Category Archives: Black Solidarity

Testimonies of the popular rebellion in USA; interview with Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine New York (La Prensa Obrera, Argentina, June 7, 2020)

La Prensa Obrera, 7 de junio de 2020

“The demands of the movement will clash with the Democratic Party”

Testimonies of the popular rebellion in USA; interview with Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine New York

Por Redacción

-What has the conflict been like this week in your area?

-In New York there’s been, as throughout this country, a mass revolt. Tens of thousands of people in the street, multiracial, significantly and confronting extreme police violent as are people throughout this country and throughout the world. On the one hand the terrible brutality of George Floyd’s murder and the murder of so many other black and brown people is almost insufferable to watch. But at the same time, this rebellion that’s happening now is so inspiring. The courage and the militancy that’s out on the streets and the understanding that this is not a question of a few bad police apples or something that is unordinary, but rather something that is quite common and relates to the legacy of slavery and of capitalism in this country.

The militancy and the radicalism of the demands that have come out of the movement. To defund the police, dismantle police, abolish prisons. Not that everybody has those positions. But nonetheless the widespread demand for those changes to the system itself. And not just changes, but an end to the system in many cases. Whatever people mean by that, it’s impressive and striking.

-What reaction have you seen in the movement to Trump’s announcement of the army being on call as a means to upscale the repression?

-It’s interesting I think that there hasn’t been a retreat of the protesters in the face of that threat or of the existing mass violence that’s coming from the state. Thousands and thousands of people are out in the street. They may be more than before. The police have been able to inflict tremendous brutality on the movement, but they have not been able to back the movement down at all. If anything, the brutality that the state has inflicted against the protesters has only reinforces people’s determination to be out and to resist martial law, to resist the curfews, to resist the ongoing daily violence, and the specific violence that’s being launched against them by the police.

And, also I think it’s interesting that despite the lipservice that liberal politicians have given to the movement, they in fact are the ones who are helping to orchestrate the mass violence. So, in New York City, for example, which has a liberal democratic mayor, the violence that is being rained down on the protest is coming directly from that administration. I think that deepens everyone’s understanding, if they didn’t already know, that despite differences in rhetoric from Trump, from Biden, to in our case, mayor Di Blasio in New York City, and across the political spectrum, whatever politicians may be saying, their deeds speak for themselves.

When they send out police to brutalize protestors, as happened in New York City repeatedly, including last night (Wednesday June 3rd), that is not an aberration, that comes from the top. Those are orders that go out from the administration. Whether that’s Trump, or the governors, or mayors. This kind of violence is systemic, and it’s organized and it’s coordinated. We saw this with Occupy Wall Street almost ten years ago, when the mayors were given the order by the Obama administration to shut down Occupy. That happened everywhere, very systemically, across all political lines. And we’re seeing the same thing now in regards to repression against the movement.

The strength of the movement is also clear from the fact that the politicians, and even the former defense secretary, has to give lipservice to the movement. You see these pictures of police taking the knee. Now, that’s obviously disingenuous. That’s completely ridiculous. I mean, there may be a few police officers who actually feel that way, but when the top uniformed police chief in New York City takes the knee as he did the other day, that’s simply an attempt to confuse people about the role of the police. It’s also interesting that the former Defense Secretary James Mattis, has been criticizing Trump for calling out the troops. It’s significant because he’s thinking “are the troops going to, in fact, obey orders to attack and, if necessary, fire on the protestors?”. Because, unlike the police, the army and the national guard come from the same working class communities as the protestors do. The number of people of color in the military is over 40%. And, if you go back to the 1960’s you see that there were examples where black troops called out to repress protests in the cities refused to deploy, most notably in the case of the Fort Hood 43, a group of black troops who refused to go to  Chicago in 1968 to shoot and brutalize protestors.

I think that the ruling class is very aware that this is a concern, that the military will have absolutely no credibility with anyone if they engage in that kind of behavior. Which is not to say that they won’t. But it shows the power of the movement that they have to pay lipservice to those kinds of concerns.

-What are the most important social and political sectors that make up the demonstrations?

