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

By Nargis Rahman, TMO Foundation

It’s not all about religion

In Hamtramck, where everyone is facing a rough economic downturn, it’s not all about religion.

As long as politicians are doing what’s best for the city, it doesn’t matter what religion they are, said School Board President Titus Walters.

Whether someone is Christian or Muslim shouldn’t affect the way they make decisions for the city, Walters said.

As a Christian, I think I do what God wants me to do, as another may say Allah wants them to do,” said Walters, acknowledging almost half the city is Muslim.

Majewski said council members have to vote with their conscious when they have access to certain information, which may not always match up with the community’s expectations.

She said, they have to look at the good for the whole city, not always their own group.

Such a moment came when Councilmember Ahmed voted for the human rights ordinance in 2008,while Councilmember Algazali voted against it, along with the majority of the religious leaders and citizens who opposed the ordinance.

The ordinance set to give those in the LGBT community equal housing opportunities.

It was voted down by the public in the elections.

Algazali said he often found himself on opposite sides with the other Muslim councilmember, but he still cast his vote to represent the community.

A different view in Hamtramck may help.

Council members Stackpoole and Jankowski said Kazi Miah “won across boards,” in the November 2008 elections.

Both Stackpoole and Jankowski said, Miah represents the city’s needs with fresh eyes.

Miah says, he doesn’t want people patting him on the back because he is Muslim.

Rather he says, “People should think 30 times before you say Islam. It’s not a joke, it’s a way of life.”

There have been and are over 20 Muslim elected officials on federal, state and local levels in the United States, according to a compilation by The Muslim Observer in November 2008.

Early this month, Mohammed Hameeduddin was sworn in as mayor in Teaneck, New Jersey in a historical city of Orthodox Jews, according to the New York Times.

Other notable Muslim elected officials include Councilman Amir Omar of Richardson, Texas, who the first Muslim to be voted in office in the northern Texas, and  State Representative Rashida Tlaib, who won a democrat seat in the last election as the first Arab American woman and second Muslim to win in Michigan.

Businesses in Hamtramck

Conant, Hamtramck is a bustling street branching off into major streets Caniff and Carpenter in Detroit.

It is only a distant memory of “for rent” signs, shacked up buildings and people moving away.

Now, the dubbed “Bangladesh Avenue” is dotted with Bangladeshi clothes stores, groceries, restaurants and services.

Councilmember Ahmed, who pushed for the ethnic recognition, put together this initiative last year.

“As a major avenue, the Polish couldn’t do that,” Ahmed says of the recognition achieved by the Bangladesh community’s work into bringing back to life the almost-dead business haven.

Councilmember Jankowski said Muslim businessmen have brought mainly dollar stores, restaurants, and sari [clothes] stores to restore the city.

“Most of those businesses were closed up and Bangladeshi people opened-up stores. That street became revived,” Jankowski said.

“The Bangladeshi came in quick and hard within a couple of years it just exploded,” he said, until businesses flopped due to poor revenues. Owners were unable to make their payments.

“There it sits until it’s repaired,” he said.

In one way, Jankowski believes the shops have divided the community into Muslims and non-Muslims.

“My sister is not going to buy a sari. My buddy Mahfuz is not going to buy a pork chop. We struggle with that,” Jankowski said.

He said other populations, such as the Yemeni community, have survived with little shops.

Co-owner of Al-Haramain International Foods, Ali Alaudi, who is Yemeni, said his store is for all. 

“We try to bring everybody here. If someone people ask me for something I go look for it,” he said.

Alaudi said, when you do well for the city, it benefits everyone.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim or non-Muslim. Work for everyone. Work with the law for the betterment of Hamtramck,” he said. 

Beata Bochińska, employee at The Polish Market in Hamtramck, said the grocery store has attracted a lot more than Polish people after moving onto the busy downtown street of Joseph Campau.
With a Polish background and a mix of newer cultures in Hamtramck, Councilmember Stackpoole said the city can use its history to make revenues.

“History draws people,” Stackpoole said.

The city’s rich Polish roots bring in people on Paczki Day (Fat Tuesday). If there were no such holidays, the shops would be empty, she said.

But she says, the city needs to “add a touch of international” to it, referring to marketing purposes.

We need an understanding between Polish, non-Polish, Muslim, non-Muslim, artists, musicians, and poets, she said.

