Arab-Americans Thrive in Detroit but Stigma from Mideast Conflicts and Terrorism Spark Conflict as Citizens Reach for Mainstream

Article excerpt

STOREFRONTS with signs in Arabic. The green domes and crescent-moon spire of a mosque. The New Yasmeen Bakery and Amani's Restaurant. These are clear evidences of a vital, growing Arab-American community in the eastern section of this Detroit suburb.

The Motor City's metropolitan area includes some 250,000 people who have roots in Arab countries. It's widely thought to be the largest Middle Eastern community in North America. The Lebanese community is centered in Dearborn; many Palestinians have settled in the area as well, along with Yemenis, Jordanians, and Iraqis.

The latter group includes many Iraqi Christians, or Chaldeans, whose language (akin to ancient Aramaic), religion, and history give them a distinct identity within the Mideast community. But such distinctions aside, almost all parts of this community have experienced strains - and sometimes outright clashes - in reaching for the mainstream of American life while maintaining a culture that strikes many other Americans as "foreign."

The strains often escalate in proportion to the prominence of Mideast conflicts in newspaper headlines. "The Iraqi war was the only time in my life when my loyalty was questioned because I was a Muslim," says Chuck Alawan, a metal-fabrication company executive and chairman of the Islamic Center of America, located in west Detroit.

The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York on Feb. 26, followed by the arrest of Jordanian and Kuwaiti-born suspects with Palestinian links, had the potential to spark fresh anti-Arab or anti-Muslim feelings here. But quick action by a local Islamic council, which held a press conference to affirm its stance against violence and warn against lumping all Arabs and Muslims together, helped quell such feelings, says Zana Macki, a Dearborn resident of Lebanese background who works for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Detroit.

The Islamic center's low, off-white building, with a minaret darting from one side, is a focal point of worship, study, and social life for many Muslims in the area, particularly those from the Shiite branch of Islam.

Mr. Alawan's roots in greater Detroit go back to 1914, when his father left Syria for the United States. Henry Ford's offer to workers of $5 a day on his Dearborn assembly line was the initial lure. But the elder Alawan soon followed his merchant heritage into the restaurant business, then a confectioner's store. That progression has been typical of many Arab immigrants. The economic backbone of the community is small business. Many Lebanese, for instance, run gas stations in the Detroit area. Chaldeans are often associated with the "party store" business - small grocery outlets that emphasize beverages and snack foods.

The kinds of censure felt by Alawan during the Gulf war didn't disappear with the war's end. Mrs. Macki describes the disgust felt by many in her community when a local talk-radio station recently posed the question to listeners: "What do you think? Should we lock up Iraqi-Americans?"

"The community is scapegoated for things that go on in the Middle East that we have nothing to do with," says Macki. There was a 300 percent rise in "hate crimes" against local Arabs during the Gulf war, she says. Macki and other Arab-Americans here say that President Bush's "demonization" of Iraq's Saddam Hussein too easily spilled over onto everyone of Arab background. …