Living together peacefully in heart of Arab America

by Pierre M. Atlas
13 September 2005
DEARBORN, Mich.-- I traveled to Dearborn with my friend Charlie Wiles, a third-generation Hoosier and Lebanese American, to soak in what might be called America's "Arab street."

About 300 miles northeast of Indy, Dearborn is home to the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East. Thirty percent of Dearborn's residents are of Arab origin, as are half the kids in its public schools.

Storefronts have signs in Arabic as well as English and shopkeepers bid goodbye to customers with "Allah Ma'ak" or "God be with you." Arab markets, bakeries and halal butcher shops line West Warren Street, and many shops display large inventories of narghilas, the traditional water pipe smoked in the Middle East.
The sights, sounds and smells reminded me of my visit to Jordan last summer. But Dearborn is unlike any city in the Arab world -- because it is also American.
The first Arab-American museum in the country recently opened here. Its wall of fame identifies notable Arab Americans in various fields. Famous sports figures include pro football stars Darren and Doug Flutie, Indy car champ Bobby Rahal and bowler Eddie Elias. Famous political figures include Ralph Nader, John Sununu, former U.S. Sens. George Mitchell and Spencer Abraham, and Gov. Mitch Daniels.

America has always attracted people from around the world because of its religious and political freedom, tolerance of difference, and economic opportunity. Dearborn epitomizes these traits. The Arab population is Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shia, pious and secular, and they live, work and eat side by side. Dearborn has a palpable sense of "live and let live," and we were told this also applies to relations between Arabs and the non-Arab majority.

"Arabs came to the U.S. to realize the American Dream," says Adnan Baydoun, president of the Bint Jebail Cultural Center and editor of the Arabic language section of the community's newspaper, the Arab-American News.

Neal Abu Nab, a Palestinian American originally from Ramallah, agrees. He has filmed a documentary about the Arab-American experience called "The Arabian Dream."

Abu Nab is Sunni and Baydoun is a Lebanese Shiite. These distinctions made little difference to them as they sat in Baydoun's office smoking cigarettes and talking of Dearborn. Abu Nab suggests that "Dearborn is a model of how Arabs can get along in a democracy."

The largest Arab community here is from Lebanon, followed by Iraq and Yemen. Dearborn's Iraqis are mostly Shiites, refugees from the failed uprising against Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War. In typically American fashion, the Dearborn community has held pro- and anti-war rallies.

Dearborn is home to the largest mosque in North America, the Islamic Center of America. The massive, $14 million structure opened this May and is nestled between Armenian Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches. It is technically a Shiite mosque, with an Iraqi imam. But as several people at the mosque told us, Sunnis also pray here and people of all faiths are welcome. Worshipers leave any political differences at the door.

The city came under intense scrutiny after 9/11. But federal law enforcement and the Dearborn community have since come to terms. The Michigan chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the local U.S. attorney hold monthly meetings to air problems and ask questions, often stemming from the Patriot Act.

Rana Abbas-Chami, the ADC's Michigan deputy director and an American-born Lebanese, says that the locals and the Feds "don't always see eye to eye, but we meet and discuss community concerns. The monthly meetings keep the lines of communication open and help establish a sense of trust."

Our visit to Dearborn occurs in the shadow of the London bombings, perpetrated by British-born Muslims (who were Pakistanis, not Arabs). Are there any concerns of a parallel development in the heart of Arab America? Everyone we spoke with rejected such a possibility out of hand. Dearborn is not Leeds.

Abu Nab's words were typical. "Arab-American youth are not disconnected from society as were the Pakistani Brits. They are a lot more integrated here and see the promise of America."

Dearborn presents not a threat, but an un-seized opportunity to serve as America's bridge to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

* Pierre Atlas is assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College. Contact him at

Source: The Indianapolis Star, July 28, 2005.

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Distributed by the Common Ground News Service Partners in Humanity.

Copyright permission has been obtained from the author for publication.

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