The city of Detroit, in Michigan, USA, was selected for the second stage of ethnographic research because Detroit is home to one of the largest metropolitan Muslim populations in the USA according to the census (2014). In addition, Dearborn, Michigan – a city located in the Detroit metropolitan area – is estimated to have the largest number of residents of Arab background/Muslim faith in any city outside of the Middle East. These figures however are difficult to confirm, as there is no category for Arab ethnicity in the census data, rather Arab background residents are classified as ‘white’. Despite this, there is significant civil society representation of the Arab community, particularly in Dearborn, with many research participants speaking of their involvement in the local Arab community and welfare organisations such as the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS).
Detroit is a city that has gone through several historical upheavals associated with industrialisation, de-industrialisation, fluctuating waves of migration, and racial tensions; in particular the race riots of the 1940s and 1960s. In recent times, Detroit has been heavily associated with the urban decline of the USA’s manufacturing cities, which has seen its population shrink to an estimated 700,000 people in 2014 (when data for this project was collected). Industrial decline has contributed to what has become known as ‘white flight’, as an increasing number of affluent, predominantly white residents move to neighbouring cities. This means that 82 per cent of the city’s residents are now African American. The Detroit economy reached its lowest point in 2013 when the city declared bankruptcy. These historical circumstances however led participants there to nominate place and community as significant sources of resistance and resilience.
Muslim communities in Detroit are largely based around mosques that serve particular ethnic and denominational communities. The Building Islam in Detroit project (2016) reports that there are more than 50 mosques in Detroit. These mosques have long histories, and participants spoke of them as spaces of hope and renewal. Islam has special significance for the African American community in Detroit, given its deep historical association with Black empowerment movements born from the Great Depression; Detroit is home to Nation of Islam Temple Number One, established in 1930 (Baker et al. 2004; Bagby 2004; PFFRPL 2007). In addition, Islam in Detroit has been sustained by waves of migration from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen dating back to the industrialisation of the northern cities of the USA when the car manufacturing industry was dependent on both Black and migrant labour from Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere.
In recent years, new arrivals from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Bosnia have settled in Detroit following displacements caused by war and conflict. Further, recent migrations from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Latin American countries have contributed to a multiethnic, multifaith renewal in some areas of Detroit. For example, while Dearborn’s communities are long established, migration in Detroit and Hamtramck has resulted in the repurposing of abandoned buildings, with newly arrived communities setting up their own places of worship. In this sense, the mosques of Detroit represent the mobility and regeneration of communities in the city. Participants in this study reported this as generating a strong level of social acceptance of Detroit’s Muslim communities as well as fostering a sense of belonging, which participants felt would not be found in other US cities.
Detroit’s history as a city, marked by continual waves of migration and settlement, shows evidence of ethnic and racial separation: it’s diverse Muslim communities are often geographically concentrated according to ethnicity and race. Separation is also visible in religious congregations, mosques tend to be more ethnically homogenous than they are mixed. This is also reflected in the language used for delivering sermons; Imams provide sermons in the language of the community, rather than in Arabic (the language of the Qur’an) or English. For example, Aisha (25–30-year-old female, Latina revert) spoke about a large Latino Muslim community in Detroit and their ability to hear sermons and receive written religious materials in the Spanish language.
More recently, tensions in Detroit have developed along sectarian lines, these have arisen from international conflicts, and particularly those taking place in Iraq and Syria. This sometimes results in hostile relations between the predominantly Shia populations of Detroit, and the predominantly Sunni populations of Hamtramck, Detroit, and the outer suburbs. One research participant identified these tensions as ‘faultlines’, which, together with race and class, form a barrier to intercultural/interfaith harmony and the strengthening of community ties in Detroit.
Prior to the qualitative research phase, individuals in each of the three sites were approached to complete survey questionnaires. Overall, 237 respondents completed the survey in three sites: 96 respondents in Australia, 93 in France and 48 in the USA. Because of the discrepancy in data obtained across the three sites, when describing the separate sites, actual numbers (i.e. frequencies) of participants are presented instead of percentages.
For a more in-depth breakdown of participants’ demographics, please refer to the full report: