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Despite increased civic engagement, many local Muslims fear a "backlash"

At a demonstration in Dearborn calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, Amani Badran wears a kaffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf that has become a symbol of sovereignty among those calling for a free Palestine.
Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio
At a demonstration in Dearborn calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, Amani Badran wears a kaffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf that has become a symbol of sovereignty among those calling for a free Palestine.

Hundreds of people gathered at Ford Woods Park in Dearborn last week to call for a ceasefire in Gaza where more than 6,500 people – including more than 2,700 children – have been killed by Israeli airstrikes as of Wednesday. The rally was one of several peaceful demonstrations in metro-Detroit supporting Palestinian people over the last few weeks.

Yet, looking out at the crowd of people wearing checkered keffiyeh and waving Palestinian flags, Amani Badran felt a tinge of anxiety.

“I've actually thought about [how] we're all standing here,” she said. “Could there be some kind of a bombardment or an attack on us?”

The heightened emotions and incendiary rhetoric following the attack by Hamas that killed at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7 has stoked fears of a backlash among both Muslims and Jews in metro Detroit.

For Muslims like Badran, the fear that the violence half a world away could reach her was realized when a Chicago landlord allegedly killed a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy named Wadea Al-Fayoume, about a week after Israel declared war on Hamas. Joseph Czuba also reportedly attacked the boy’s mother, Hanaan Shahin, and yelled, “You Muslims must die,” as he choked and stabbed her more than a dozen times. Shahin called 911 and survived her injuries.

Czuba had reportedly been friendly with Shahin and Al-Fayoume, who rented a portion of his house for two years. According to those reports, prior to the attack he had a friendly relationship with the family, and even built the boy a treehouse.

It’s that apparent shift from a personal connection to hateful violence that Dearborn resident Badran found most troubling when she learned about the killing.

“I think that that in itself was an exact representation of how much impact media headlines has on the situation,” she said.

Similar worries surfaced among the Jewish community after the stabbing death of a local synagogue leader in Detroit on Saturday. Detroit police have since said they do not believe it was a hate crime or motivated by anti-Semitism.

The Detroit Police Department says the killing of the president of a Detroit synagogue was not the result of antisemitism.

Tensions remain high, however, and many synagogues have increased security in an effort to stave off an attack motivated by the ongoing hostilities between Hamas militants and Israeli forces.

After 9/11, many Muslims were on the defensive in response to a sense of collective blame for terrorism and efforts to wrongly correlate their faith with violence.

Now, Badran says, she sees fellow Muslims taking a different approach. Instead of trying to convince people that Islam is a peaceful religion, “We’re choosing to let them see who we are,” she said, “and to demonstrate our faith. So I'm just relying on that and hoping that people open their hearts and see the true message of our religion.”

The message from politicians in Israel and the U.S. has presented the fight against the Hamas militant group as one that has a far wider target.

Different now

In explaining the blockade of food, water, and electricity in Gaza, the Israeli Defense Minister said, “We are fighting human animals.” And, in a tweet that’s since been deleted, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized the war as a struggle between one of “humanity and the law of the jungle.”

Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian, speaks to a crowd of people calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at a recent demonstration in Dearborn.
Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio
Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American comedian, speaks to a crowd of people calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at a recent demonstration in Dearborn.

Referring to those comments at the Dearborn rally, Palestinian-American comedian Amer Zahr said such sweeping and demeaning rhetoric minimizes the loss of civilian lives in Gaza and also has a much larger ripple effect.

“They are endangering our lives right here in America,” he said. “That is the environment that they have put us all in here today to dehumanize us, to make us seem like we don't deserve the same rights.”

Many Muslims who grew up in the wake of 9/11 got involved in political and social advocacy, in part to ensure the rights of Muslims would be maintained. Following what many have called Israel’s 9/11, they’re demanding a different response here in the U.S.

“Things should be different now,” said Nada Al-Hanooti of Emgage, a civic engagement organization focused on educating and mobilizing Muslim American voters. “The country is becoming unsafe for us, and the administration needs to do more to call out this hate and protect Arab-American and Muslim Americans.”

Abed Ayoub was preparing a presentation for a class at the University of Michigan-Dearborn when he first heard that a plane had struck the World Trade…

In recent days, some Palestinians were wrongly labeled “terrorists” on Instagram due to what Meta called a translation error. Meanwhile, some pro-Israel activists have created lists of LinkedIn users and college students who indicated support for a ceasefire in Gaza or called for a “free Palestine” in an apparent effort to shame or censure them.

Still, while many immigrant Muslims were uneasy with standing up for their rights after 9/11, Al-Hanooti said American-born Muslims like her don’t have the same hesitancy.

Local representation 

And civic activism like Al-Hanooti’s has seen some tangible results.

Among the most high-profile is U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib. The Detroit Democrat is the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress, and is among only a handful of Muslim lawmakers ever to serve in Washington.

Unapologetically embracing her identity, Tlaib wore a traditional cross-stitched thobe and put her hand on a Quran during her swearing-in ceremony. The fact that her grandmother lives in the West Bank has brought a human face to people whose lives are more debated than they are examined. But Tlaib’s calls for a free Palestine – even as an elected official in national office – have made her a lightning rod for the same kind of scornful attacks and frequent threats that many who share her identities fear.

In the weeks since the current conflict began, her appeal for a ceasefire and support for American citizens in Gaza have drawn increased attention and online vitriol.

Following the death of Detroit Jewish leader Samantha Woll over the weekend, Tlaib was viciously criticized on social media. Some blamed her outright for the killing, even though the lawmaker memorialized Woll on Facebook and called her a friend.

Tlaib also faces the threat of censure for refusing to apologize for blaming Israel for last week’s explosion at a hospital in Gaza, although the lack of a House Speaker has prevented a vote from taking place.

There are currently two Muslim Arab-Americans serving in the Michigan House.

Abdullah Hammoud was another. He gave up a seat in the state House when he was elected to serve as the mayor of Dearborn in 2021. The first Arab American and Muslim person to lead a city which has one of the largest populations of people with Middle Eastern roots in the U.S., he dedicated his win at the polls to "any young girls or boys who have been ridiculed for their faith or ethnicity." He was one of three Muslim mayors elected in Southeast Michigan; Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck also chose Muslim leaders.

“Threats of violence against our community will not be tolerated,” Hammoud said in a statement after police arrested a man who allegedly asked if anyone wanted to join him to “hunt Palestinians” in Dearborn. Farmington Hills resident Carl Mintz has been charged with the “threat of terrorism,” a felony that could result in as much as a 20-year prison sentence.

Hammoud added that he was “pleased” with the charges filed, which he said “reflect the severity of the message of hate that this individual chose to post online last week.”

Looking out at a swell of fellow demonstrators at Ford Woods Park in Dearborn, Amani Badran said she knows she has the right to share her views as an American, but added that her resolve comes from her faith. “As Muslims,” she said, “we're taught to fear nothing but God.”

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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