-I think it’s a confluence of different forces. At the heart are black youth in particular, who everywhere have been at the forefront of the rebellion, as has been the case going back to the 1960’s and even beyond.  What is different about this particular time, say from 1968 (this is the biggest mass rebellion in the states since 1968), is that though there was a large movement of radicalized whites and other sectors, against racism and against the war, black people in the rebellion were largely segregated and kept separate from the rest of society.

I think a major difference in this rebellion is that though it’s in the same scale and echoes that rebellion in 1968 following the murder of Martin Luther King, it’s drawing out huge numbers of white people, many of whom have been involved in other protests in the past, for Black Lives or Occupy, or against Trump, or any number of things that have been going on.

So when you see the images of these protests you are struck by all these forces coming together to support black people, to oppose the system, to call for radical change. Sometimes openly, explicitly anticapitalist in its expressions, and certainly against the institutional racism that the George Floyd murder reflects.

And, that’s quite a different thing than you would have seen in 1968. I remember the rebellion in 1968. I was 12 years old, I had been marching all my life with my parents.  We had seen police violence. But if you look at the newsreels from 1968 you will see a much more segmented society. And even though today’s society is totally segregated in many ways, these protests have somehow overcome that to come together on a multiracial basis against the system itself. And every time the police attack and every time the military is brought out and threatened with it only deepens the radicalization and the understanding in the movement, that these are not aberrations, this is not simply a problem of retraining police or anything like that, which we’ve heard talked of in the past sometimes. Rather there is a call to demolish and deconstruct the police, to end the police, to abolish prisons. Again, I’m not talking about everyone, but these ideas are widely circulated. They’re even reflected in the corporate media. Which is a tribute to the power of the movement. So I think there’s a growing awareness among protestors of the power of mass mobilization. And how that has immediately changed the political terrain, overnight, throughout this country. Of course that coincides and overlaps with Covid-19. The tremendous impact of Covid-19, especially on poor and working class people. Black victims of Covid-19 are grossly disproportionate to the proportion of black people in society. So on every level this is bringing together these concerns and awareness.

-What are the main slogans and demands that the movement is calling for?

-Defund police I think has become one of the most prominent single demands. Together of course, with the demands to prosecute police and to convict police. Not just these police, but all police who are committing brutality, which is to say, police as an institution. But, as far as a program, we’re seeing defund the police emerge. This is a movement where so much is decentralized, this doesn’t reflect a high level of organization and structure, the movement for Black Lives is the closest thing to a centralized voice. If you look at their website and the things they are putting up “defund the police” is the major demand that they have put out. Now, the question is, what does that mean? People have different views. Does it mean reduce funding to the police but keep the police as an institution? There are a wide range of opinions. Certainly many poor people and black people are fearful that if we abolish police they will be unprotected from daily violence within the community, or whatever. I don’t want to overstate. I’m sure many people feel that way. However, it’s significant that if we look back to before Black Lives Matter emerging out of Ferguson in 2014, and you look back to earlier movements against police abuse, even in the last 20 years. For example during the protests that took place after the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999,a young black man who was unarmed, shot at 41 times by the police. He was killed, outright. And many of the demands in those protests were for much more limited things, for most people. Arrest, prosecute, more training for police not to be violent and things along those lines. You don’t hear any of that now. You don’t hear about training police or more community based policing, that’s all gone. And I think that’s a good thing, because even in 1999 these were not going to be meaningful demands. You were not hearing these demands to abolish or defund police in the movement as a whole.  Now you’re hearing it across the board.

It’s opened the door to a discussion. What does this really reflect? What is the point of the police as an institution? There is a widespread understanding that the police as an institution is a criminal enterprise, that it is a source of violence in our society. If the military comes out and does the same thing, the same will apply to them. That’s why the former defense secretary says “let’s not go down this road”. That’s why the current defense secretary is saying “we’re not going to mobilize troops right now, because we don’t need to do that yet”. It’s an attempt to insulate the military from being viewed also as an institution of repression and oppression, both at home and abroad. And it’s also an attempt to make sure that there’s not a breakdown in the military in the rank and file as happened during the Vietnam  years, both in Vietnam among black and other poor troops, with mass mutiny that took place and helped bring down the American war machine during the war, and made it impossible to deploy troops in the cities against urban rebellion on an ongoing basis.

