DEARBORN, Mich. – Dearborn, a city of nearly 100,000 people that borders Detroit’s west side, is home to the country’s largest Arab-American population by proportion, with 41 percent of the city’s population being of Arab descent. Dearborn is in many ways a typical American city, with the only discernible difference being many of the storefront signs are written in English and Arabic.
The city becomes a focal point whenever acts of terrorism occur, regardless of the perpetrator. The city’s political and religious leaders quickly got out in front of the fear and denounced the bombings and honored those who were injured and lost their lives.
“Let there be no mistake that we all condemn this senseless act of violence,” said Dr. Kassem Charara, chairman of the Islamic Institute of Knowledge, during a vigil held for the victims last Saturday. “By the same token, we should condemn the killing of innocent people anywhere in the world. There should not be a double-standard when we’re dealing with terrorism.”
Wounds of 9/11 re-opened
When it was revealed that the two primary suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings were Muslim, many of the wounds opened by 9/11 became fresh again for Arab-Americans and Muslims across the country. There have been isolated incidents around the country of ethnic intimidation and physical assaults of Muslims following the bombings, and the mistakes made by the national media during the coverage did not help matters.
“We know that whenever the airwaves are flooded with news of suspicion and profiling of Muslims in America, we see a surge of hate incidents and hate crimes on the ground,” said Valarie Kaur, Senior Fellow at the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. She started Groundswell, an initiative at Auburn Seminary that helps people to create their own social action campaigns including marriage equality, fighting human trafficking, and standing up for religious pluralism.
“On Monday, after the bombing, one man in the Bronx was beaten by a group of men who called him an Arab. On Wednesday, a Palestinian woman in Massachusetts was punched by a man who screamed, ‘You are terrorists! You are involved in the Boston explosions.’”
Kaur, 33, was born in California and has done advocacy work on behalf of people of all races and faiths. She is also a Sikh. Sikhs are often confused with Muslims and have been subjected to the same suspicions, reactions, and hate crimes as Arab-Americans and Muslims – including last summer’s shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
“The first suspect arrested after 9/11 was a Sikh American, Sher Singh, who was arrested on a Boston-bound train for the way he looked,” Kaur said. “As officers led him off the platform, people in the crowd yelled, ‘Kill him.’”
‘Let’s kill them all’
Kaur pointed to errors such as CNN’s John King first reporting that the potential suspect was a “dark-skinned male” to Fox News and the New York Post, misidentifying people – most of them Arab – as potential suspects helping to stoke public fear. Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, the reaction has been tempered due to changes in attitudes.
“This is nowhere near the violence we saw in the aftermath of 9/11,” Kaur said. “I think a new generation has come of age in the last 12 years, especially with Millennials who have far less tolerance for overt acts of racism and bigotry. When Fox News commentator Erik Rushed tweeted that Muslims are evil and said ‘Let’s kill them all,’ many more people used social media to challenge him, issuing statements of solidarity and unity.”
In southeast Michigan, there have been no reported cases of physical assaults of Muslims, Arabs, or Sikhs. However, that does not mean there have not been problems.
“Unfortunately, around the country and here in Michigan, we have seen some backlash including complaints that we’ve gotten here of Muslim kids being bullied in school late last week in Oakland County,” said Dawud Walid, the Executive Director for the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I do have a belief that the American public is much more educated about Muslims and Islam (since 9/11).”
Walid, who wrote a blog for the Detroit News on April 16 condemning the attacks, noted that CAIR often receives complaints of ethnic intimidation from local Muslims weekly, but saw a spike in the aftermath of the bombing and he points directly at the media as one of the root causes.