Just after the Paris attacks, right before the San Bernardino shooting, and during a campaign season in which Donald Trump has made bigotry a pillar of his candidacy, Hamtramck, Michigan’s residents voted in the nation’s first Muslim-majority city council in its November elections.
With that news, the international media descended on Hamtramck, a dense and shabby postindustrial town physically surrounded by Detroit. The Washington Post presented a picture of a “tense” city where the “the influx of Muslims…has profoundly unsettled some residents.” CNN asked Hamtramck’s mayor if she’s afraid of her Muslim neighbors, and The Telegraph wrote of the election’s stoking “tensions” in the community. Other news sources recycled and embellished upon those reports, and suddenly Hamtramck became “Shariaville, USA” and “Muslimville, USA,” enacting booze bans and Sharia law.
In reality, there’s not much tension worth mentioning in Hamtramck (pronounced Ham-tram-ick), my home for five years. To the contrary, many of the city’s non-Muslim residents are proud to be a part of a historic first, and reports of tension and conflict are the work of those with an agenda or reporters capitalizing on a hostile national discourse.
That’s not to say the media interest is illegitimate: The Western world is experiencing a wave of Islamaphobia, and people want to know what life is like in an American city where Muslims are in charge. This is the first time in decades that the Polish Catholics haven’t run Hamtramck. Two Bangladeshis were reelected to the six-member city council in the election, while a Yemeni man bounced out an incumbent Polish council member. The three of them join another Muslim council member who was not up for reelection.
Now the elected government’s makeup reflects the changing demographics in the two-square-mile city. Hamtramck’s Polish population rose rapidly when Dodge opened its headquarters in the city in 1914. The plant closed in 1980, and while the Polish represented some 75 percent of the population at its peak in the 1970s, today they make up just 10 percent of the city’s 22,000 residents. As the Polish left for wealthier suburbs, new immigrants moved in. Muslims from Bangladesh, Yemen, and Bosnia now account for around 60 percent of residents, according to the Piast Institute, a local US Census partner that tracks the city’s population.