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Hockey and Hijab

Courtesy The Economist

Hamtramck–Home to the auto industry—and American Islam

hockey hamtramck

THE gym at Bridge Academy is full of children playing floor hockey. Boys and girls squeal as they chase the puck; a helpless teacher looks on. A homely American scene, except that most girls wear the hijab. This is Hamtramck, a town within the borders of Detroit, where the Muslim factor plays big in local politics.

In America as a whole, the fate of Muslims differs confusingly from the situation in Europe. American Muslims are in many ways better integrated and more successful. The constitutional right to freedom of religion protects their right to build mosques. But many report a recent rise in anti-Muslim prejudice, especially in parts of America where Islam is a little-known “other”. Greater Detroit is different; Islam is a formidable force in public affairs. Michigan’s first Muslim state legislator served in the 1960s. The first female Muslim legislator was elected last month. In Hamtramck, two out of six counselors are Muslim.

South-east Michigan has the country’s highest concentration of Arab Americans, about 40% of whom are Muslim. The first migrants were lured by the car industry. Now the region’s Muslim population, estimated to be at least 150,000, includes not just people of Arab descent but African-Americans and immigrants from Bangladesh and Albania.

Social solidarity has helped Muslims to thrive. The Arab Community Centre for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) has become a national model, offering succour to people of all faiths. The hub of Muslim activity is in Dearborn, west of Detroit: this is the home of ACCESS and of an Islamic Centre whose giant mosque dwarfs nearby churches. Two McDonalds outlets serve halal McNuggets. European officials often visit Dearborn to see its success, says Ahmad Chebbani, a civic leader.

Meanwhile Hamtramck (population 26,000) is changing from a Polish enclave into a growing Muslim one. Schools now compete for Muslim students, says Sally Howell of the University of Michigan. Mohamad Issa, who founded Bridge Academy and seven other charter schools, says his establishments are not religious; they can’t be, as they get public money. But Muslims like the Arabic classes, days off for Muslim holidays and space for voluntary prayers. Detroit’s public schools struggle to catch up; some offer Arabic classes and halal food.

Muslims in Detroit, thanks to strong institutions and numbers, feel better than elsewhere in America, though they still face prejudice, say Ms Howell and Amaney Jamal of Princeton University in a joint study. And no less than in Europe, local politics fosters odd alliances. Last month, Catholics induced Muslims in Hamtramck to vote down a gay-rights ordinance. Both there and in Detroit, Muslims and Latinos have co-operated to restrict racial profiling.

The familiar American saying that “all politics is local”—coined by the late Tip O’Neill—is often taken to mean that defence contracts have as much to do with aerospace jobs as with security. But the Irish-American’s adage also has some relevance to questions of faith.

10-51, reprint

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One comment
  1. Iftikhar Ahmad

    December 12, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    The debate over the trajectory of the western sociopolitical system and its strained relations with Islam is the most pivotal of our time. Muslims are in one of the most difficult phases of their history when malicious attacks including allegation of terrorism are being made on Islam and Muslims all over the world. The malicious campaign against Muslims is politically motivated. The world is obsessed by Islam. Anti-terror measures are ruining lives of Muslim youths. If you go around arresting young Muslims, you are going to find that you are going to ostracise this community. Young Muslims don’t need to be ostracized, they need to be engaged. According to the Arch Bishop, Rowan Williams, acceptance of some facets of Sharia not only “seems unavoidable”, but could actually improve social cohesion. Muslims should be able to choose to have marital or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia Court. Such courts should therefore be incorporated into the British legal system as a constructive accommodation with Islam. Schools are being asked to help “win hearts and minds” in the battle against violent extremists on both sides. British born Imams should go into schools to supplement the teaching of RE, PSHE and Citizenship so that all pupils can learn about the Holy Quran and Islam in the context of a multicultural society. OFSTED must make sure that their services should be fully utilised by the schools, otherwise, it will be waste of public money.

    The British Establishment is wrong to assert that Imams and Masajid have been radicalising Muslim youths. The roots of extremism are in the British society and schools where institutional racism is at its peak. The racism within schools has got little media coverage. The school attended by 7/7 bombers in a part of Leeds known for its history of racial tension between British Asians and native Brits. Leeds council was so worried about the violence that it had to call in Foundation for Peace, a government funded peacekeepers who were used to keep Catholics and Protestants from killing one another in Northern Ireland. True message of Islam should be promoted because British media and society have always portrayed Islam in a negative way since Crusades and the siege of Vienna in 1683. School Curriculum should be used to convey a deeper understanding of Islamic faith, history and culture. Prison is not the answer of those who are vulnerable to, or are being drawn into violent extremism unless they have clearly committed an offence.

    The greatest challenge to humanity is learning to live in a crowded and interconnected world that is creating unprecedented pressures on human society. The rector of Oxford’s largest Anglican Churches has called a Muslim call to prayers from the main Masjid “un-English”. This is a clear case of intolerance. Gibraltar is a British colony. Five Pound currency note has a queen image on one side and on the other side there is an image of the Muslim Conqueror with a sword in his hand. There is more hatred of Muslims seduced by the Western media, education system and church leaders like Bishop Nazir Ali. Catholic nuns have worn veils for centuries, with no public controversies arising. There is no reason why any girl’s school uniform can not now be modified to include a veil. Wearing a veil to school or to work must be a matter of choice for all.
    Iftikhar Ahmad

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