Driving While Muslim

Driving While Muslim

As the hunt for homegrown terrorists sympathetic to Hezbollah intensifies, the Muslims of Dearborn, Michigan are losing their trust in American justice.


Dearborn, Michigan

Ali Houssaiky and Osama Abulhassan left their homes in this historic Muslim-American enclave as college students and came home as terrorists. On August 8 Houssaiky and Abulhassan drove to an Ohio Wal-Mart to buy hundreds of cheap cellphones, intending to sell them back to a distributor they knew to earn some extra cash for tuition. The Wal-Mart employee, fearing two young men of Arab heritage were terrorists, called police, who promptly apprehended Houssaiky and Abulhassan. Making matters worse, they were in Houssaiky’s mother’s car, which contained a manual outlining airline checkpoints, a necessity for her job at Royal Jordanian Airlines. To the police and the Washington County, Ohio, prosecutor, Houssaiky and Abulhassan were the sum of all fears: two young Arabs with airline manuals and hundreds of devices that could be used as bomb detonators.

Houssaiky and Abulhassan were quickly convicted in the press. “I went to our cell,” Houssaiky remembers. “The inmates showed us on TV, there was a line going across the screen [saying], Is This an Act of Terrorism at Work?” Yet within a week of their arrest, it became clear to prosecutors that there was no evidence linking either student to terrorism. Returning home to Dearborn, Houssaiky and Abulhassan called a press conference to denounce the “paranoia and xenophobia that is gripping the country.” To Houssaiky, the fact that he and his friend were cleared of all charges is no comfort. “The media made us into animals,” he says. “This is going to stick to us the rest of our lives.”

The persecution of Houssaiky and Abulhassan–two former high school football stars–underscores the sense of besiegement felt widely in this community of 35,000. Dearborn has been a magnet for Arab and Iranian immigrants for more than 100 years, and its streets and storefronts proudly display the signs of Middle Eastern-American culture: Mosques and community centers sit peacefully next to McDonald’s and Burger King along Dearborn arteries like Schafer Road and Warren Avenue. Yet over the past few months, and particularly during the Lebanon war, the Justice Department and the FBI have increasingly put Dearborn under collective suspicion. Nearly thirty people in the Dearborn area have been indicted on often-flimsy charges related to terrorism in the past three years, and more than half of them have been accused in the past four months. Assistant US Attorney Kenneth Chadwell, who heads the Justice Department’s efforts to investigate terrorism connections in Dearborn, told the Chicago Tribune in late July, “The question is: Are they loyal to the US or to this terrorist group Hezbollah?”

The answer Dearborn gives is that it’s loyal to both, in much the same way that many American Jews are Americans first, with a sentimental attachment to Israel. There is no doubt that much of Dearborn’s Muslim community, many of whom are Lebanese, Iraqi and Iranian Shiites, is sympathetic to Hezbollah, which the State Department designates as a terrorist organization. Some have gone beyond passive support. In March the US Attorney’s office indicted eighteen men for funneling profits from a Dearborn-operated cigarette-smuggling ring to Hezbollah, two of whom have pleaded guilty.

But most community leaders consider support for Hezbollah a derivative of Lebanese and Shiite identity, indicating support for resistance to Israel, not for terrorism. “Certainly there were a number of individuals, especially over the thirty-three days of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, who spoke very much in support of [Hezbollah], but they weren’t speaking in favor of the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers as much as they were speaking in favor of the sole institution there assisting the country during the invasion,” says Noel Saleh, president of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. “‘Hezbollah’ means in the West different things than it means in the East,” adds Mohammed Elahi, the Iranian-born imam of Dearborn’s Islamic House of Wisdom. “Muslims on the whole, especially Shiites, but even Sunnis, support the resistance in Lebanon.” Indeed, on a recent visit to Dearborn only days after the cease-fire took effect, I saw the red, white and green Lebanese flag everywhere–on shop windows, residential flagpoles and bumper stickers–but the yellow flag of Hezbollah was nowhere to be found.

It’s that constitutionally protected sympathy that Dearborn considers the reason for the Justice Department’s increasing scrutiny of the town. Not one resident has been charged with attempting to commit an act of terrorism against the United States, and Dawud Walid of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations insists that local leaders frequently inform the community of alternative, non-Hezbollah-linked Lebanese charities for their donations. The US Attorney’s office in Detroit declined comment for this story, and the Detroit FBI office referred questions to the Washington headquarters, which also declined to comment.

Perhaps the most painful aspect of the Justice Department campaign is the fact that before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many of Dearborn’s Shiites, and especially its Iraqi expatriates, gave the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz hosted an anti-Saddam Hussein rally in Dearborn that February, where hundreds feverishly chanted, “Saddam must go!” Bush himself delivered a speech in the town shortly after the fall of Baghdad. In both cases, the message the Administration wished to send was clear: The authentic Iraqi and Arab reaction would be enthusiasm for the US invasion.

Now that the Administration looks unfavorably on a different aspect of Shiite identity, many here feel betrayed. “We feel like we’ve been used,” says Imam Husham al-Husainy of the Karbalaa Islamic Education Center, an Iraqi-American cleric who once led prowar rallies in Dearborn. “This turn of events, the very easy accusations of people, not to mention destroying their reputations, is very alarming,” adds Maha Hussain, a University of Michigan oncologist who hosted Wolfowitz at the Dearborn rally. “The Iraqi community put its trust in the Administration at the intention level and the competence level. Only God knows what their intentions were, but in terms of competence, at every step, they made the wrong choice. Iraq is destroyed.”

The destruction is hardly limited to Iraq. Chadwell’s prosecutorial team may well uncover financial ties between Dearborn and Hezbollah, although most that have emerged to date are trivial. What the United States may lose in the process is something far more valuable to its counterterrorism efforts: a viable Muslim-American identity. Unlike the disaffected Muslim minorities in Europe, “Muslims are part of this society, and no American Muslim has been involved in any terrorist activity,” observes Elahi. With Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations increasingly reliant on radicalized Muslim minorities in the West to carry out attacks, an American Islam is as important as it is increasingly endangered.

“Sometimes it makes you schizophrenic,” Saleh admits. “We want the community to trust the law enforcement agencies and provide information to law enforcement…. But the willingness of the community to trust the fairhandedness of the police is diminishing.”

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