How America's Muslims Have Handled 15 Years of Post-9/11 Islamophobia
Dearborn, Michigan, has been the target of anti-Islamic sentiment since 9/11, but in reality, it is the model of a peaceful community where people of various faiths live alongside one another without conflict.
If you want to find some of the best Middle Eastern food in America, you have to travel to a city nine miles outside of Detroit. In Dearborn, the hometown of Henry Ford, there's an American Dream story and a plate of Medjool dates behind almost every door. The immigrant community here started in the early 1900s, when the demand for auto workers attracted Arabs—primarily Maronite Lebanese Christians—to Dearborn. Soon enough, the city was the final destination for many new immigrants and refugees from the Middle East. Eventually, Dearborn became home to the largest proportion of Arab- and Lebanese-Americans in the United States. But in the years following 9/11, with anti-Muslim hysteria on the rise, Dearborn found itself the subject of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.
In the immediate aftermath of the events of September 11, Dearborn was the target of anti-Islamic protests and a focal point for anti-Muslim extremist beliefs. The city, known for its Arab hospitality and hookah spots, has been referred to as "Dearbornistan" by anti-Muslim polemicist Frank Gaffney, and failed Senate candidate Sharron Angle once claimed that the city was under Sharia law. It's hard to imagine that any of the people spreading these alarmist rumors about Dearborn have ever been there.
In the third episode of our new VICELAND show, BALLS DEEP, host Thomas Morton travels to Dearborn to spend time with a Muslim family—the Dabajehs—during Ramadan, the month of daily fasting that commemorates when the Qur'an was first revealed to Muhammad. He learns about Muslim beliefs and customs, and he is guided by Hussein Dabajeh, who shows Morton a taste of life in Dearborn and what it is like to grow up in a tightly-knit, supportive community.
The story of Dearborn hits close to my heart. I grew up not too far from the town of Bridgeview—an area with a large Arab population in the Chicagoland suburbs—that became a veritable war zone after 9/11, when I was eight. Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, hundreds of angry protesters marched on a local mosque; in the years that followed, many in the community had the misfortune of being victimized by hate crimes, and some were allegedly subjugated to FBI surveillance. Soon enough, we learned not to trust anyone. My last name was changed by my family without any discussion—for the sake of my own security—and I was forbidden from wearing a headscarf. I had to live as a "secret Muslim" for 12 years.
As a result of that, I was intrigued by Dabajeh's story and wanted to learn more about how he experienced life as a Muslim in America. It seemed to me that, despite the rising tides of hate toward Muslims within the US and the obstacles created for us by the government, American Arabs and Muslims in Dearborn have managed to overcome them and are thriving, bolstered by an unbreakable love for their community and identity. So I called Dabajeh up to discuss how his life growing up in Dearborn shaped his identity as a Muslim and to compare and contrast our differing experiences living in post-9/11 America.
VICE: What is your faily story, and what was the family dynamic like in your household?
Hussein Dabajeh: My parents moved [to Dearborn] from Lebanon to work for Ford. My father moved here first in 1973. He went back in 1978 to marry my mom. They actually knew each other before, and they both came back together.
I have five sisters and two brothers. What was it like growing up? I mean, it was fun. I always had a full house. I always had someone to play with. My house was kind of like the open house on the block. It's still like that. Everyone used to come over to my house and hang out.
Dearborn oftentimes is covered by a lot of right-wing outlets as a breeding ground for terrorist groups and a "no-go zone" for non-Muslims. What do you say to people who believe in that kind of anti-Muslim propaganda?
They need to come over here and check it out for themselves. It's easy for someone to point his or her finger. I can point at a city full of white people and be like, "This city over there, all these citizens walk into schools and shoot at people."
I can say whatever I want. It's dangerous. Fox News is literally dangerous. There's no difference between Donald Trump and Fox News. They know they're lying, but they say whatever they have to in order to get their ratings up. And it's just that simple. That's all they're doing.
