With Syrian refugees and Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance dominating the political debate, the Washington Post ran a fascinating profile of America’s first majority-Muslim city, which just elected America’s first majority-Muslim city council. The local political scene is not PC, but it is very American. And it’s more promising than the Post seems to realize.
Hamtramck, MI used to be a Polish-dominated enclave, a separate city within Detroit. One of John Paul II’s cousins was a city councilman there in the Fifties, and beer and paczki pastries were major touchstones in local life (including a festival for the latter). But “the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Yemen, Bangladesh and Bosnia over a decade,” drawn by relatively low crime and very low property prices, transformed the landscape. Now the city is “23 percent Arabic, 19 percent Bangladeshi and 7 percent Bosnian,” and 27 languages are spoken by children enrolled in its schools. And ethnic differences are starting to spill over into political life:
Business owners within 500 feet of one of Hamtramck’s four mosques can’t obtain a liquor license, she complained, a notable development in a place that flouted Prohibition-era laws by openly operating bars. The restrictions could thwart efforts to create an entertainment hub downtown, said the pro-commerce mayor.
And while [Mayor Karen] Majewski advocated to allow mosques to issue calls to prayer, she understands why some longtime residents are struggling to adjust to the sound that echos through the city’s streets five times each day.
“There’s definitely a strong feeling that Muslims are the other,” she said. “It’s about culture, what kind of place Hamtramck will become. There’s definitely a fear, and to some degree, I share it.”
It’s interesting to compare the scene in Hamtramck to that in Brussels where, as we are learning, PC pieties have kept real problems from being addressed. In a much-read article written last week, Dutch anthropologist Teun Voeten addressed the problematic neighborhood of Molenbeek, from which the Paris mastermind came, and the broader problem of European Islamic extremism:
[T]he most important factor is Belgium’s culture of denial. The country’s political debate has been dominated by a complacent progressive elite who firmly believes society can be designed and planned. Observers who point to unpleasant truths such as the high incidence of crime among Moroccan youth and violent tendencies in radical Islam are accused of being propagandists of the extreme-right, and are subsequently ignored and ostracized.
Voeten follows up with several examples, some from his own career, where now-prescient warnings were treated as unspeakable—and meanwhile, real problems festered:
The neighborhood was hardly multicultural. Rather, with roughly 80 percent of the population of Moroccan origin, it was tragically conformist and homogenous. There may be a vibrant alternative culture in Casablanca and Marrakech, but certainly not in Molenbeek.
Over nine years, I witnessed the neighborhood become increasingly intolerant. Alcohol became unavailable in most shops and supermarkets; I heard stories of fanatics at the Comte des Flandres metro station who pressured women to wear the veil; Islamic bookshops proliferated, and it became impossible to buy a decent newspaper. With an unemployment rate of 30 percent, the streets were eerily empty until late in the morning. Nowhere was there a bar or café where white, black and brown people would mingle. Instead, I witnessed petty crime, aggression, and frustrated youths who spat at our girlfriends and called them “filthy whores.” If you made a remark, you were inevitably scolded and called a racist. There used to be Jewish shops on Chaussée de Gand, but these were terrorized by gangs of young kids and most closed their doors around 2008. Openly gay people were routinely intimidated, and also packed up their bags.
As Walter Russell Mead wrote earlier this week, “[Brussels] is a city that holds up a glittering facade of international institutions and high ideas to the outside world, while its insides fester with societal breakdown and with the murderous death cults that exploded into the world’s awareness in Paris last week.”
The process going on in Hamtramck is undoubtedly a lot messier on the surface. But it’s hard not to conclude that it is nevertheless much healthier: some kind of a real conversation is going on. The early morning calls to prayer broadcast next to residential communities on the one hand, and the questionable welcome from certain longterm residents on the other, are real, local concerns. The specter of Islamic extremism and problems with integration worldwide are going to be a presence in everyone’s thinking, whether vocalized or not; so too is the nativism debate happening in America. But it’s happening out in the open.
An open if occasionally offensive conversation that airs real concerns, political organization along ethnic lines, and a resultant give-and-take would all have been familiar to the grandfathers of the city’s Polish residents from their own day. Familiar too would be concerns about the about the overt religious dress and self-ghettoization, political leanings, and ability to integrate into America’s culture—in that day, of the Eastern European orthodox Jews, socialist Polish emigres, Irish Catholics. Then, in fact, the fringes of the domestic scene were much more radical: the “second” KKK was virulently anti-immigrant, while immigrant and second-generation anarchists were responsible for the Haymarket Riot bombing and the assassination of President McKinley.
But by and large the rough-edged political exchanges of places like Detroit, Chicago, and New York in the early 1900s led to the most successful examples of integration the world has ever known. Now, the past is precedent, not exact analogy. The Islamic world has its own set of issues right now, and the world is interconnected in ways that would have seemed impossible in 1900. So will this very American process work this time? Who knows. But it’s been very successful so far. There are reasons to be hopeful.