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Religion and Society

That Yemenite Minaret Planted in the Heart of America *

The emblematic story of the community of Dix in the metropolitan area of Detroit. How one is shaped, how one grows, and how one prospers in the reality of immigrants that do not search for integration. The fascinating book/investigation by an American scholar.

Many young American Muslims I met are interested in developing their Islamic identity as part of a broad religious community, whether it is with other Muslims on their campuses, in their Islamic centers, or in the mosques. This provides a feeling of solidarity and offers a clear antidote to mainstream America, where they feel less comfortable. Yet the Yemenis of Dix cling to tradition, and often they confuse those traditions with Islamic doctrine. The earlier generation of Muslim immigrants did not concern themselves with this issue. Their primary focus was economic survival and social mobility for them and their children. But the second generation now faces a greater challenge: how to create a unified Islamic community in the face of ethnic and racial barriers that serve to divide them.

 

[] Young American Muslims are increasingly open to the possibility of marrying outside their own ethnic group, part of their effort to create an indigenous Islamic identity that is compatible with modern American society. For them, this does not mean total assimilation, but instead a unified and strong Islamic community that is not split along ethnic lines. Unlike the earlier generation, they are becoming more and more Muslim-Americans, and less Pakistani, Egyptian, or Indian. And they are choosing husbands and wives from ethnic groups outside their own. But it is difficult to convince their parents that marrying a Pakistani if they are Arab is permitted within the Islamic tradition. No doubt it is, but this idea is foreign to the experience of their immigrant parents.

 

Islamic scholars sometimes harshly criticize Muslim-Americans for the importance they place on their ethnic identities. Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, of the Nawawi Foundation, is one such scholar who has lectured and written extensively on how some mosques, Islamic centers, and Muslim Students' Associations on university campuses not only segregate Muslims along ethnic lines but isolate them from broader American society. Many scholars agree that there is no way to completely remove cultural influences from Islamic practice. But at the least, Muslim-Americans must learn how to distinguish between the two.

 

Separating culture from religion is perhaps more difficult in Detroit than it is in any other part of the United States, because the large number of Muslims and Arabs provides a critical mass of ethnic and historical tradition. For the last thirty years, southeastern Michigan, including Detroit's metropolitan area, has had the highest concentration of Arabic speakers outside the Middle East. According to Detroit's leading Arab-American association, there are 490,000 Arabs in the metropolitan area, and they comprise one-third of the total population of Dearborn. Yemeni and Iraqi immigrants represent the majority in the Southend, while the more affluent Lebanese have settled in other areas of Dearborn. An estimated 30,000 Yemenis live in the Detroit metropolitan area, while Iraqis number around 50,000.

 

 

Kabul and Detroit

 

The story of modern-day Dix began when a Lebanese and a Yemeni founded the American Muslim Society in 1937 at the site of a pool hall. It took them until 1952 to establish a more proper house of worship, placing a green dome and two small minarets on the roof. For many years, the former pool hall was more a place for social gatherings than for worship. The 1952 renovations extended the mosque from a few thousand square feet to more than twelve-thousand.

 

With the repeal in 1965 of the national immigration quotas, the Yemeni population of the Southend began to swell. Over time the newcomers announced they wanted to extend their conservative ideas to the entire local Muslim community. They closed the mosque and declared they were taking it over from Lebanese-Syrian immigrants who had once been the majority. Soon, the Yemenis fully controlled Dix, and life was turned upside down. The Yemeni takeover and the patriarchal community they created filled a deep need. A few of the Yemenis who led the effort were so proud of their new creation that they still keep parts of the original pool hall mostly wooden door and knobs as souvenirs to make sure they never forget how far they have come.

 

The unique nature of Yemeni immigrants and their legendary attachment to the ways of the Old Country have shaped every aspect of life at the Dix mosque. Unlike most other contemporary immigrants from the Muslim world, Yemeni arrivals are overwhelmingly young single men, with little or no education or job skills. Few are intent upon settling in America for good, and many keep wives and families back home, visiting periodically and sending funds whenever possible. With no personal investment in a future in the West, the Yemenis are among the most resistant to compromise with contemporary American life. They often struggle to make a reasonable wage, with some estimates putting the median household income in the Southend at $20,125, less than half the national average among Muslims. Approximately one-third of the population has never learned English and many first generation immigrant women are illiterate. Any concession to a new identity, say that of Muslim-American or even Yemeni-American, is often fiercely resisted. Daily life revolves around work, the traditional tea house or café, and the Dix mosque.