Look at our community. The head of Homeland Security here is an Arab Muslim whose parents migrated here from Lebanon. The chief of police is an Arab. He's a Christian, but he's an Arab. Our city council president is my cousin Susan Dabajeh. She's an Arab Muslim.
I remember reading a couple of years ago about a lot of protests in Dearborn organized by anti-Muslim activists. They would scream at residents there with a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric. What was your experience like?
So [Islamophobic pastor] Terry Jones had come up to Dearborn around 2011 and 2012, and he had organized one of those Qur'an burning protests. And at the time this protest was taking place, a rally in the largest mosque in North America—located in Dearborn—was also taking place. The rally at the mosque was an interfaith gathering, and no attention was paid to it.
There were quite a few anti-Muslim protests in Dearborn, but those protestors weren't from Dearborn. They had nothing to do with Dearborn. They would come out here and protest against Islam.
When these people come up here, they would make it look like these gatherings were going to have hundreds, if not thousands, of people at them. By the time they'd all get here, it'd only be about 15 or 20 people.
A lot of the times, the counter-protesters who would organize events in response to these protests weren't even Arabs or Muslims. They were non-Arabs and non-Muslims from the community, from surrounding communities that would come and protest on our behalf. They were Christians, they were Jews, they were atheists, they were Hindus, and they were Buddhists. They weren't just Muslim.
I also grew up Muslim-American. I was constantly told to never tell anyone I was a Muslim and to not defend Islam. But within our household, my family became really religious, and made sure my sister and I were aware of our Islamic faith and identity. What was it like for you? What was your life like before 9/11, and how did it change afterwards?
When 9/11 happened, I was a freshman in high school. Up until then, I was a Muslim living in America with parents who had immigrated from Lebanon, and I always knew that. I never really understood the difference between what it meant to be Arab, what it meant to be Lebanese, and what it meant to be Muslim. I just knew how to answer when someone asked where did your parents come from? "Oh, they came from Lebanon." What are you? "I'm a Muslim." What religion do you follow? "I follow Islam. And I was born in America."
After 9/11, that changed. In my neighborhood, and in the city, I wouldn't say it changed that much. In Dearborn, one thing that was lucky for the Arabs and Muslims living here was that there was a good number of us. Thirty percent of the city is made up of Arabs and Muslims. So when you have about 30 percent Arabs living with 70 percent non-Arabs, and that 70 percent has probably come across a Muslim or an Arab before, they knew we weren't people who were going to blow everyone up. So I never had a problem over there.
When I started working in a city that was just a couple of miles outside of Dearborn when I was 18—four years after 9/11—I started noticing differences.
When we played football in high school—I wasn't on the football team, but you would go and cheer—that's when I noticed a difference. All of our football players would literally have dirt and gravel thrown at them on and off the field while they were playing.
They would call us, excuse my language, "fucking Arabs, fucking Muslims," and tell us to go back to here and go back to there. And keep in mind, when this was happening, we were young. We didn't really understand it. A lot of us didn't know what "go back to your country meant." I've never been to Lebanon in my life. So when someone tells you go back to your country, it's kind of like, "Motherfucker, this is my country." Excuse my language again, but because of where I grew up, I was very confident. My father always taught us that we were Americans, our family was from Lebanon, and we're Muslim.
I really resonate with that. On the night of 9/11, I was eight years old. I remember going outside and seeing these white teenagers screaming, yelling, and throwing things at a non-Muslim Indian woman with a baby in her arms, because she was wearing a sari and looked Muslim. They were shouting and calling her "sand nigger" and "terrorist." I remember seeing mosques with their windows smashed, and people in the community being bullied and attacked just for looking brown. Did you experience something similar?
Yes, on 9/11 my older sister and my mother were at a supermarket in the area shopping. A gentleman—I don't know if we can even call him a gentleman—walked up to my sister who was pregnant at the time with my niece, she was 15 days away from giving birth—and he shoved them and told them, "Get the fuck out of our country, and go back to yours." So there was that. I can almost guarantee that gentleman wasn't from our community, but it did happened in Dearborn. That's when I started realizing and thinking maybe we are all different, unfortunately.
