DEARBORN, MICHIGAN — Late last year, after ISIS terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, the Detroit suburb of Dearborn was on high alert. The incident and then the subsequent attack in San Bernardino, California contributed to the rise of Islamophobia across the United States, and residents of the city with the largest concentration of Muslim and Arab Americans in the country knew they would be a target.
It’s been five months since the Paris attacks, but the situation has not improved. The rise of Donald Trump has meant that Muslim Americans in Dearborn continue to live on edge, afraid of what the continued extremist rhetoric may mean for them.
Kassem Allie, the executive director of Dearborn’s Islamic Center of America, North America’s largest mosque, told ThinkProgress that Islamophobia was present before Trump, and that his success is largely due to how he is capitalizing on anti-Muslim sentiment that was growing among some groups of Americans.
But that doesn’t make it any less alarming for himself and others in Dearborn. He described life in Dearborn, as Trump and others spout hate on television for the world to see, as “a reality show that we are living.”
“He didn’t create this atmosphere,” Allie said, sitting in an elaborately decorated conference room in the mosque’s administrative offices. “He’s taken advantage of an atmosphere of hate that has been building for many, many years.”
Before Trump’s rise, Islamophobia in Dearborn was sporadic. In 2011, a California man was arrested outside the Islamic Center of America’s mosque, and was charged with possessing explosives and threatening terror. The mosque preemptively increased security shortly after the Paris attacks, and around that same time, a Michigan woman sent a tweet calling out Dearborn: “Let’s fuck that place up and send a message to ISIS,” she wrote.
The threats are nothing new, but the mainstreaming of hateful rhetoric in the 2016 election is nonetheless alarming, Allie said.
The Detroit metro area is home to around 300,000 Arabs and between 300,000 and 400,000 Muslims. Dearborn’s population of 95,000 is more than 30 percent Muslim, and its streets are dotted with Middle Eastern restaurants, bakeries, and businesses. Some residents, like Widad Asoufy, a recent graduate of Detroit’s Wayne State University, say that because of the diversity in the area, they do not personally experience much discrimination.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
But most said they are very aware of how Trump has been dominating the Republican primaries. Trump pushed ahead in the polls by calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country and a database of Muslim Americans. He won Michigan’s GOP primary on Tuesday and is on track to secure the party’s nomination for president.
Just this week, Trump said in a CNN interview that he thinks “Islam hates us.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is demanding an apology, but other prominent Republicans have not denounced his remark.
While Trump’s rhetoric has brought anti-Muslim sentiment back into the mainstream, right-wing anti-Muslim activists have previously used the city Dearborn as a talking point, claiming the area harbors “no-go zones” where Muslim communities tightly control citizens and enact sharia law.
“This atmosphere of Islamophobia and fear mongering, it’s taken its toll,” Allie said. “We continually are in a defensive position and there is no reason for us to be in that defensive position because our community is an all-American community.”
While Trump is driving the hateful speech, Allie and other Muslim leaders noted that Trump may not be the worst of all of the Republican candidates. “He’s probably someone that can be dealt with on a certain level, whereas some of the other ideological positions that are being taken by these other candidates don’t leave room for compromise and negotiation,” Allie said.
And Dawud Walid, director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told ThinkProgress that no matter which Republican eventually wins the nomination, the damage is already done.
“The discourse has become so caustic right now, a new level of acceptable bigotry may be the new status quo,” he said.
One silver lining is how the rhetoric has driven Muslim Americans to become involved in politics, in Michigan and across the country, Allie said. This election cycle has seen renewed interested from Muslim Americans in voting, organizing drives to encouraging others to vote, or campaigning for candidates who support Muslim communities.
“The intensity of the rherotic really is driving people’s interest in this whole thing,” Allie said.
Lena Tarraf, a 24-year-old Dearborn resident, and a group of her friends attended a rally for Bernie Sanders on Monday, the day before the Michigan primary. She told ThinkProgress she has never paid as much attention to politics as she had this year, knowing how important the results will be for her community.
“This is my first political rally ever,” she said. “I feel so strongly about this.”
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Her friend, Amira Hachem, a 19-year-old student in Dearborn, said she has also been alarmed by this election.
“I wasn’t aware that there was this much hatred and racism in this country,” she said. “It’s honestly frightening that people can be so hateful.”
Both women supported Sanders and said he has made them feel comfortable as Muslim Americans. Sanders ultimately won Dearborn with 67 percent of the vote, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 33 percent.
Sanders’ outreach in Dearborn was particularly effective, Allie said, but Clinton also made efforts to connect with the community. Either one of them would have Dearborn’s interests in mind if they were to be elected president, he said. He added that any of the Republican candidates would not get very far as president with the sort of divisive rhetoric they’ve used on the campaign trail.
“We have confidence, especially in our community, that whoever is president will at some point come to the realization that they cannot polarize our country, for very long anyway, and have us be successful,” Allie said.