You'll find ham and liquor in Dearborn — but no Shariah

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

There's a painting on the window of Lile's Sandwich Shop, left over from Christmas, of Santa Claus toting a sack of ham.

Apparently, the Dearborn Taliban hasn't noticed. Or maybe it's hungry enough to overlook a few things.

Or maybe it's stockpiling craft beer and expensive scotch at Wine Captain Party Shoppe a few blocks up Michigan Avenue, or holding leadership training at B.T.'s Executive Club.

On the east side of Dearborn, Wine Captain Party Shoppe offers craft beers, Lebanese wine and expensive aged scotch.

Or maybe the rabid, liberty-stealing, Constitution-snuffing architects of Shariah law in a friendly Detroit suburb are just a figment of some fevered imaginations.

Having grown up in Dearborn and raised his Catholic children there, Mayor Jack O'Reilly is going with that last option.

Also not quaking in fear of a nonexistent Islamic takeover: restaurateur Harry Lile, whose dad started selling thick, delicious ham sandwiches across from city hall in 1965.

But every time some fearmongering politician, all-credit-cards-accepted pseudo-preacher or even online humorist brings up Shariah, "no-go zones" or ominous "Muslim enclaves" eyes turn to the home of some 30,000 Arab-Americans, half a dozen mosques ...

And 55 assorted Christian churches.

"There are those who actually feel threatened by what they don't know and understand," says O'Reilly, whose job description has come to include playing Whac-A-Mole with the latest angry allegation.

"Then there are others who exploit it because it provides a revenue stream."

Fear of the unknown

Most recently, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal decried no-go zones in Europe that are supposedly so dominated by warlike Muslim extremists that police won't set foot there.

Fox News had the grace to retract something similar from one of its commentators, but that doesn't stop it from getting picked up and e-blasted by fringe websites that have also been known to repeat parody as fact.

After one well-publicized bout of "Dearbornistan" hysteria a few years ago, O'Reilly fielded 6,700 alarmed or outright testy emails. After Jindal's speeches last month, the Daily Beast felt moved to weigh in with a sympathetic look at the city, which was an improvement.

"Our mosques are all on heavily traveled roads," O'Reilly points out. "They're commercial streets. How are you going to have a no-go zone?"

The mayor since 2007, he was the city council president for 17 years before that. One of his yes-go zones is Lile's, where his standard order is corned beef.

Along with ham, that makes up two-thirds of the entire sandwich menu. Lile says his Muslim customers, including his barber and his car repair guy, typically order turkey. They're all $6.50, tax included.

"I guess if you haven't been exposed to something, fear of the unknown takes over," Lile says.

He doesn't mean ham. He means Muslims — like the late Jim Lile, his Albanian immigrant dad.

Lile’s Sandwich Shop owner Harry Lile, right, chats with customer Arnulfo Cantu Jr. of Detroit. The shop’s ham sandwiches are a local staple.

An all-American mix

Jim Lile wasn't particularly observant, religion-wise. Just as there are different forms of Islam, there are different levels of commitment.

It's a distinction lost on people who can't or won't see the separation between a fanatic with a gun in Afghanistan and a soccer coach with a clipboard in Allen Park.

You'll see businesses in Dearborn with signs in both Arabic and English, and you'll even see women in burkas.

But at Wine Captain, where there's an aisle of Lebanese wines and beers for Middle Eastern Christians and a 30-year-old Laphroaig Scotch for $949, owner Freddie Kasgorgis also serves Muslim customers ... as discreetly as possible.

"It's not that they don't drink," he says. "They don't want to be seen drinking."

Shopkeepers in southwest Michigan used to say the same thing about their customers from Zeeland and Hudsonville before the state's last dry cities finally caved in to alcohol.

Keeping up appearances is as American as apple pie — or an overstuffed ham sandwich from Lile's.