-The rebellion is evidently centered on racism and police brutality, how big a role do you think the social and economic catastrophe being lived plays in it?

There is an intimate connection. Some people have called it a perfect storm. In 1968 of course there was the war, there was mass violence against black people, there was very high unemployment in black and brown communities. But there wasn’t a pandemic. So this pandemic of Covid-19, together with the underlying, ongoing pandemic of racism and anti-blackness has created the grounds for this kind of radical analysis that people are bringing to these protests, and to what they’re saying about this country.

The fact that the system has proven itself so clearly to be unable and unwilling to deal with any of these things. What Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”. Even at the height of this pandemic, there is no pretense that the state is able or even trying to do anything meaningful to protect people. Especially in the most vulnerable sections of society. Particularly black people, who are just viewed as expendable.

It’s not hard to imagine what Trump and mucho of the ruling class are thinking. In regards to Covid-19. Something like “that’s fine, if this helps us get rid of large numbers of black and brown people, and old people of all colors and “baby boomers”  who we would have to have on social security, and so on”. So, it makes a lot of sense that they’re not terribly concerned about Covid-19. You see as much being said by the white supremacist right and that’s what’s being discussed. This reflects the same dynamics that went on during Katrina or any other natural disaster that you can think of, regarding the unwillingness and inability of the state to provide the most fundamental public health.

Of course public health in this country almost doesn’t exist. There’s not even the pretense of a national health system. So what you have is privatized, defunded healthcare, save for that which only a few have access to. So that’s part of the context in which this is happening.

And, even before these protests, there’s been growing worker activism especially among the unorganized, like in Amazon, with walkouts over lack of safety conditions regarding Covid-19. I don’t think that’s connected yet in terms of the demands of the movements. But, clearly people are bringing all that awareness, that whether it’s Covid-19 or its institutional racism and police violence, this system breeds these things. This system is not broken, it’s working just the way it’s supposed to.

Capitalism is being shown, perhaps more now than in any moment in living memory, to be completely unable and unwilling to protect even the most fundamental aspects of life, for most people.

-Are you aware of any initiatives to try to coordinate protests or discuss a common platform across the country? 

-I am not aware of a unified attempt to do that. Of course, it’s going on. There are discussions happening everywhere, from the protests, to online. Again, the movement for Black Lives is an attempt to do that, and a couple of years ago they issued a platform which is wide-ranging and essentially comes across as anti-capitalist. It includes things ranging from “abolish prisons” to  the need for healthcare and housing and employment.

Interestingly one of the key things that came out of Ferguson and the previous Black Lives Matter movement was a growing identification and solidarity with Palestine. Of course there’s solidarity in many directions and it’s not the only example.  The Black-Palestine connection has grown, it’s increasingly seen as critical, because of the great similarities of their oppression, and the fact that the perpetrators of that oppression are the same governments and the same system.

It reclaims a tradition that goes back at least to the 1960’s of black support for Palestine in this country coming from Malcolm X, coming from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, coming from the Black Panther Party, coming from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, who made those connections and who insisted that that connection had to be stressed. That in turn has been reflected in Palestinian support for black uprisings in this country, particularly in regards to Ferguson and the current uprisings. There’s been strong support from Palestine. The understanding is that although this country didn’t need the Israelis to teach them brutality, racism and oppression, the ties between the American and Israeli regimes are particularly clear in things like coordination between police forces in Israel and US, the increased militarization of police in US and of course the 3.2 billion dollars a year that the US government gives to the Israeli apartheid regime every year.

So there’s the intifada in Palestine and what is essentially a domestic intifada in this country now, though it’s usually not called by that name; and there’s a growing understanding that these resistances are connected, and that the right to resist is connected.

-What do you think is the perspective for this movement to defeat the Trump government and its repressive onslaught?

