into living rooms and parking their cars on the streets. The local housing ordinance did nothing to prohibit this. But over time, thanks partly to street overcrowding, tensions with neighbors and run-ins with the fire department increased. Arab Americans felt harassed and Dearborn authorities felt disrespected.
Matters likely would have blown up had Susan Dabaja, an Arab Muslim City Council member, not been in a position to intervene and diffuse the situation, notes Tlaib. Interestingly, some Ron Paul–supporting libertarians stepped in on the Arab-American side and lobbied against a proposed overly restrictive ordinance.
It is notable that all of Dearborn's Muslim City Council members, in contrast to their Hamtramck counterparts, have assumed American names such as Susan Dabaja, Mike Sareini, Robert Alex Abraham, and David Bazzy. They aren't the only ones. I met one second-generation Lebanese Christian businessman who assumed a milquetoast American name after 9/11, switching because he was afraid for his children and grandchildren. "I've read American history, and I know what happened to Japanese Americans in World War II," he shudders. The fear of internment camps haunts many Dearborn Arabs, Siblani affirms.
After 9/11, the feds illegally detained 1,400 Arab-American Muslims, many from Dearborn, sending shockwaves through the community. Despite that, about 4,000 of them voluntarily signed up as translators and agents for the CIA and FBI. Meanwhile, many Michigan Muslims used their familiarity with the Middle East to obtain lucrative defense contracts during the Iraq War, making veritable fortunes. But the biggest boon for Dearborn was, paradoxically, the PATRIOT Act. The feds used that law to crack down on Muslim charities sending money overseas for relief efforts out of suspicion that they were using philanthropy as a cover to fund militant outfits such as Hamas and Hezbollah. This spooked Dearborn Muslims into keeping their almsgiving closer to home.
As a result, outfits such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which fights for Arabs' civil rights, and the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, which assists newly arriving Arab immigrants, experienced an explosive growth in their budgets. Donations to places of worship also jumped: More than a dozen mosques have been completed in Dearborn since 2001, including the $16 million Islamic Center of America.
Siblani believes that this growth is not entirely healthy. "It is like a steroid injection," he says. An influx of wealth within the community combined with rising Islamophobia outside, he argues, retarded the normal process of outward mobility. Dearborn has become a safe haven for Arab Muslims, so that even as they become more affluent, they don't necessarily move to tonier suburbs—or at least not ones too far from Dearborn. As a result, the town has become an enclave, observes Matthew Stiffler, a Lebanese Christian researcher at Dearborn's Arab American National Museum. Muslims can visit mosques, patronize Arabic-speaking doctors, send their kids to predominantly Arab public schools, and eat at halal restaurants without having to venture outside city limits.
Many conservatives see this and scream "Dearbornistan." But the city's Muslims say they have built parallel institutions as an act of self-protection, largely to avoid uncomfortable encounters with people who scream things like "Dearbornistan."
Although post-9/11 Islamophobia has in some ways driven American Muslims together, it has also divided them. The sectarian rift between Dearborn's Shiite majority (largely Lebanese) and its Sunni minority (much of it from Iraq) has significantly deepened and sometimes results in the vandalization of mosques on both sides. Americans chastise Muslims for not rising up in unison and issuing full-throated repudiations of "Islamic terrorism." But Shiites see Al Qaeda and ISIS—the worst 21st century terrorist groups—as Sunni terrorists, not "Islamic" terrorists. They don't think 9/11 or the San Bernardino and Orlando attacks have any more to do with them than the Catholic pedophilic priest scandal has to do with Protestants.
A generational divide has also opened. Dearborn's older Muslims, precisely because they are closer to their immigrant roots, have taken an accommodationist approach to the war on terror. The dilemma that Muslim leaders confronted after 9/11, the University of Michigan's Howell points out, is that they had to rely on the same authorities who were surveilling their community to defend it against a backlash. Many of the wealthier mosques, such as the Islamic Organization of North America (IONA), decided to deal with the situation by becoming completely transparent. They voluntarily started taping all their sermons and installed video cameras to record everyone who entered. They cultivated close ties with the FBI and CIA, even inviting the agency's representatives to community functions. Meanwhile, younger, college-educated, American-born Muslims are more likely to want to stand up to the authorities and defend their civil rights. Many of them condemn their elders as collaborators.
Minorities who feel under siege tighten their grip on their old ways. That's happening in Dearborn. Kaseem Ali—executive director of the Islamic Center of America, North America's biggest mosque—says that growing Islamophobia has renewed young Muslims' interest in their religion. Membership in the mosque has increased 30 percent since it reopened after renovations in 2004. And young Muslims are becoming more openly religious.
