A Model Muslim City (Politically): Hamtramck, Michigan (part 2 of 3)

Muslim Media Network

A Model Muslim City (Politically): Hamtramck, Michigan (part 2 of 3)

By Nargis Rahman, TMO Foundation

Survival of the Fittest:  Election of November 2009

Voting has never been the same in Hamtramck as last November when three candidates were elected into office – former mayor Tom Jankowski, Mohammed Hassan, and Kazi Miah, the youngest member to get the highest votes in the city’s elections; 1,652 across different ethnicities and religions.

Miah, 30, who said he is in it for all, was surprised by the large turnout of voters who chose him to represent the city.

“I got elected in a city that’s traditionally known as a Polish town. It’s a testament to residents of Hamtramck who are not looking at ethnic origin,” Miah said.
He said it is a time when everyone has to work together to help the city from economic downfall.

“I love my religion and will always love my religion but it will not get in the way of making decisions,” Miah said.

Councilwoman Catrina Stackpoole said of the 10,000 registered voters, about 3,000 voted.

According to Councilmember Ahmed, much of those were from the Muslim community.

Jankowski, who said he saw some of the ballots said, many people voted “straight Muslim candidates,” meaning they only voted for Muslims.

Despite the straight ballots, Algazali lost a mayoral seat by 123 votes to Mayor Karen Majewski, who is serving her second term, reported The Hamtramck Review.

The numbers of Muslims in a city does not always get a candidate a government seat.

Stackpoole said in the last election, with three options for Muslim councilmen and one for mayor in Hamtramck, there were limited options for non-Muslim voters.

To overcome religious and cultural barriers Tlaib said, all candidates, Muslim or not, need to stay in touch with their community’s needs.

All politicians, “must maintain accessibility for effective representation,” by talking to people, she said.

Miah said, he tackled this issue by doing door-to-door campaigning and putting a face behind his words. The youngest member on board had a Facebook fan page and website for younger members to tap into politics.

People need to keep in touch with the council as much as the council with them, by attending all city council meetings, which now has meeting minutes posted online by Hamtramck Star, a local news blog, Miah said.

Talking with council members helps the community.

Ismam, a resident of Hamtramck, said, it is convenient that three of the six council members speak Bangla and can be found at local institutions.

Stackpoole said Muslims need to integrate into the community at more than the basic levels of interactions. 

Stackpoole encourages Bangladeshi and Yemeni women to jump into the pool of politics. She hopes both Muslim and non-Muslim women can get together in the same room, and “get talking” about issues, despite many who choose or have to stay home.

Hamtramck resident Ismam Ahmed, 22, said Muslim woman like his mom would be able to get politically involved, but culturally Bangladeshi woman are more reserved or modest.
“That doesn’t mean she can’t get involved. My father or I would not prevent her,” he said.

There are a few exceptions to the cultural norm, including Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the prime minister and president of the Awami League in Bangladesh, and head of the Bangladesh National Party, Khaleda Zia.

If people from different communities can talk, it will help the city, Stackpoole said.

Bill Meyer, former chair of the Hamtramck Human Relations Committee, said, there are few people making decisions for the city.

“The current administration hasn’t opened arms to everyone,” Meyer said.

“We need more people to get involved without special interests to come together,” he said.

Dearborn City Council: Councilwoman Suzanne Sareini

In Dearborn, Mich. there are nearly 29,000 Arabs, making up about 26.5 percent of the total population in the city, according to the 2000 Census and the Piast Census Information Center.

A small percentage of them voted in the November 2009 elections said, Khalil Hachem, former election reporter for the Ann Arbor News.

The Arab American News reported there are 59,000 registered voters in Dearborn.

Last year city council candidate Ali Sayed lost after having 627 votes more than councilwoman Suzanne Sareini in the precincts.

Hachem said, about 3,000 of 17,000 Arab Americans voted in the November 2009 elections, which may have contributed to Sayed’s loss.

People have a problem voting in Dearborn, he said.

“They don’t participate. If they did, they would fill every office in Dearborn,” Hachem said.

He said, theories including fear of freedom of press and lack of knowledge of the system contribute to the lack of voters voting.

Hachem said, the community needs to vote to allocate resources for the city.

“You can’t lobby anyone if your people don’t vote,” he said.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Michigan estimates 90 percent of the Arab American population in Dearborn is Muslim.

Suzanne Sareini is the only Muslim on the Dearborn City Council.

Sareini, who has been serving on the council since 1989, says she has “weathered the storm” she first encountered when running for a council seat.

“It’s nothing like how it was 20 years ago,” Sareini said, referring to people who opposed having her on the Dearborn City Council.

Being born and raised in Dearborn, she didn’t think she was any different than the other candidates until she ran for city council.

“It was a rude awakening,” Sareini said.

People have prejudice and assumptions, she said.

“I always kept a professional demeanor, causing criticism from the Arab American community,” Sareini said. 

She says, “it’s a night and day difference” having her on city council as a representative of Arab Americans and Muslim, as it “makes people watch what they say.”

With a common language and culture, there are certain people who feel more comfortable talking to her. 

Sareini said, the Dearborn community is light-years ahead, as the Arab Americans are participating more in the government, something she says the small-business community did not pursue in earlier years.

Sareini is serving her sixth term on the Dearborn City Council, and running for state representative in district 15.

Sareini says being Muslim is not what makes her stand out.

“You have to represent the community at large,” she said.

She would rather focus on the important issues for the city, what she says are the same across the board, Muslim or not, including garbage control, schools, and “not looking at anyone special.”
Walid said, those running for office should not be voted-in on the basis of their faith.

