How 9/11 attacks galvanized Michigan's Arab American, Muslim residents

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Rana Abbas Taylor was fresh out of college when she began managing communications for the only national organization devoted to Arab American civil rights before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But after 19 members of al-Qaida led by Osama bin Laden killed nearly 3,000 people in targeted attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., she was bombarded with requests for information and had no idea what to do. She said there was no choice but to be engaged.

It was a watershed moment, Abbas Taylor said, especially for the Arab Americans and Muslims living in the Metro Detroit region, that changed their social DNA.

Rana Abbas Taylor, who works at Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks prompted fear for Arab Americans. "We didn't just mourn the attack on our country. We mourned what was happening to our culture and our faith," she said.

"For any American, you don't forget where you were at that moment, but as an Arab American or Muslim American, you will never forget the fear, the terror. The feeling of being unsafe all the time. It's the trauma that we remember," said Abbas Taylor, now communications director for Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, or ACCESS, a Dearborn-based nonprofit. 

"We didn't just mourn the attack on our country. We mourned what was happening to our culture and our faith," added Abbas Taylor, who grew up in Dearborn and now lives in Northville. "We had to be engaged if we wanted to live in this country without the injustice and the fears that permeated this community."

The stereotype of Arabs or Muslims being "terrorists" existed before 2001. But the attacks fueled hate crimes and acts of violence, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

Twenty years later, Arab Americans and Muslims in the Detroit region say the reckoning has propelled them to take control of their own narrative by creating a national museum, participating in politics and forming organizations to combat stereotypes.

"Arabs had been here for 100 years at the time, so everyone was mourning these awful events and then it very quickly became, 'Oh, I might be under suspicion of having a connection to this in some way,' " said Matthew Jaber Stiffler, research and content manager at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, adding 2001 wasn't the first time that Arabs in the United States had been scapegoated. "If you look at textbooks, television and media coverage of Arab Americans, it's very one dimensional."

In 2000, there were less than 300 violent incidents against Arab Americans, according to FBI crime statistics cited by the U.S. Justice Department. But violent incidents surged to more than 700 in the nine weeks following the terror attacks in 2001.

There were 9,730 bias-motivated incidents reported by law enforcement nationwide, based on FBI uniform crime statistics cited by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, acts of violence across the country were committed against individuals perceived to be Arab, Muslim Sikh and South Asian, including several murders, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Research Institute.

There were more than 800 cases of employment discrimination toward Arab Americans and numerous incidents in which services and housing were denied, according to a 2003 report from the research institute citing statistics from Sept. 11, 2001, through Oct. 11, 2002. 

The federal government targeted 5,000 men nationally who fit the descriptions of hijackers, including 700 men from Metro Detroit who were requested for “voluntary interviews” and some on immigrant visas were deported, the report said.

While U.S. Department of Justice data shows hate crimes against Arab Americans declined by 2003, violent actions against Muslims remained steady and increased, Stiffler said.

In spite of numerous expressions of support by public figures, including President George W. Bush's declaration that the peaceful religion of Islam had been "hijacked,"  Arab Americans remained vulnerable to hate crimes, discrimination and faced violations of their civil liberties.

"For a long time, Arabs living here just felt that nobody really knew who they were and that's just with the price of living in the United States," Stiffler said. "But then after 9/11, you combine that lack of information about who Arabs actually are, with this heightened scrutiny around national security and suspicion, it created a really awful series of events."

Dearborn's 'tightly knit'

Metro Detroit has one of the largest and most concentrated populations of Arabs in the country, behind New York and New Jersey areas, said Stiffler, adding 2020 data from the U.S. Census on national origin is not yet available.

Dearborn holds the highest proportion of Arab Americans of any American city but doesn't make up the majority of its 110,000 residents, according to the Arab American National Museum. 

Matthew Jaber Stiffler with the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn points to a letter sent by the U.S. Department of Justice, looking for persons of interest for the Sept. 11 attacks.

More than 90% of the students at the city's Fordson High School are Arab American. The birthplace of Henry Ford is also home to a dozen hookah lounges, brick-oven bakeries and longstanding businesses, such as Shatila, a Middle Eastern bakery, seen as a pilgrimage when visiting the state's eighth-largest city.