Tlaib, a 40-year-old divorced mother of two who now saunters around in pumps and a skirt, says she went through a religious phase. Although her Palestinian parents are fairly devout Muslims, they didn't demand religious fidelity from their children; one of her 14 siblings has become a Jehovah's Witness and another practices no religion at all. Yet in college, she started praying more and wearing the hijab. Indeed, the hijab is experiencing something of a revival among Michigan's Muslims—but not because the community is coming under the grip of some retrograde form of patriarchal Islam. Rather, women are donning it as a symbol of resistance to demands for mainstream conformity. Several Muslim men told me that they'd feel better if their wives ditched their headscarves to avoid harassment. But the wives themselves were digging in their heels, because they wanted to fight for the space to practice their faith on their own terms.
Broader America may see Dearborn's increasing insularity, mealy-mouthed condemnations of Islamic terrorism, backlash against the authorities, and resurgence of faith as symptoms of growing radicalization. But these are natural efforts to negotiate the terms of assimilation in a difficult environment. Allowing them to do so, says Howell, is more likely to forestall radicalization by reducing the sense of being under siege and making Muslims feel that they can effect change through normal democratic channels. The central paradox that American Muslims confront is that they are being challenged to assimilate in mainstream America, even as mainstream American has turned suddenly hostile to them.
Clash of Civilizations?
So Michigan isn't witnessing a clash of civilizations. But there are two potential tension points between the Muslims and other Americans, one involving sexual politics and the other involving religious speech. In both cases, the conflict doesn't involve American conservatives who oppose the Muslim presence but American progressives who support it.
The sexual issue is not the status of women. Women are certainly oppressed in many Muslim countries, but in America Muslim women are one of the most highly educated female religious groups, second only to Jewish women, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. Furthermore, 28 percent of Arab women work in professional occupations, compared to 17 percent of Arab men, according to Howell's survey. It is certainly true that some Muslim families prescribe regressive rules of interaction among the sexes. One man in Dearborn refused to shake my hand, allegedly out of respect for me. But that doesn't pose any more of a threat to fundamental American liberties than when certain observant Jewish men similarly refuse to greet women with a handshake, something they have been doing for years in America without causing political outcry. Like Christian puritanism, Muslim puritanism is a lifestyle choice. The crucial thing is that the moral high ground in the American Islamic community is on the side of educating and empowering women.
Not so on gay rights. Every true Islamic believer is required to oppose homosexuality, asserts IONA's Imam Steve Elturk, a lanky engineer who became a preacher after a nasty divorce and custody battle 20 year ago. Organizations such as the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a progressive Muslim outfit, are making the case for gay marriage to their fellow Muslims. But they are on the defensive in their community.
And then there is the issue of religious speech. Saeed Khan, a professor of Near Eastern and Asian studies at Wayne State University, maintains that Detroit mosques are moderating, not radicalizing, places; he says that you'd be hard pressed to find a single imam who would defend the violence against Charlie Hebdo for drawing cartoons of the prophet. But you would also be hard pressed to find believing Muslims who would defend the publication's right to do so.
Elturk, who has a son in the Marines, says that there is growing sentiment among Muslims that anti-apostasy laws don't represent the true teachings of the Koran. But he acknowledges that most Muslims, including him, believe in setting outside limits to free speech when it comes to religion. A 2012 Wenzel Strategies poll found that 58 percent of Muslim Americans believe criticism of Muhammad should not be protected under the First Amendment. If he were president, Elturk imagines, he would hold a multi-faith conclave to draw up red lines for every religion beyond which free speech rights would not be protected. "If non-Muslim Americans understood that Muslims love the prophet even more than their children and parents, they'd see why insulting him is unacceptable," he says. This betrays a fundamental inability to comprehend that such restrictions would eviscerate both free speech and the separation of church and state.
How threatening are these Muslim attitudes to bedrock liberal values? Given how small the Muslim presence in America is, not very. If this presence grows substantially, it will certainly affect the national conversation on religious speech and gay rights, just as the Catholic presence has affected the debate over abortion and reproductive rights—and the Jewish presence has affected the debate over Middle Eastern policy. But Muslims will not just influence the culture; they will be influenced by it. Islam in the West loses about a fourth of each Muslim-born generation. If Muslim numbers increase, interaction with the rest of America will splinter the community's already fraught cohesiveness. "There will be Democratic Muslims and Republican Muslims and civil libertarian Muslims and socialist Muslims and progressives and conservatives," Siblani predicts.
In other words, the American assimilation process will crunch them into a million pieces and then absorb them into the great body politic, just as it has for every other immigrant group. Nothing about Hamtramck and Dearborn suggests otherwise.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Muslim in America".