They might not be “plugged in the religious community,” Walid said.

Walid, who does lectures and events in Dearborn said, he does not recall seeing or meeting Sareini in religious meetings or lectures.

Sareini said she may have not met Walid due to a generational gap of what she calls “a young active group.”

“It is to their credit they are active but I probably know their parents. I would be happy to meet him (Walid) and attend events,” Sareini said.

Sareini said, she is active in the Muslim community and attends the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, where she has gone since a child. 

Dearborn Heights, an extension of Muslims in Dearborn

Dearborn Heights, a city branching off from Dearborn, has about 58,888 people based on the 2006-2008 American Community Survey, and the Piast Institute.

The population is one-third of Arab-descent, predominately Muslim, said councilmember Tom Berry.

Dr. Radzilowski said some Arab people use the category “white” for racial distinction, making it hard to determine who Arabs are on the Census. The racial data shows there are 91.2 percent “white” people in Dearborn Heights, while there are 91.6 percent “white” in Dearborn.

Based on the 2000 Census data and the Piast Institute, 4,578 identified themselves as Arab, out of 67,253 people surveyed.

Berry, the only Muslim on the city council of seven, said by being Muslim he is not necessarily helping the community. Understanding the city’s needs and being representative of those needs is important.

“I don’t know it’s so much that is important that you’re Muslim. What is more important is that anybody who is on the council understands the need of the community,” Berry said.

He said in Dearborn Height there is a challenge to have people become more assimilated to the neighborhood ordinances.

“We need our people to understand the importance of the ordinances and the ways set in the city,” he said.

One way to meet the needs of the city is by speaking Arabic.

Berry said Hassan Bazzi, one of the city’s ordinance officers, goes to people’s homes and explains what people can and cannot do in Arabic. It helps the Arab-Muslim community understand the rules and get needs met, Berry said.

“It’s not just somebody pushing something [ordinances] on them,” he said.

Other Muslims in the city’s government include the Director of the Building and Engineering Department Mohamed Sobh, Director of the Community and Economic Development Commission Ron Amen, and the 20th District Court Judge David Turfe.

Berry said just like in other cities, you have to push people to vote in Dearborn Heights.

Votes may get Kathy Abdel-Hak, a Muslim, on the council after the August primaries.

According to her campaign website, www.kathleenabdel-hak.com, Abdel-Hak says she is running for better management of city programs, technological advances, and open government.

Judge David Turfe of Dearborn Heights said he is proud to be Muslim and a representative of the city’s 10-15 percent Muslim population.

Turfe, who goes to institutions in Dearborn said, Muslims in Dearborn Heights feel like an extended part of the community.

“Some politicians do not service our needs,” in terms of cultural understanding and some things we need he said.

Turfe said that’s “our own fault, we have 15,000 voters we can’t elect anyone.”

Turfe said, although Muslims should be representative in city councils of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, where there are large concentrations of Muslims, if someone is representing the needs of the community, they don’t have to be Muslim.

“Certainly we want to be represented in terms of the numbers of the percentages of who’s representing the city but at the same time if you have other people in the council who are representing the needs of the city… We only want people to do what’s best for their constituency, Muslim, Christian, Jew or whoever,” Turfe said.

Muslims may not be fit for the job, he said.

“If we have a Muslim in that position and they’re not doing the best job that will make us look bad,” Turfe said, something which he believes the Muslim community cannot afford with the already present negative stereotypes of Islam.

“You shouldn’t vote for someone because they are for say, Arab American, but because you truly believe this person is best for the job…if they’re not doing the best, they’re not going to blame the person, they’re going to blame the whole community. We’re not strong enough to overcome that.”

He said the Dearborn Heights community takes care of each other.

“It’s a great community. When someone’s sick or someone is need, someone always rally around the people,” Turfe said.

The long-time resident of Dearborn Heights, Turfe said, he is proud of all the institutions in the city, including 40 churches, three Jehovah Witness institutions, and one mosque, the Islamic House of Wisdom.

Walid said both Hamtramck and Dearborn have high concentration of Muslims and Islamic tenants.

They have different ethnic groups and immigration migration times, he said.

Walid said, the Dearborn community is good at getting active in protests but they lack the political power from the basic levels.

“Perhaps when it comes to local politics or local issues be it a city elections or state elections – that portion of the community is galvanized to get involved in the situation,” Walid said.

Without the city council to cater to the community’s major needs, the Arab American Chaldean Council, which has over 40 outreach programs, and the Arab Community Center for Economic Social Services (ACCESS), which has six locations in Dearborn and one in Hamtramck, provide social services to their respective communities.

“If a tragedy happens there’s call for activism or emotional reaction for protests in front of city council. When it comes to shaping the political environment like the city council or school boards or state representatives then there’s considerably less concern,” Walid said.

Walid said political action starts at a grass roots level and works its way up to state and federal levels to affect policy.

Walid cautions people when voting just for Muslim candidates.

Candidates are representative of the entire municipality, not just of their Muslim community, Walid said.

He said in Hamtramck there is more cooperation among different Muslim groups (compared to Dearborn), including the Bangladeshi and Yemeni communities, when it comes to voting.

State representative Rashida Tlaib said, Muslim candidates have to be the best candidate for all kinds of people. They need to do their best and work for everyone, she said.

“Do a great job for the people who voted for you,” Tlaib said, noting that by doing a great job, Muslim officials represent the larger Muslim community.

Next:  It’s not all about religion


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