Hamtramck, a 12-mosque town in the heart of America


Three faces from afar – a man in a headdress and a veiled girl and woman – greet patrons at a Yemeni restaurant in the US city of Hamtramck, gazing into the distance from a mural outside the eatery. The colourful painting is just another piece of the ever-changing backdrop in this industrial Michigan town, which made history in November when it became the first in America to elect a Muslim majority to its city council.

Amid heated rhetoric on Muslims across the county during the presidential campaign season, Hamtramck – located just a 15-minute drive from Detroit – has embraced them. The Paris attacks and San Bernardino killings sent a knee-jerk reaction through some quarters, with Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump going so far as to call for an outright ban on Muslims entering the country. But such is not the case here.

Hamtramck is "a manifestation of what America is meant to be. A place of opportunity," said Mayor Karen Majewski, who proudly announced that Syrian refugees were recently welcomed into the city.

One-story houses squeeze in tight next to each other in Hamtramck, which is home to 22,300 residents and has a total area of just over two square miles (five square kilometres). On its two main streets, women in hijabs and niqabs – the latter cover the face completely except for an opening for the eyes – girls in tight jeans, men with closely shaved heads and youths in baggy pants pass by each other. Stores, restaurants and supermarkets are equally diverse, welcoming Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Polish clientele. Kebab vendors co-exist alongside Indian food joints.

Sitting across from a church is Al-Islah Mosque, one of the largest of the city's 12. Since 2004, a muezzin, who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day, has belted out from makeshift minarets. "We have no problem with the Polish, we have no problem with the black community. We are living together peacefully. Nobody complains about the call to prayer anymore," said mosque secretary Masud Khan. Muslim holy days, he noted, are public holidays here, and schools and city offices close on those days.

A five-minute walk away, an imposing statue of late pope John Paul II serves as a reminder of a Catholic past in the city of immigrants, which was founded by German farmers in the 1910s. Hamtramck next became a bastion of Polish immigrants fleeing discriminatory laws in Detroit. However, the number of Polish residents has shrunk from 90 percent of the population in 1970 to 12 percent today, said historian Thaddeus Radzilowski, himself a Polish American.

Most moved on to suburban areas. The city has also seen a steady exodus of African Americans, said Radzilowski. Meanwhile, the proportion of immigrants from Bangladesh (20 percent), Bosnia (seven percent) and Yemen (23 percent) has grown, attracted by low crime rates, cheap real estate and the now bygone US auto boom, according to the researcher.

However, plants belonging to the "Big Three" – Chrysler, Ford and General Motors – have closed, and the city now has one of the highest poverty rates in the state of Michigan.

In front of the large Saint Florian Church, where Mass is still delivered in Polish, Father Mirek Frankowski said rapid demographic and political change has caused concern among the older generation. "They are afraid that the city will lose its Eastern Europe character," he said, adding that Muslim youths had disrupted processions before. "I tell them as long as you come to the church, as long as you participate in events here in Hamtramck, the city will have a small percent of Eastern (European) character."

There is also a fear that Polish celebrations could disappear now that the six-person city council is majority Muslim, Radzilowski said. "We are known for our nightlife, music, food, restaurants and bars, and that's also a really important part of our identity and our economic vitality, so I think it's important that isn't constrained," Majewski said.

Anam Miah, who was born in Bangladesh and is one of the four Muslim city council members, said that he cherished "the diversity of cultures in our community."

Many residents, like Polish art centre co-owner Joan Bittner, are holding judgment to see how things go. "I am waiting to see," she said.

Meanwhile, ads and signs for alcohol – which practicing Muslims largely consider banned by the Koran – still run rampant in the city. On Thursday evenings, Hamtramck, which has the largest number of liquor licences in Michigan, practically turns into an open bar, Ladzilowski said.    (AFP)

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