Michigan Muslims fear backlash from campaign rhetoric

Natasha Dado
Special to The Detroit News

Muslims in Metro Detroit say they worry some anti-terrorism proposals that emerged during this year’s contentious presidential campaign could violate the Constitution and cast suspicion on the Arab-American community.

The debate over the best way to protect the United States from terror is being watched closely in the Detroit area, which has one of the largest Arab-American populations in the country.

Advocates for the Muslim community say they don’t like what they see from the GOP side, particularly from billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who is now the presumptive Republican nominee after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out of the race last week.

Trump and Cruz drew particular heat for proposals that critics say unfairly targeted Muslims.

In response to the Brussels attacks in March, for example, Cruz suggested that law enforcement officials should patrol Muslim neighborhoods “before they become radicalized.”

Trump has generated backlash over proposals that included banning all Muslims from entering the United States, implementing a database system to track all Muslims and forcing them to carry special identification cards.

“The interesting part about what Ted Cruz had to say is that such policies have been practiced,” said Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based national office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the largest Arab American civil rights organization in the country.

“The New York Police Department is infamous for their surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, which by the way yielded zero arrests,” Ayoub added.

Abdullah Hammoud, a Democrat who’s running for a state House seat covering the city of Dearborn, said the Republican presidential candidates used loaded language when discussing terrorism, contributing to fear-mongering and bigotry. He contrasted them with Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

“Both Democratic candidates are adamant to say that we are not at war with an entire religion, but rather a terrorist organization that kills Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” said Hammoud, a lifelong Dearborn resident and board member of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “Their speech calls for unity and acceptance rather than marginalizing the Muslim community.”

One of the greatest challenges facing the next president is the global threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In March, deadly bombings also occurred in Pakistan and Iraq. Government officials have issued warnings that ISIS is likely to attempt attacks on the United States in 2016.

“Can you imagine having a 9/11 here and Trump as president? Anyone who has half a brain knows you should never point a finger at an entire community to combat terrorism. That is just fundamentally wrong,” said Nabih Ayad, a Canton-based attorney and founder of the Arab American Civil Rights League. The Dearborn nonprofit handles discrimination cases against Arab-Americans in Metro Detroit.

Wendy Day, state director of the Cruz campaign in Michigan, said Cruz’s proposal on patrolling Muslim neighborhoods was taken out of context.

“Community policing programs are a good way for law enforcement officials to get to know people better, and work with them in order to secure the safety of their neighborhoods,” Day said. “It gives people an opportunity to report their neighbors if they notice something suspicious.”

One Trump supporter, Zuhair Nissan of Clinton Township, said he believes it’s prudent “to be more cautious about the immigrants who are coming into this country.”

“I think we need to do a better job at investigating who is coming here,” said Nissan, a Metro Detroit-based writer. “Trump would be great at this. His policies would benefit everyone, including Muslim Americans.”

But some experts have warned that Trump’s rhetoric toward Muslims puts the country’s security at risk because terrorist groups use it to recruit people.

“The best way to fight terrorism is to approach it from a holistic, race-and religious-neutral perspective,” said Khaled Beydoun, professor of law at Barry University School of Law in Miami and a national expert on Arab and Muslim civil rights.

“Muslim Americans would agree that there are extremist elements within the population, and addressing and preventing them from engaging in terrorism is key. However, most national security programming focusing on terrorism frames it as an exclusively Muslim problem, ignoring statistics that demonstrate how the vast majority of mass shooters are not Muslim.”

Civil rights groups believe the Republican candidates’ ideas on fighting terrorism contribute to the growing anti-Muslim sentiment felt locally and nationwide.

“In a post-Trump era, we have seen much more open discriminatory comments and actions against American Muslims in the open than we have seen pre-Trump,”said Nargis Rahman, office manager for the Southfield-based Council on American Islamic Relations of Michigan, a civil rights group. “People who may have privately held stereotypes of American Muslims are now not embarrassed to share them in the public space.”

Amer Zahr, an Arab-American writer, comedian and adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, said the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are overwhelmingly nonviolent and detest ISIS.

“If we are willing to recognize the 1 percent of Muslims who might express their faith violently, then let’s just as readily and vigorously recognize the 99 percent who do not.”

Natasha Dado is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.