Morton and Hussein pray at a mosque in Dearborn.
Different in what way?
I mean, I personally don't think I'm different than anyone. A Jewish-American shouldn't get treated differently than a Christian. A Muslim-American shouldn't be treated any differently than a Christian. I don't think there's any difference between me and other Americans. I live my life just the way everyone else does. But as far as I can tell, people started looking at me a little differently.
Was I going to let the way people look at me affect the way I live my life? No. Am I any different? I'm not. I'm just as American as anyone else.
Personally, I feel pressured all the time to prove our American identity. I was once asked, "Are you Muslim or American?" That question alone served as an indicator of a bigger problem: Arab-Americans and Muslims are still perceived as un-American. We're viewed as alien and as foreigners. As a result, we're pressured and cornered to prove how American we really are, and we follow through with it by saying, "You know, look at how all-American our families are." Do you feel that way too?
When I'm in Dearborn, I don't feel that way. When I leave Dearborn, at times, I do feel that way.
I've heard that question: "Are you a Muslim, or are you American?" If that was asked to me, I would turn right back, and I would ask that person, "Are you a Christian, or are you American?" It's a stupid question.
Do I feel like I have to always prove how American I am? Sure. But I'm going to be honest with you, it happens mostly on social media. It doesn't often happen in person. Have I been asked on social media? Plenty of times. Have I been attacked on social media? Yes, plenty of times. But how do I respond to it? I ignore it.
There's a quote from Imam Ali that says, and I might [paraphrase] it a little bit: "I have never argued with an intelligent man and lost. I have never argued with an ignorant man and won." There's no way you can win an argument with an ignorant person. It's literally impossible.
So what do you think about Donald Trump? He's inciting violence, and he wants to have a ban against all Muslims, yet there are still 7 percent of American Muslims voting for Trump. What are your thoughts on that?
I don't think Donald Trump is racist in any way. I'm going to be honest with you. I think that he makes racist remarks, but I don't think he's actually racist. Donald Trump is a genius. Donald Trump has been able to make business deals in multiple countries at the same time, without actually living in these countries. He's got businesses all over the world. Donald Trump knows how to talk.
Donald Trump knows how to get the crowd going. Donald Trump isn't who scares me. His supporters are who scare me. How does someone that says what Donald Trump says have that many supporters? That's what's scary.
Well, are you optimistic about the future—in terms of Islamophobia and what it means to be a Muslim in America—or are you scared?
Every religious group and every group of people goes through their ups and downs. It gets bad. What had happened to the Jews during the Holocaust, I think that's as bad as it's ever going to get, at least in the last few hundred years.
But what happened after? People opened up their eyes and realized that over 6 million Jews were killed. They thought, We can never ever let this happen again. And things got better for them. It didn't get better quickly, but it did get better.
Am I optimistic Muslims in America and around the world? I'm very optimistic. I think it's on our generation to build a foundation, to build a stage that our children can one day stand on and pretty much scream, "I'm Muslim, and I'm proud."
What does Dearborn mean to you?
Honestly, in my eyes, Dearborn is the greatest city in the world. Dearborn is a city where it's been proven that people from many different backgrounds, whether they're from the Middle East, from Europe, from Africa, from South America, can still live among one another in peace.
If you look at the way our city is run, our city services, what our city provides for us, it's all amazing. The way we interact with one another is amazing.
I welcome anyone in the world—and I'll be his or her tour guide of the city—to come over here and prove me wrong.
Follow Sarah Harvard on Twitter.
To find out more about what life is like in Dearborn, Michigan, check out "Ramadan," the third episode of BALLS DEEP airing tomorrow on VICELAND at 11:30 AM EST. Watch all the latest episodes of our new shows now at VICELAND.com