Why are so many black Americans Muslim?

Minorities in the USA: The City of Muslims

Is it a symptom of the Islamic invasion or a prime example of integration? Hamtramck is the only US city with a Muslim majority.

Graffito in Hamtramck Photo: Jörg Wimalasena

HAMTRAMCKtaz | When the church bells ring, the Imam remains silent. That is the arrangement, Abdul Motlib made it more than 13 years ago with the church congregation across the street. The Catholics celebrate their services until ten in the morning, after which the Imam calls after the noon prayer. Lived religious coexistence, believes Motlib.

The 59-year-old is sitting in his office in the Islamic Center Hamtramck while the evening prayer is just coming to an end in the prayer room next door. Dozens of men pour out of the mosque. It's Sunday evening in Hamtramck, Michigan, and Abdul Motlib is talking to an out-of-town journalist - yet again.

The Islamic Center, which Motlib runs, is a political issue in the United States. It's not just about the mosque, but about the whole city of Hamtramck. The inconspicuous community of 24,000 people in the metropolis of Detroit has a unique selling point.

The commune, which was formerly dominated by Poland, has been the only city in the United States with a Muslim majority since the arrival of migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Yemen - and since 2015, Muslims have also made up the majority of the members of the six-member city council.

Since then, Hamtramck has been in the headlines regularly. For some, the city is an example of the peaceful coexistence of religions - for others, it is the symbol of an invasion by Muslims, as it is called on right-wing blogs. Hamtramck has become the target of hate speech there, especially since Donald Trump became president with an anti-Islamic election campaign.

The cityscape is changing

A lot of attention for a small place full of people who don't really want to attract attention. Abdul Motlib is one of them. He offers his guests food and water and tells his almost typical biography: Like many Bangladeshis, Motlib came to the United States in the late 1980s. The pursuit of happiness, the founding promise of the USA, lured him to North America. “There was work for us in Hamtramck,” says Motlib. "Although we are unskilled."

A few kilometers from the mosque, General Motors maintains one of the last large car factories in the Detroit area. Anyone who works here has to be hard-working, but not have many qualifications. The shabby and small houses in Hamtramck often only cost a few thousand dollars. And so the Bangladeshis came in droves. Then the Yemenis came along. Forty-three percent of the city's population was born outside of the United States. And Hamtramck's cityscape changed step by step.

Abdul Motlib, Imam

"I believe in the system of checks and balances"

If you walk down the main street today, you will see halal butchers, Islamic fashion shops and of course mosques. They are the center of public life in an otherwise deserted city. There is also silence along the main street in the afternoon. The few open shops are almost without exception Muslim.

The Polish Village Cafe is one of the last big meeting places for the Polish community. It is difficult to find a table in the dark basement restaurant with its wood-paneled walls. There are no Muslims here, but there are many older Polish-born Americans. Like Greg Kowalski.

The 66-year-old with the carefully combed back white hair is something like the historian von Hamtramck - and therefore also heads the community museum. He was born in the city and has lived here most of his life. Does he feel threatened by the many Muslims in the city? "Some older Poles are uncomfortable with immigration," says Kowalski. "But I am of the opinion that the Muslims saved our city."

Decline averted

Before immigration from the Middle East and South Asia, the city was on the verge of collapse due to the decades-long crisis in the automotive sector. Of the previous 53,000 inhabitants, 18,000 remained in 1990. But thanks to immigration, there were now 24,000 people living in the city again, says Kowalski: "Many new shops are opening and there is a committed civil society again."

A few years ago, neighbors of all nations got together to mend the potholes in the streets. Constant change is just part of Hamtramck. “When we Poles came to the city in the 1920s, almost only Germans lived here. And then we came to terms with it. ”Besides, there was no real repression. Many Poles have simply moved away because there are bigger and nicer houses elsewhere.

If there were conflicts, they would be brought in from outside, says Kowalski. When the community voted in 2004 on whether the city's mosques could call the faithful to prayer by muezzin calls, some Poles were concerned, but sought dialogue with the mosque communities. At the same time, right-wing organizations carted busloads of demonstrators to Hamtramck to protest against the alleged Islamization of the city.

Kowalski recalls: “People from Ohio came to protest who had never been seen before. I got calls from Chicago asking if we needed help against the Muslims here. I told them that we could do very well on our own here. ”At that time, the residents decided to call to prayer by a narrow majority. A novelty in the USA.

Muslim city council

Hamtramck hit the headlines for the second time in 2015 when Muslims made up the majority of the six city council members for the first time. It was rumored in Hamtramck that the city council would revoke the licenses of the local pubs and liquor stores and introduce Sharia law. None of this happened. In recent years, the city council has concentrated on putting the desolate financial situation in order. A difficult undertaking in the chronically indebted community that has already gone bankrupt 14 times.

Not only the city treasury is empty. The residents of Hamtramck are also poor. Almost half of the urban population lives below the national poverty line. Like many Poles, those who can move away. Those who stay are often dependent on help - which the state is inadequately providing, especially in the poorer regions of the USA. And so Muslim civil society has to step in. For example Khalid Iqbal, who comes from Pakistan and heads the Muslim Family Center in Hamtramck.

On a sunny Tuesday lunchtime, the 71-year-old drives slowly down the main street of Hamtramck in his white van. On the left and right are masts with the flags of the citizens' countries of origin.

The boxes with donated food are rattling in the hold, Khalid Iqbal is looking for people in need. A neglected black man is sitting in front of a supermarket in the blazing midday sun. His hands are mutilated, only one finger on each hand. “Hello brother,” Iqbal greets him kindly. "Are you hungry? I have food in the hold. "

The man approaches somewhat suspiciously. “But I can't pay for it, and I don't have a place to cook anything,” replies the homeless man. Iqbal: “Then take these granola bars. You can have them all. ”The recipient gratefully accepts the bag of groceries. Iqbal says goodbye and gets back into the car. “Three out of five people here don't have a job,” he says. “We distribute furniture and help with the job search.” But they don't want to proselytize anyone.

New immigrants from Syria

Iqbal has also noticed that Hamtramck has achieved dubious fame on the Internet. However, there are no problems with external hostilities, he says. And Trump? "When he was elected, we received many words of encouragement from our non-Muslim fellow citizens," says Iqbal.

Abdul Motlib of the Islamic Center adds: “I believe in the system of checks and balances. The president is president, but that doesn't mean that he owns the country alone now. ”The tenor of the city is that all sections of the population get along here. We don't want to be a placeholder for your conflicts.

Nevertheless, Motlib will also move away from Hamtramck. A few miles further to Starling Heights. There are newer and nicer houses there. Some other Bangladeshis who got money have already moved there. Now it is Syrian refugees who come to Hamtramck. They will also be integrated. In Hamtramck they have experience with it.