 

The growth of the Yemeni population in the Southend picked up pace after the uneasy unification in 1990 of once-Communist South Yemen and Islamist North Yemen into a unified republic a process that effectively placed the country in the hands of religious conservatives. The north had a long history of theocratic control, extending formally until 1962. Islamic law provided the basis for all legislation. Polygamy was accepted and practiced and men could divorce without their wives' consent. With the departure of British colonial forces in 1967, the north soon found itself in direct competition with its southern rivals, now aligned with the Soviet Union as the Arab world's first Communist state.

 

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the north's rulers seized on a chance to embarrass the Communists in the eyes of the Islamic world, actively supporting the mujahedeen fighters in battling the infidel invaders of a fraternal Muslim country. Legions of Yemeni men joined the ranks of the mujahedeen and became among the most intrepid Arab fighters against Soviet rule. North Yemen gave a hero's welcome to the returning fighters after the defeat of Soviet forces ten years later. As in other Arab countries, these mujahedeen fighters, now fired by the radical Islamic ideology common to many of the so-called Afghan Arabs, quickly spread their ideas within Yemeni society, contributing to a growing Islamic awakening. The fighters' power and influence was further enhanced in 1994, when civil war erupted between North and South Yemen, and the North emerged victorious with the help of the veterans of Afghanistan. Such is the world that has shaped most Yemeni immigrants in the United States.

 

Many of these immigrants, with their eyes always fixed on Yemen, moved to the Southend, but they make frequent trips home, not only for themselves but to give their children an authentic taste of their culture and religion. They fear the next generation will be corrupted in America and adopt behavior that is unacceptable for Muslims. As more Yemeni men and women moved to the Southend, the community became more conservative. Some of their imams () came to the Southend after studying in Saudia Arabia, where Islamic scholarship is generally conservative.

 

As a result, the Yemenis of Dix are more isolated than most Muslim enclaves. In fact, in America, unlike in Europe where Muslims often live in urban ghettos, more and more Muslim-Americans are moving to the suburbs and fewer are settling in densely-populated areas such as Dearborn. Once in the suburbs, they build mosques, Islamic schools, and community centers, and leave their old urban mosques behind. But the tight community around Dix is something of an exception. Yemenis live so close to one another than they can socialize simply by going from house to house with friends or relatives they knew from their villages back home.

 

The new masters of the Dix mosque wasted no time. The board invited a young, Saudi-trained Yemeni imam to lead the worshipers. The mosque would be open every day, not just once a week. The prayer area on the first floor would be for men and the basement, once a social hall, would be the designated prayer area for women. All women should wear head-scarves, and enter the mosque not through the main entrance, but the side door on Woodlawn Street. They were told not to enter the mosque at all while they are menstruating, a common taboo among Muslims in the greater Islamic world. Weddings and social celebrations were no longer permitted at Dix. "There will be no singing or dancing in this house of worship," the new imam declared.

 

He also ended co-ed Islamic classes and segregated the sexes in all other mosque activities. He advised the community not to have dogs as pets, in keeping with an Islamic tradition dating back to the Prophet's time that dogs are unclean. The changes at the time were unusual for Dearborn, even though they reflected commonly-held traditions in much of the Islamic world. The Yemenis felt the mosque, for years run by Sunni Muslims who had been separated from their native Lebanon for two generations, had become too Americanized. Their detractors argued the Yemenis used Islam to justify their fears about sexuality, the role of women in society, and the threats posed by life in a new country filled with many temptations and social ills.

 

Faced with Yemeni supremacy at Dix, the Lebanese worshippers gradually drifted away, and by 1983 they had established their own religious community they called the American Bekka Lebanese League, named for their native Bekka Valley. They turned a building that had been a social hall in the heart of Dearborn's Lebanese district along Chase Street, about eight miles from Dix, into a storefront house of worship. With time, the Bekka League also came to resemble a more traditional mosque. From the outside, the brown brick building with a low roof looks like it could be a funeral home or a doctor's office. But inside, the men's prayer hall is bright with clean white walls and grey and green carpet. The women's prayer hall, segregated from that of the men, is a much smaller room down the hall.