A showcase of religious diversity sits on Alter Road in Dearborn, where the largest mosque in the nation is sandwiched between churches, waving one unison American flag.

"There are tons of Arab communities, but very few are so tightly knit both physically and figuratively, where the community has built so many resources where they can walk into a bank or doctors office and expect to be spoken to in Arabic," said Stiffler, who teaches Arab American studies at the University of Michigan. 

Before the attacks, Dearborn was a vibrant city filled with bustling automotive workers and small immigrant-owned businesses.

While driving through Dearborn on Sept. 11, 2001, "it was like a ghost town," recalled Rana Elmir, acting director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. 

Unaware of what was wrong, the then-student journalist listened to the radio. She heard that New York City's Twin Towers were being attacked and remembered hearing reports that " 'Arabs in Dearborn, Michigan, are celebrating.'

"Not a soul was on the street," Elmir said. "It's that fear-mongering that has stuck with us for the last two decades."

Days afterward, some people were afraid to leave their homes, especially as more news was released about the hijackers. But Dearborn's then-Mayor Michael Guido insisted a team be formed to organize a peace and unity candlelight ceremony, which took place Sept. 19 on the lawn of the Henry Ford Museum.

Religious leaders of all faiths stood beside the city's police and fire personnel, academics from the University of Michigan, then-CEO Bill Ford and executive Jacques Nasser from Ford Motor Co. as well as thousands of residents. Attendees shared the light from one central candle on the stage. The images were shared globally.

Ahmad Chebbani was the publisher of Arabica Magazine, which started in 1999 and folded on Sept. 12, 2001. It is considered the first glossy magazine about Arab Americans to serve Metro Detroit.

After the attacks, the magazine began to receive requests to close and faxes from advertisers pulling their support. Chebbani said he decided to shut down instead of producing another edition. 

"We had hate emails and other messages directed at the magazine and then we had direct threats to me," said Chebbani, now president of Omnex Accounting & Tax Services in Dearborn. "I had to call the FBI for that because our family was threatened."

The magazine had 20 employees, and Chebbani said they tried to find ways to revive it, "but the political climate was not suitable to sustain it."

"By and large, the community included us, supported us and ... knew the commitment they had for this nation," he said.

'Never stop being vigilant'

After the attacks, Arab Americans had to alter some aspects of their daily life, Stiffler said, despite outfitting their homes and cars with American flags and other signs of patriotism.

Some started going by different names that didn't sound so Arabic. Some men cut their beards. Some women removed their headscarves, or "hijabs," in fear of being targeted. Others stopped sending money to their homes overseas as some charities were being shut down on suspicion of funding terrorism.

Human Rights Watch touted the response of law enforcement in Dearborn, which then had 30,000 Arab American residents. The city had only two violent 9/11-related attacks.

Dearborn Police Chief Ron Haddad was serving as Detroit's homeland security coordinator about two decades ago when southeast Michigan had 380,000 Arab Americans. About 75% were Christian and none had any part in a major terrorist conspiracy, he said. 

Dearborn Police Chief Ron Haddad is featured in a Post 9/11 magazine from the National Law Enforcement Museum. Haddad said the formation of a coalition between law enforcement, imams and activists called Bridges helped to build trust after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

They built a coalition with imams and activists dubbed "Bridges" to build trust between law enforcement and the community.

"The Arab and Muslim community finds this continuing need to assert that they're Americans and that they're not part of the enemy," said Haddad, who joined the department in 2008.

Haddad recalls Florida pastor Terry Jones, an anti-Islamic right-wing activist who attempted to burn a Quran in front of the Islamic Center of America and the Arab American National Museum. Targeted hate crime, Haddad noted, has declined, but "we will never stop being vigilant."

Within a year of the attacks, the U.S. government launched a Muslim registry program, sanctioning torture tactics abroad and extrajudicial killings, Elmir said. Metro Detroit communities were under constant surveillance, she said.

After graduating from Wayne State University, Elmir said unannounced FBI interviews targeting Arab Muslim men who'd recently immigrated to Michigan catapulted her from journalist to activist.

