DEARBORN, Michigan — Among the halal restaurants, the meat markets, and the hookah bars of this working-class Detroit suburb, the topic of Donald Trump is terrorizing the local population.
The businessman and Republican presidential frontrunner is the foremost topic of conversation in Dearborn, a town with one of the highest concentration of Muslims in America and that boasts the country’s largest mosque. Its inhabitants can’t stop talking about the real-estate mogul, who has proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country and normalized extreme rhetoric against the religious group.
Among the Muslim community in this state, the notion that they might one day be rounded up and herded into internment camps is a distant but not utterly outlandish possibility—one that has become more real with the seemingly inexorable ascent of Trump in the GOP primaries.
Muslim Americans have already felt persecuted and targeted since the 9/11 attacks—a feeling that has only been exacerbated under the Democratic administration of President Obama due to worsening conflicts in the Middle East. The idea that Trump might one day be president is enough to send some of its inhabitants to the madhouse—or, alternatively, Canada (pledges to move north if he is elected have spiked, locals say).
“I have always felt like I was on the fringes of what is acceptable Americanness—being Muslim on top of being black just compounds that, especially after 9/11,” said Dawud Walid, a local Islamic preacher and the Michigan executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “There are actually people in our community that would literally consider leaving America [if Trump were elected], if not permanently, at least temporarily, to reside abroad.”
At a Dearborn restaurant, over Moroccan tea with a hint of mint, Walid echoed others in the community who say they feel like the notion of detention camps for Muslims are an actual possibility in modern-day America.
“We live in an era where the KKK recruitment is experiencing a resurgence, and the Klan in many states is recruiting in part on an anti-Muslim platform,” Walid told The Daily Beast.
“It’s a legitimate fear, it’s a concern,” added Mallak Beydoun, who heads the Michigan Democratic Party’s Arab-American caucus. “Donald Trump would entertain an idea of that sort.”
When Trump was first asked about Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, he didn’t give a definitive answer on whether he approved of it.
“I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he told Time magazine. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”
He later walked back this answer.
For many years, Dearborn has been an oasis for the American Muslim community. Named the Muslim capital of America, it was a place where they could be culturally and politically visible, a place where wearing a hijab would not make its wearer feel less safe, a place where people could identify as an adherent of Islam without fear.
More than 30 percent of Dearborn’s roughly 95,000 residents are Arab-American, and McDonald’s here even serves halal meat.
But with the prospect of a Trump win in the Republican primary in Michigan on Tuesday, and the billionaire’s potential ascension to the White House, this comfort is dwindling—in Dearborn, as well as across the entire American Muslim community.
“A lot of people are terrified, if you want the truth. One of his main campaign points is targeting Muslims. And already we feel like we’re targeted, even with a Democratic president for eight years,” said Muna Jondy, an immigration lawyer in Michigan. “American Muslims think there is a possibility of Trump starting internment camps. I am personally not afraid, but I know there is that sentiment in our community. It is a reflection and indictment of our nation.”
Whether justified or not, the fact that American Muslims take seriously the concept of internment camps is a signal that reflects their real concern about their place in modern society.
“The reality is that the reckless and bigoted comments that are made by—not only Trump but some of the other Republican candidates—have fueled anti-Muslim sentiments in the country… as a result of that, it is fair to say that much of the Muslim community is afraid,” said Lena Masri, the legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter.
Even American Muslims with historic ties to the Republican Party are reconsidering their options. Dr. Yahya Basha is a longtime GOP supporter with a medical diagnostics office in Dearborn. In prior campaigns, GOP bigwigs like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney have set up field offices in his building. But the last few years have given him pause.
“I’m struggling with it now,” Basha says of his party affiliation. Basha is less disgusted with Trump, who he sees as a crass opportunist, than by the masses in the Republican Party who have bought into “picking on various ethnic groups and minorities to get ahead.”
“I felt [Trump’s supporters] should know better. They should know he’s not the savior or a man of principle. To go along with their anger to support someone that is extreme, despite their depth and intelligence…” Basha trailed off.
Typically in Dearborn, overseas news stories are the fodder for restaurant conversations and tea-fueled debates. To the Arab-American community here, thanks to family connections, what is going on in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen might as well be a local story. But something far closer has dominated conversations in recent months: that in modern-day America, as Michiganders head to the polls Tuesday, the freedom that their population has enjoyed in this town for a century, might be challenged—or even, one day, extinguished altogether.