At the border between Detroit and Dearborn, you’d never know that in the space of one step, you’d leave a land governed by the U.S. Constitution and enter a city where sharia law holds sway.
Because, of course, you’re not.
Dearborn is a sedate Detroit suburb, more prosaic than revolutionary. It’s the kind of place where folks really care about school districts, property values, and code enforcement; for generations, bored teenagers have called it “Deadborn.”
But for the last half-decade, Dearborn has been the unwilling darling of the extreme right, a bogeyman invoked to perpetuate the ersatz notion that sharia law, a system of justice derived from the Koran, has gained a foothold on American soil.
More than 30 percent of Dearborn’s roughly 95,000 residents are Arab-American or of Arab descent (PDF). In reality, that means the city has some pretty great restaurants, a handful of mosques, and a more genuinely multicultural feel than most Midwestern towns—McDonald’s serves halal meat, business signs are bilingual, and every diner serves hummus.
For some, it’s enough to assign Dearborn a central role in a larger conspiracy theory, the claim that worldwide there are hundreds of so-called “no-go zones,” breeding grounds for jihad where sharia governs and non-Muslims aren’t welcome.
With five minutes and a search engine, it’s easy to disprove the radical right’s pet theory about Dearborn—or any of the cities and neighborhoods featured on the no-go list. Yet the creeping-sharia myth is so pervasive that it’s been repeated by folks like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, considered a 2016 presidential hopeful, and by failed 2010 Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle, a Tea Party adherent, among numerous other Republicans. Fox News was forced to apologize after a commentator labeled parts of Europe no-go zones.
In 2011, Koran-burning Florida preacher Terry Jones hopped on the Dearborn bandwagon, planning to to demonstrate against—yep—the nonexistent spread of sharia law. Stopped by a court, Jones returned in 2012, and again in 2014. He’s been to the city—and been tried in its U.S. and state-law governed court for breach of the peace in 2011, when he and a companion were released after being ordered by the judge to cough up $2. And still, Jones seems to believe sharia law is happening.
It’s a phenomenon that baffles Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly.
Debunking Dearborn myths takes a lot of the mayor’s time: When Jones first came to town, O’Reilly says, he received 6,000 emails. He responded to each; several hundred wrote back thanking him. After Angle’s faux pas, O’Reilly sent a letter inviting her to visit.
“The people who perpetuate it use it for their own gain,” O’Reilly said. “There are certain sites and individuals who like to perpetuate fear of Muslims—the people who like to suggest Muslims shouldn’t remain in the U.S.”
Racial discord figures large in Dearborn’s history, but not because of the Arab-American community: From 1942 to 1978, notorious segregationist Orville Hubbard served as Dearborn’s mayor. But Hubbard’s animosity was largely reserved for African-Americans.
Dearborn’s Arab community has been growing for roughly a century, said Ronald Stockton, a University of Michigan-Dearborn political science professor, accelerating with the growth of the auto industry.
There’ve been bumps along the way—in 1985, a former Dearborn mayor, now deceased, distributed campaign pamphlets referencing the city’s “Arab problem.” Decades ago, the introduction of bilingual education in Dearborn’s public schools caused controversy, Stockton said, but is unremarkable now—ditto halal options in school cafeterias, the regular sight of women in head scarves, or the city’s four Arab-American council members and even its police chief.
To outsiders, the most remarkable thing about Dearborn may be its unremarkability. The city’s median annual income is about $45,000, slightly less than the state median of $48,000. In 2013, there were 347 violent crimes in Dearborn, according to FBI statistics, along 3,104 property crimes, 126 robberies, and two homicides—numbers not out of whack with the Michigan’s other mid-sized cities. The same year, Lansing—the state capital—home to roughly 20,000 more residents, had 1,204 violent crimes, 3,960 property crimes, 256 robberies and eight murders.
That same is true of Dearborn’s Arab-American community. In the days after 9/11, predicted violence never materialized. Jones’ cancelled 2011 protest launched an interfaith rally, held in front of a mosque, with religious leaders from across the ideological spectrum.
Folks invested in harmful myths about Dearborn, Stockton says, have “a social and ideological location within the population. They’re almost all on the right, they’re almost all Republicans, and they’re almost all over a certain age.”
It’s part of a broader cultural battle, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.“These people feel like they are losing their America, because the true America is reflecting and embracing more diversity,” he said. “… Many are using the politics of fear to galvanize their bases.”
A willingness to believe provably untrue statements has an element of cognitive dissonance, says Rana Elmir, a Dearborn native who is deputy director of the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union.
“When presented with proof, hard evidence, that Dearborn is a thriving and diverse city, that doesn’t comport with the information they’ve already invested a lot of brain power and emotion into believing,” Elmir says. “They can’t imagine journalists and politicians are telling them a lie. They rely on the fear and xenophobia they’ve been fed. At our base, we’re all emotional creatures.”
But there’s something else, Elmir said: “A real lack of intellectual curiosity, empathy and the ‘othering’ of an entire community”—connected, she said, to consistent depictions of Arabs and Muslims in popular media as brutal and foreign.
Which makes this next part particularly ironic: After a district court barred Jones’ 2011 protest, the ACLU branch Elmir oversees defended his rights to free speech and free assembly in court. In 2012, a group called the Bible Believers attended Dearborn’s Arab International Festival with a pig’s head on a stick (strict Muslims believe pigs are unclean), shouting slurs at members of the crowd, some of whom responded by throwing rocks and bottles. County sheriff’s deputies removed the crew; the ACLU defended them. In 2014, the bikers Jones rallied to protest backed out, and few others joined the march.
That’s how American Dearborn is, how mainstream its Arab-American residents are. That’s what Jones and those like him refuse to understand.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the group that held a 2012 protest in Dearborn. It is not connected to Florida preacher Terry Jones.