The ACLU, with other organizations, lobbied the U.S. Attorney's Office to change FBI tactics during the interviews and requested the Department of Justice to send letters instead of appearing unannounced. They also launched a hotline for impacted individuals to seek support, which was mostly filled with anti-Islamic voicemails, she added.

"We drew a clear line that discriminatory profiling was neither a legitimate investigative technique nor a substitute for individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. The government did not show that it had any reasonable belief that the people it sought to interview had any information relevant to 9/11," said Elmir. "Instead, these individuals were targeted simply because of their gender, religion and country of origin."

"And while many things have stayed the same over these past 20 years — government intrusion, surveillance and targeting has been a constant — we have emerged resilient challenging the 'new normal' at every turn." 

Former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Metro Detroit who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee at one time, said his term of service ran both prior and post-9/11.

Rogers said he was preparing to testify before the House Budget Committee on a Social Security bill when officials began evacuating the Capitol and soon saw the black smoke emerging from the Pentagon. Later that night, dozens of members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol to stand united and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner," he said. 

Back home, federal agents were presenting themselves in prominent Arab American and Muslim communities like Dearborn, which Rogers said was "inartfully done."

"It was like, we weren't prepared for this, so now we're gonna go out and show up at everyone's door and say 'I'm an FBI agent, call me,'" Rogers said. 

'Steps forward'

Although he's not boastful about it, Bill Bazzi was appointed as the first Arab American and Muslim mayor of Dearborn Heights earlier this year.

Bazzi grew up on the east side of Dearborn, graduated from Fordson in 1981 and was a U.S. Marine until 1988 when he joined Ford as an engineer.

Bazzi was sitting at his desk when the planes began to hit and Ford dismissed its employees. He went home and started packing his military gear before he got the call to serve the next day.

"We were all in a daze and couldn't believe we were at war on U.S. soil," Bazzi said. "Everything was very tense. We were emotional seeing the devastating and not knowing where the enemy is going to hit us from."

State Rep. and Dearborn mayoral candidate Abdullah Hammoud was at Woodworth Middle School when 9/11 unfolded. In the days after, while walking home with friends, a neighbor pointed a gun outside of his second-floor window saying, "Keep walking before I shoot you Muslim kids."

When running for state representative in 2016, Hammoud canvassed likely Democratic voters in his west Dearborn neighborhood, only to have some say, "I'm disgusted that you're my neighbor" and slam the door, he said.

Dearborn Mayoral Candidate Abdullah Hammoud who, if elected, would be the first Arab American Muslim mayor of the city.

"I think we've come quite a way as America, but something happens where you realize we actually haven't made much progress," Hammoud said. "Every time I feel like we've made steps forward as a society, there's an event that unfolds, a new group is under the microscope and they're being attacked all over again."

Zeinab Chami recalled serving at her local mosque during Ramadan in 2004, the moment when she knew she laid the scarf on her head and didn't want to take it off.

Zeinab Chami, an English teacher at Fordson High School in Dearborn, teaches students in the primarily Arab American high school what it's like outside of the city's bubble and how the perception of Arab Americans is not as comfortable as they've grown to know.

"I know some people who put it on because they felt empowered after 9/11, and it was a political statement for them. But it was a spiritual thing for me," Chami said. "There was a pain that came with seeing the narrative about your faith shift, not that Islam was depicted in any sort of positive light before that, but it all of a sudden became the world's monster."

It was Chami's senior year at Fordson when 9/11 occurred, and she remembers a bomb threat closing school the following Friday. Even then, administrators forbid teachers from speaking about the attack to their students.

Chami argues the opposite should have happened. Today, she doesn't just teach her Fordson advanced placement language classes about rhetoric, but shows how Arab Americans are perceived outside of "the bubble."

Dearborn, she said, has come a long way, and she stays to make a difference.

"Students take for granted the fact that they have teachers that look like them, can pronounce their names," said Chami, 37. "It wasn't until I was 16 that I had an Arab teacher, dealt with the dog-whistle racism a lot of us experienced growing up, and I think 9/11 might have played a role in changing that. It certainly changed my trajectory of life."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_