- Zhaoyin Feng
- BBC News, Michigan
A stroll down Main Street in Hamtramck, Michigan, feels like a tour around the world.
A sausage shop and an Eastern European bakery are located next to a Yemeni department store and a Bengali clothing store.
The church bells ring along with the Islamic call to pray.
“The world in two square miles (5 square kilometers)” is Hamtramck’s catchphrase and this city lives up to the challenge, with around 30 different languages spoken in its 5 square kilometer area.
This month, this Midwestern city of 28,000 reached a milestone. He elected a fully Muslim mayor and city council, becoming the first city in America to have a Muslim-American government.
Although discriminated against in the past, Muslim residents have integrated into this multicultural city and now make up more than half of its population.
And despite economic challenges and intense cultural debates, Hamtramck residents of different faiths and cultural backgrounds coexist in harmony, making the city an important case study for America’s growing diversity in the future.
But will Hamtramck a rule or an exception?
The history of Hamtramck, from its beginnings as a city of german settlers to date, the America’s first Muslim-majority city, is recorded in its streets.
There are shops with posters in Arabic and Bengali, embroidered garments from Bangladesh and Jambiyas, a type of short curved sword from Yemen, are seen in store windows.
Muslim residents line up to buy paczki, a kind of custard-filled Polish donut.
“It is not unusual to see some in miniskirts and tattoos and others in burqas walking down the same street. This is what we are,” says Zlatan Sadikovic, a Bosnian immigrant who owns a cafe in the center of Hamtramck.
A stone’s throw from the outskirts of Detroit, which partly wraps around the city, Hamtramck was once part of the epicenter of the American auto industry, dominated by the General Motors plant that stretched on both sides of its border with ‘Motor City’.
The first Cadillac Eldorado rolled off the assembly line at Hamtramck in the 1980s.
Throughout the 20th century, it was known as “Little Warsaw” as Polish immigrants flocked for manufacturing jobs.
The city was one of the stops on the United States tour of Pope John Paul II, born in Poland, in 1987. In 1970, until 90% of the city was of Polish origin.
In that decade, however, the long decline in automobile manufacturing began in the United States, and younger and wealthier Polish Americans began to move to the suburbs.
The change made Hamtramck one of the poorest cities in Michigan, but the affordability attracted immigrants.
For the past 30 years, Hamtramck was transformed again to become an airstrip for Arab and Asian immigrants, especially from Yemen and Bangladesh.
A significant portion of the city’s residents today, 42%, were born abroad. More than half are believed to be practicing Muslims.
The composition of the newly elected government reflects demographic changes in Hamtramck. The council will include two Bengali Americans, three Yemeni Americans and a Polish-American convert to Islam.
With 68% of the votes, Amer Ghalib will be the first Yemeni-American mayor in the US.
“I am honored and proud, but I know it is a great responsibility,” said Ghalib, 41.
Born in a village in Yemen, he moved to the United States at age 17 and first worked in a plastic auto parts factory near Hamtramck.
Later he learned English and received medical training. Now he works as a health professional.
Rather than being a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl,” Hamtramck is more like a “seven-layer cake” where different groups preserve their distinct cultures while closely coexisting with each other, says Councilmember-elect Amanda Jaczkowski.
“People are still proud of their specific culture. If we assimilate, we would lose the uniqueness. When they live so close to each other, they are forced to overcome those differences,” says Jaczkowski, 29.
But Hamtramck “is not Disneyland,” says Karen Majewski, the outgoing mayor who has been in office for 15 years before resigning.
“It’s just a small place. And we have conflicts.”
The friction arose in 2004 after a vote to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer in public. 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 Muslim-majority government, the press from all over the world reported about Hamtramck.
Some media reports at the time painted a picture of a “tense” city with an influx of Muslims. A national television host asked if Majewski was afraid of being mayor.
There was even speculation that a Muslim-controlled city hall could enforce Islamic law.
“In Hamtramck people roll their eyes at those kinds of comments,” said Majewski, who is “pleased” that Hamtramck has been a welcoming community and that it is “natural” for new residents to vote for those who understand their experience. and their languages.
The US Census Bureau does not collect information on religion, but an expert group from the Pew Research Center estimates that there were approximately 3.85 million Muslims living in the US in 2020, which is roughly the 1.1% of the total population.
By 2040, Muslims are projected to become the second-largest religious group in the United States, after Christians.
Despite their growing presence, Muslims in the United States have often been subjected to prejudice.
Twenty years after the September 11 attacks, Islamophobia continues to persecute Muslims and other Arab Americans.
About half of Muslim adults in the United States told Pew in 2016 that they had suffered some form of personal discrimination, while then-candidate Donald Trump proposed vetoing migrants from Muslim-majority countries in the United States.
The researchers also found that, of all religious groups, Muslims continue to face the most negative views of American society.
More than half of Americans say they do not know any Muslims personally, but those who know a practitioner are less likely to think that Islam promotes more violence than other religious groups.
Hamtramck is a living example of how personal knowledge reduces Islamophobia.
When Shahab Ahmed ran for councilor shortly after the 9/11 attack, he faced an uphill battle.
“There were flyers all over the city saying that I was the twentieth hijacker who did not make it onto the planes,” said this Bengali-American.
After losing the 2001 elections, Ahmed knocked on neighbors’ doors to introduce himself.
He was elected two years later, becoming Hamtramck’s first Muslim municipal official.
Since then, Support for the Muslim community has grown in the city.
In 2017, when the Trump administration imposed a ban on the entry of migrants from Muslim-majority countries, city residents rallied to protest.
“Somehow that mobilized and united many people because everyone knows that, to live in Hamtramck, you have to respect others, “says Razi Jafri, co-director of the documentary film” Hamtramck, USA. “
Muslim Americans have also become more visible on the national scene.
In 2007, Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison became the first Muslim congressman. Today, the US Congress has four Muslim members.
On Election Day this month in Hamtramck, dozens of residents gathered in front of a polling place to greet each other. Many of them displayed their Election Day souvenir, bearing the “I voted” sticker.
According to Jaczkowski, the migrants were very excited to participate.
“It’s very American to be able to bring people together.”
However, as in the rest of the country, the city is celebrating intense cultural debates.
In June, when the city government approved hanging a gay pride flag at the town hall, some residents were outraged.
Several of these flags hung outside private businesses and homes were removed, including one outside the vintage clothing store owned by Majewski.
“That sends a really alarming message to people,” he says.
Marijuana has also become a source of controversy.
The opening of three dispensaries in Hamtramck has caused consternation in some Muslim and Polish-Catholic communities alike.
Other residents are concerned about lack of political participation of women in conservative Muslim communities.
On election night, Ghalib, the elected mayor, was surrounded by a jubilant Yemeni-American crowd at a post-election event serving baklava and kebabs. There were more than 100 supporters, all men.
Women participated in his campaign, Ghalib said, but gender segregation remains traditional, even as it is being challenged by younger generations who have become more “Americanized.”
Hamtramck also faces the Common challenges of Rust Belt cities– From decaying infrastructure to limited economic opportunities.
Heavy rains during the summer saturated the city’s pipes and flooded many houses.
High levels of lead were found in the city’s drinking water samples, attracting national attention. Almost half of the city is below the poverty line.
These examples are some of the pressures the city’s new leadership will have to deal with.
“What does democracy look like in a city with a Muslim majority? Like everywhere else, disorganized and complicated. So when the novelty wears off, there will be work to be done, “says documentary maker Jafri.
Remember that you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Downloada our app and activate them so you don’t miss our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.