Hamtramck elects first majority-Muslim City Council

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Saad Almasmari ran for a seat on the Hamtramck City Council this year with a simple yet powerful goal in mind.

“I like to serve my community,” the 28-year-old Yemeni immigrant said. “I like everything in Hamtramck. ... The thing I like most in Hamtramck is the diversity.”

On Tuesday, Almasmari earned the highest number of votes — 1,176, or 22 percent — among the six candidates who sought three, four-year terms on the council.

With his election, Muslims now fill four of the six seats on the panel, he said. It’s now believed to be the first City Council in the country boasting a Muslim majority, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter.

“The Michigan Muslim community is becoming more civicly and politically engaged,” Walid said Thursday. “In some areas where Muslims are having an extremely difficult time, we are making progress in this area on a number of different fronts.”

The shift in leadership is another signal that Hamtramck, once known as a predominately Polish Catholic community, has in recent years welcomed a more diverse demographic.

Muslims are “a significant population in the city and they’ve been arriving here and transforming the city for a generation now,” said Sally Howell, a University of Michigan-Dearborn associate professor who has studied the group and written a book, “Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past.”

“It’s good to see them gain representation equal to their numbers on the City Council. That’s a great opportunity for them and for the city to imagine a new future.”

The election strides come after years of controversy. In 2013, the Al-Islah Islamic Center met resistance from Hamtramck’s zoning board over its proposed remodeling of its building. And in 2004, some residents heatedly objected to an ordinance the council ultimately approved to allow mosques to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer onto public streets.

The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t track religion, but Howell estimates Hamtramck, which has around 22,000 residents, is roughly half Muslim. As Poles and others left the city in the last several decades, she said, it attracted many immigrants, including those from Yemen, Bangladesh and Bosnia. Between 1990 and 2000, the city’s Arab population jumped more than fivefold, while its traditional Polish population dropped by more than a third.

“Hamtramck is famously a city that was known for being a real stronghold for the Polish community,” Howell said. “Hamtramck was important to the Poles for the same reason it’s important to these Muslim groups today in that they got to have a place where they could be the hegemonic voice. ... People were happy to have Hamtramck as a place that could really represent them. And I think that this is true today for the newer immigrants.”

Almasmari relocated to the United States in 2009 and settled in Hamtramck, where his father-in-law lived. He gained citizenship in 2011 and is pursuing a degree in business administration from Wayne State University while running his own ice cream company.

Now on the council, he hopes to secure more financial resources for the city and push to revitalize the area around Jos. Campau.

Almasmari stresses that faith wasn’t a selling point during the election campaign, and his Muslim colleagues — Mohammed Hassan, Anam Miah and Abu Musa — are focused on representing all Hamtramck residents.

“Although we are Muslims, we are going to serve everyone regardless of their religion, ethnicity or skin color,” he said.

That spirit is what’s needed to push the city forward in tough economic times, said longtime activist Bill Meyer, executive director of OneHamtramck LLC, a group that uses culture to unite the community.

“They more than anybody want to prove that they can solve the problems of the city for everybody and work for everybody’s benefit,” he said. “Hamtramck, I think, was saved in a large part due to the presence of Muslims. So for that they need to be praised, thanked, supported and worked with. … We have to help everybody to work together.”