-Well, that remains to be seen. I’ve lived through the last six decades and have seen many movements rise and fall. Under repression and also internal divisions and the combination of the two. I don’t pretend to know where things are going to go. I do take heart from the tremendous resistance that’s going on. The fact that the police and the military are not able to put this back in the bottle, at least so far. If anything it’s causing some cracks in the ruling class’s rhetoric and that shows the power of the movement. I believe the key is to build alliances across all sections of the oppressed, of the working class.

Unions in this country are very weak, not just in their numbers but in the politics of their leadership. Although some unions have issued statements against the murder of George Floyd and against broader institutional racism and violence, you don’t see the unions as institutions or their leaders in the front of this. To the extent that they have been visible, they have not articulated radical visions of what needs to be done.

Union members are out on the streets, just by virtue of the sheer number of people out resisting. But not the unions as institutions and this will not happen from the top, it has to happen from below just like everything else. Because union leaderships are compromised.

One of the issues that comes up is the unions relationship to police unions. Police unions are among the most racist institutions in this country. The debate of whether police are simply workers and should be unionized versus those of us who feel that police are not workers, police are simply agents of the ruling class. They’ve always been that and they have their roots in the slave patrols of the 19th century and are inherently racist and violent towards the population. Nonetheless within the AFL-CIO, the main union in our country, there are unionized police officers who have been allowed to be a part of the labor movement, even if just in name. That has to end.

Police do not belong in labor. Police are not workers. They are an inherently oppressive institution. Unions need to make that clear. I think that that’s one of the demands that union members who are involved in these protests will be bringing to their unions.

-Do you see any debates regarding advancing towards independent organizations of the working class, outside the traditional bipartisan system?

-I haven’t seen much organized discussion about that. Discussion on trying to set up a Labor Party again or whatever you want to call it. An independent third party of the working class and the oppressed.

One of the big debates will be how to respond to the neoliberal leadership of the Democratic Party’s attempt to coopt the movement into the Biden campaign. Biden who on the one hand is saying he opposes the murder of George Floyd and on the other suggests police should be shooting people in the legs. Exactly what Israeli police do to cripple Palestinians protestors in Gaza, every day.

So, the major political question that’s going to arise is, should the movement essentially fold into the democrats’ campaign against Trump? That’s obviously what Biden and Hillary Clinton and so on are trying to do.

Hillary Clinton issued a great tweet the other day. “Trump has called on troops to repress peaceful protests in this country for a photo op.” It sounded great. But it ended with “Vote”.  For Biden, obviously. Last night Barack Obama was on TV and sent a similar message. These are all people who have reserved their greatest criticisms for the left, for black youths, for the Black Lives Matter movement for “not being willing to work within the system”.

There’s nothing new about these debates. This goes back in this country to the 1930’s and earlier. What relationship should mass movements have to the Democratic Party. There will be different views in the mass movement about that. There will be some who are susceptible to those arguments, who will think that it’s great that they are coming out and saying this. And I think it’s great because they’re being forced to come out and say these things in support of Black Lives.

However, it’s a two-edged sword, because they will attempt to demobilize the movement into voting. And whether people vote or not is less important than whether they demobilize the movement. Clearly some people are going to vote as a protest for anyone who is going against Trump. That’s sort of inevitable. But the real question is if the movement can give rise to new institutions, anti-capitalist institutions, independent and opposed to the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party.

I don’t see a lot of that being discussed in the protests right now. But the demands that the movement is giving rise to clearly are going to clash what the neoliberal Democratic Party wants to do. Cornell West has been talking a lot about this in his interviews about the rebellion. About the attempts by the neoliberal Democrats to coopt and demobilize the movement. That’s the discussion going forward.  

Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign webinar on Uniformed Killers with Shahd Abusalama and Michael Letwin

View video here: Uniformed killers – Palestine to Minneapolis (Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign)

Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign webinar on Uniformed Killers with Shahd Abusalama and Michael Letwin

George Floyd was murdered in cold blood in Minneapolis by four white cops. Rioters have burned down the building from which these and other uniformed killers emerge to brutalise and take the lives of people of colour.