Model “Muslim City”

Walid says Hamtramck is a place where Muslims needs’ can be met without leaving the city, “From places of worship to cultural activities to shopping for foods.”

He said the city has a diverse mix of other cultural and religious groups, which helps the development of children.

“There is a population of Muslims who also other faiths who live around which allows the children to have a healthy self image about being Muslims, at the same time arouse them to interact with other people so they are not in a cocoon,” said Walid.

Walid said one of the problems he has heard about the Dearborn community include the Arab population’s residing in mainly the South and East parts of the city, with predominately white Americans (non-Arab) in the western part. 

He said this leads to the community segregation, causing people to not be able to function outside of the city and with other cultural groups.

Hamtramck is a little better in that regard, he said.

Bochińska said the mix is helpful when people get along in the city.

Buttry, who lives in the city said, sometimes she finds herself in the post office with 15 other cultures.

“It’s not like you’re interacting. You just happen to be in the same space,” Buttry said.

Still Councilmember Miah of Hamtramck says the city is a true melting pot.

“It’s diverse unlike any other city in the U.S.,” he said, with close-knit neighbors.

Walid said Dearborn may have a higher concentration of Muslims per capita, however, “Hamtramck has more of a Muslim character about it more than Dearborn as far as the actual manners of people.”
“Dearborn is not necessarily representative of Islam just because a lot of Muslims live there,” he said, referring to mainstream Sunni views.

Historically, the Arab population of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights has a lot of Lebanese and Syrian Arab backgrounds, who are Shi’I Muslims, whereas those in Hamtramck are Yemeni and Sunni Muslims, said Walid.

They are ethnically, religious and culturally different, Walid said.

According to the Piast Institute and the 2000 Census, there are just over 17,305 Lebanese who live in Dearborn, while 3,136 live in Dearborn-Heights. There are also high concentrations of German, Italian, English, Polish and American residents in the cities.

Hamtramck had among its high populations, 5,263 Polish, 2,158 Arabs, 2,403 Yugoslavian residents, and pockets of Ukrainian, German and Italian residents, according to the 2000 Census and the Piast Institute.

Walid predicts the Muslim population of Hamtramck may be closer to 75 percent in the next 10 years due to higher birth rates in the Muslim families and immigration into the city.

“The older Polish community and Ukrainian community have been slowly leaving Hamtramck while the Yemeni and Bangladeshi communities are growing,” he said.

Dr. Radzilowski said they are moving into the suburbs.

Hamtramck Councilmember Jankowski said, one day before he ran for mayor in 2004, he stepped out onto his porch and saw every type of person.

“I started to not recognize my city anymore,” Jankowski said, but “You gotta roll with it. You can’t live on memory.”

When asked if there is a Muslim mayor in the city’s future, Walid said it is possible depending on the candidate, if they are able to mobilize the community.
He advises the community to be “savvy on the issues not just the religious affiliation.”

Jankowski said, the city can move forward if council members go out to their communities and ask them to work together.

“Personally I like the mix on the city council; I hope my colleagues will go back on the communities and tell them, ‘you have to get involved and we have to start walking in the same direction here,” Jankowski said of public safety, economic development and housing.

Buttry agrees, saying someone said Hamtramck has strong family values, with family orientation expressed at large in the city.

Buttry said with many small businesses and hard-working families, Hamtramck has something great to offer.

She says the key to success in the city also lies on the shoulders of the council members, who must be role models to the city’s youth, inspiring them to build relationships in the community.

Hamtramck has become home to a growing population of Muslims who are vocalizing their concerns, stepping up to office and paving paths for other communities with a large Muslim population to follow.

Notably, the community has put forth five Muslim council members in the past decade. The community now stands by as three Muslim candidates; Shahab Ahmed, Akm Rahman and Abdul Algazali from Hamtramck battle for a spot as state representative in the November elections.

For more information on Hamtramck, please visit www.hamtramck.us, hamtramckstar.com, and the hamtramckreview.com.

Nargis Rahman is a journalism student at Wayne State University. Rahman has written for Wayne State’s student newspaper, The South End, The Muslim Observer and The Hamtramck Citizen. She has interned at Fox 2 News, Detroit, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Michigan. Rahman looks forward to a career in community journalism in the Greater Detroit area. Rahman grew up in Hamtramck and now lives in Detroit.


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