DEARBORN, MICHIGAN — When news broke that ISIS killed 130 people in Paris, this Detroit suburb known for its thriving Arab American community prepared for the inevitable retaliation. The day before, three Dearborn, Michigan residents had been killed in an attack — also claimed by ISIS — in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, but locals here often aren’t afforded the time to mourn.
Dearborn, a city of 95,000 people, has the highest concentrations of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in the United States, making the community here a target for anti-Muslim sentiment. While the city resembles an American suburb like any other, fear is on the rise here over potential reprisal attacks from extremist groups, both domestic and foreign.
“We’re on a double edge sword here,” Osama Siblani, founder of the Arab American News, told ThinkProgress from his office in Dearborn. “[There is] fear from everything: government agencies, white supremacists, and ISIS. I mean, we’re screwed.”
At least three private security cars patrolled the Islamic Center of America, North America’s largest mosque, last Wednesday. Kassim Allie, the mosque’s executive administrator, reflected on the now-expected threats his community receive after attacks like the one in Paris.
“There is a general fear in our community that has increased. We are victimized twice,” he told ThinkProgress from his office inside the mosque. “We are victimized as Americans and freedom-loving people and we are victims as Muslims and Arabs. Now you can’t mourn as an American, you have to justify. You have to retake your oath of citizenship. You have to dig up your ancestry. Some of my ancestors came here in the late 1800s. We are part of this great country. That’s what hurts.”
The first Arab immigrants in Dearborn were mostly Christian and recruited to work in Henry Ford’s automobile factories. Christians and Muslims from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen soon followed, as well as non-Arab Muslims from South and Southeast Asia, West and Sub-Saharan Africa, and the former Yugoslavia.
Today, around 300,000 Arabs and between 300,000 and 400,000 Muslims live in the Detroit metro area, according to Saeed Khan, a lecturer at Wayne State University in Michigan and founder of the Center for the Study of Trans-Atlantic Diasporas, a think tank that studies ethnic immigrant groups.
“Dearborn is better known for the Arab American community,” Khan told ThinkProgress. “It also has the most diverse Muslim community on the planet.”
Before Sept. 11, 2001, Dearborn was widely considered a political powerbase. Political leaders would send representatives here to court the Arab and Muslim vote. But after the Twin Towers fell, so did Dearborn’s standing with many Americans. Politicians and Christian groups played on anti-Muslim sentiment and targeted the community.
“We’re on a double edge sword here,” said Siblani.
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., has fond memories of taking her young children to the long-running Arab International Festival in her hometown. But in 2012, a distressing phone call from her sister ended the Dearborn tradition. “There’s a man standing here with…a pigs head,” her sister told her, referring to a group of Christian protesters that crashed the event. “We can’t come here anymore.”
An event that ran for 18 years and once drew up to 300,000 people has been cancelled each of the last three years. In 2010, police expelled anti-Muslim protesters from the event. A subsequent free-speech lawsuit against Dearborn and the increasing need for a security presence drained the will to host the festival. Locals say they’d be hesitant to attend anyway, citing fears of attacks by white supremacists or people holding anti-Muslim sentiments. Noted anti-Muslim activists like Terry Jones and Pamela Geller have also targeted the city in recent years.
“I’m sad to say things are getting worse,” said Khan, addressing the hatred directed at Dearborn’s Muslim community. “Over time people reduce phobia and fear toward communities. Not only is that not happening, but it is intensifying.”
The most recent backlash came shortly after the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 when a tweet from Michigan woman and Navy veteran Sarah Beebe went viral.
“This is recruitment 101,” said Allie.
“Dearborn, MI, has the highest Muslim population in the United Sates [sic]. Let’s fuck that place up and send a message to ISIS. We’re coming,” she wrote. Police investigated and Beebe later apologized, but for many the threat only intensified locals’ fear of becoming a target for hate crimes.
But fear isn’t only driven by social media threats. Various Dearborn residents said that the most concerning rhetoric of late is coming from politicians. A number of governors responded to the Paris attack by calling for a halt on accepting Syrian refugees. Two presidential candidates said only Christian refugees should be allowed. The most widely criticized candidate here though is Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump after he called for a database of Muslims in the U.S. and the closure of certain mosques.
“This is recruitment 101,” said Allie. “ISIS is probably happier than anyone that he said that.”
A sprawling view of Dearborn Heights can be seen out of Ali K. Hammoud’s 16th floor office. “Some people stay away from mosques because they feel they’re a target,” the defense attorney and president of the Arab American Political Action Committee (AAPAC) told ThinkProgress. “There is security at every mosque or event in case there’s a lunatic from ISIS or another American mad at the Muslims.”
Hammoud was born in Lebanon but hasn’t been back in 30 years. “I eat hamburgers, I have a bit of the Detroit accent, I go to the movie theaters,” he said. “We’re normal people.”
A few hours later he would be attending the funeral of a friend’s uncle — a Lebanese shop owner — who was one of the 44 people killed in the Beirut blasts.
“We don’t have the luxury of mourning,” said Allie, the mosque’s administrator, quieter than before. “The day may come when we can grieve and mourn like other Americans. But that day is not here yet.”
Jack Jenkins contributed reporting for this story.