 

Dix, meanwhile, flourished under its Yemeni leaders. At the time, Saudi Arabia was pouring funds into mosque construction projects in the United States and actively supporting Muslim Student Associations on the nation's university campuses. By 1986, another expansion was in order at Dix. The mosque doubled in size to 24,000 square feet with help from the Saudis.

 

 

A Public Relations Campaign

 

Each year during Ramadan, when the donation basket is passed around, the women at Dix give their gold bracelets and necklaces, their prized possessions from Yemen, for the upkeep of the mosque. They never know exactly how the money will be used, but they place their trust in the imams and the men on the mosque governing board. So much gold was collected that the men were able to renovate and expand the mosque yet again in 2004. A large chandelier with sparkling crystals and trimmed in gold hangs from one of the entrances. A spacious office, where Imam Aly, the head sheikh, and Abdul Wahab, sit each day to counsel worshipers, is decorated with large photographs on the walls of the grand mosque in Mecca. Green and beige wall-to-wall carpet woven with designs of minarets covers the floor.

 

Dix worshippers had complained for years that time had stood still at their mosque. Before the wave of expansion, the sheikhs sat in a small, dark dusty office that resembled a storage room to greet visitors or worshippers who came for advice. One desk with a few chairs was all that could fit inside. They wondered when their mosque would grow, particularly because during Ramadan there were so many men at Friday prayers some had to stand outside in the parking lot. They watched as other mosques in Dearborn underwent facelifts: drab minarets were dotted with gold; the prayer rooms benefited from clean carpets; the plain windows replaced with stained glass. For two years, the talk around Dearborn was about a $12 million Shiite mosque under construction about six miles from Dix. The Shiites at the Islamic Center of America were trading in their modest mosque, built in 1958 and located in a commercial district, for an ostentatious mosque of gold and Italian tiles, spectacularly visible from the well-traveled freeway.

 

Everyone in Dearborn could see the budding mosque, as it sprouted along the highway, one piece of gold at a time. The imam, Sheikh Mohammad Qazwini, was a smooth-talker with the well-honed manners characteristic of the Shiite clerics of Iran, where he had received his theological schooling. Qazwini could charm anyone. He did all the right things to achieve prominence in the community, from organizing lavish fund-raising dinners to appearing on religious television programs.

 

The Dix community didn't want fame or an elaborate mosque. The men simply wanted their house of God to be a little less rundown; the women were happy just to have toilet paper in their washrooms, the place they cleansed their hands before prayers. It took September 11 to propel anyone into action. After the attacks, zealous newspaper and television reporters descended upon the mosque in their frenzied search for snapshots of "radical Muslims." Anyone would do, provided they had the proper dress. The Dix men in their long gallabiyyas, the Islamic tunics for men, and the women in dark head-scarves and jilbabs, the ankle-length dress for women, fit the stereotypes perfectly. They were splashed across the evening news to incite fear that there were Muslim extremists on American soil. After the stories created a bad reputation for the mosque, the men in charge launched a public relations campaign.

 

A few years later, after the thousands of worshippers had pooled their donations together, the mosque sparkled with new chandeliers, renovated classrooms for children learning Arabic, and a community room for hosting dinners and lunches for guests. The mosque held two open houses after the renovations were finished. The worshippers gave visitors what they call a "dawah package," from the Arabic word meaning the call to Islam. Manila folders were filled with an introductory booklet about Islam and information about the history of Dix.

 

Sheikh Abdul Wahab hoped the literature would not only give outsiders an accurate picture of Islam, but draw some to the faith. "Everyone was born a Muslim," Wahab often says, repeating an idea among some conservative Muslims. The tradition can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad, who it is said, was asked about the offspring of pagans. The Prophet said: "No child is born but has the Islamic faith, but its parents turn it into a Jew or a Christian."

 

 

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* This article is based on: Mecca and Main Street: Muslim life in America After 9/11 by Geneive Abdo (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006)

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