Palestinians recognise the killers for they are in their midst, in Israeli army uniforms, brutalising and killing with impunity. Israelis are increasingly training US killer cops and Israeli police spokesman Rosenfeld boasted in London of ‘European’ police forces being trained in Israel.

SPSC’s Mick Napier in conversation with Palestinian Shahd Abusalama and Michael Letwin from New York Labour for Palestine.

The Arab American radicals who paved way for BDS (Electronic Intifada)

The Arab American radicals who paved way for BDS

The Rise of the Arab American Left: Activists, Allies, and Their Fight against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s-1980s by Pamela E. Pennock, The University of North Carolina Press (2017)

One of the earliest boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, victories in the United States came in 1973 when United Auto Workers Local 600 in Dearborn, Michigan, voted to divest its Israeli bonds after a campaign waged by the Arab Workers Caucus and the American Arab Coordinating Committee. The campaign drew comparisons with apartheid South Africa and won the support of many Black autoworkers in Michigan.

Was it just an oddity that decades before Palestinian civil society called for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel in 2005, industrial workers in the US heartland were already waging a BDS struggle? Or, far from being a rogue wave, was it an integral part of the oceanic upheavals among workers, students, immigrants and people of color during the heady maelstroms of the 1960s and ’70s?

The Rise of the Arab American Left makes it clear this was no oddity, although it did have certain characteristics unique to the Arab American experience. Given the relative paucity of scholarship on the history of the Arab American left, this book is a must-read for those who wish to learn more about that community’s activism during this period of radical upheaval.

Pennock, an associate professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, focuses on radical activists, who she defines as “secular, ideologically leftist and avidly pro-Palestinian.” She concedes that this group – with its support of armed struggle, a revolution for what was then called the “Third World,” and one democratic, secular state throughout all of Mandate Palestine – was a subset of the Arab American population at a time when a majority of Arab Americans held more moderate positions.

“Nevertheless,” she notes, “the issue that most united and galvanized Arab Americans – across differences of generation, social class, religion and national origin – was their shared outrage over the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs through the establishment of the state of Israel.”

The book’s narrative covers the impact Israel’s 1967 War had amongst Arab Americans, the intense period of repression and surveillance that followed the rise of activism in the 1970s and the gradual moderation of activism in the 1980s, when outlooks became less transnational and more focused on domestic civil rights issues.

Natural allies

In the 1960s, organizations such as the Association of Arab American University Graduates and the Organization of Arab Students arose, along with such figures as the academic Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and civil rights attorney Abdeen Jabara. The Rise of the Arab American Left offers a unique opportunity for readers to learn about these early trailblazers.

One of the book’s most enlightening chapters, aptly titled “Intersections,” documents how Arab Americans began to find “natural allies” in the movements of other oppressed groups with roots in the Third World.

In particular, the book looks at the alliance that developed between Arab American autoworkers in Michigan and activists with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, also based in the auto plants.

The alliance extended to issues related to urban removal as the city of Dearborn attempted to turn the Southend neighborhood, where most Arab immigrants lived, into an industrial zone to act as a buffer between Dearborn and predominantly Black Detroit in the wake of that city’s 1967 rebellion.

Pennock’s singular focus on Dearborn is illuminating and detailed, but she also surveys the national scene, showing how central figures in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, such as James Forman and Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), came to embrace the Palestinian cause, along with the Black Panther Party and other prominent Black activists such as Jack O’Dell of Operation PUSH and Francis Beal of the Third World Women’s Alliance.

In the early 1970s, Pennock observes, the largely white, student-based New Left also “developed a pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist position.” However, she concludes, that “on the whole, the American Left’s commitment to the Palestinian revolution was soft and somewhat perfunctory; in general, the activists’ understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict was superficial, and their position was rooted in an idealized image of Third World guerrillas.”

For many white activists, the New Left’s embrace of the Palestinian struggle opened a rift that lasted for decades, although it actually delineated an already existing faultline: namely that between the left-liberal wing of the movement and the more radical, Marxist-Leninist wing.

Pennock describes in detail how both black and white radicals embraced the Palestinian cause, while more centrist forces emerging out of the civil rights and student movements failed to break with Zionism.

Political intimidation

Another chapter documents how Arab American activists faced repression and surveillance, with the active assistance of the Israel lobby, as early as the Organization of Arab Students’ 1969 convention when the Anti-Defamation League sent infiltrators posing as media.

In Pennock’s account, both the ADL and the Israel lobby group AIPAC colluded with the FBI and the CIA, leading to the creation of the Cabinet Committee to Combat Terrorism and a concerted political intimidation campaign known as Operation Boulder. The cabinet directed the FBI, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Services to monitor Arab Americans, surveillance that included an illegal FBI burglary of the Dallas, Texas, office of the Arab Information Center.

Pennock says the triggering incident was the Black September attack at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics but clarifies that the creation of the cabinet committee was seen as a way to placate AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League.

The author notes that “the investigations never detected a single case of terrorist or espionage activity among Arabs living in the United States.” But that, of course, was not the point. Operation Boulder was essentially “a program of political intimidation,” Pennock observes, that was meant to suppress Arab-American activism and to inject “divide and conquer” tactics within the movement.

The direct role of the Israeli government in this surveillance was also strongly suspected, but never proved. Both The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribunepublished articles describing collusion between Israeli intelligence agencies, the Anti-Defamation League and the FBI, with the ADL keeping files on Arab American activists for the FBI.

Eventually, the National Security Agency was also exposed for its electronic surveillance of Abdeen Jabara, wiretapping at least 40 of his telephone conversations even though the FBI admitted that Jabara was not the subject of a criminal investigation.

It’s hard to think of any of this as lost history, given that the same practices prevail today, with groups like Canary Mission and others compiling dossiers on Palestine student activists at US campuses.

If one of the first recorded BDS victories was that of United Auto Workers Local 600 in 1973, then the trajectory continued in 2015 when both the United Electrical Workers and the Connecticut branch of the AFL-CIO adopted pro-BDS resolutions, as did the Black Solidarity Statement and the Movement for Black Lives.

If today’s BDS movement reaches farther, it’s because it stands on the shoulders of the giants who came before.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.

Sally Howell, Southend Struggles: Converging Narratives of an Arab/Muslim American Enclave

Mashriq & Mahjar 3, no. 1 (2015), 41-64
ISSN 2169-4435

Sally Howell



This paper explores political struggles that took place in the Southend of Dearborn in the 1970s that coincided with the rise of Arab nationalist and Islamic movements in Michigan and linked these interests to those of Arab- American activists involved in the civil rights movement, labor organizing, and other campaigns for social and economic justice. These struggles launched the careers of activists who cooperated in the 1970s and 1980s to establish several of the nation’s leading Arab- and Muslim-American service, religious, and community-based institutions and played a significant role in transforming Dearborn into the well-known Arab American hub of today. In the Southend, newer and older Arab constituencies joined forces to build an unprecedented institutional infrastructure, both the left-liberal, secular, politically empowered Arab-American establishment of Dearborn and it’s equally engaged, but pious and socially conservative Muslim-American establishment. Thus the Southend struggles provide key insights into the social challenges that came to define Arab-American (and Muslim-American) identities in the half century that followed. In this essay I bring these histories together and explain why more work needs to be done before we can make sense of the political challenges Arabs and Muslims—as distinctive and overlapping communities—have faced in the U.S.

In the 1950s the city of Dearborn, Michigan, led by Mayor Orville Hubbard, began a campaign to declare the Southend neighborhood a “blighted area,” evict its ethnically diverse, working class residents, and turn their properties over to the Ford Motor Company and the Edward C. Levy Company (a local asphalt producer) for development as an “industrial park.”1 Neighborhood residents decided to stand their ground and fight. The Southeast Dearborn Community Council (SEDCC) mounted a long and politically costly effort to save the Southend. In 1973, after 350 homes and several important public buildings had been demolished, community activists finally halted the mayor’s bulldozers in a courtroom action led by a young Lebanese-American attorney named Abdeen Jabara.2

Three years later another legal battle took place that was equally critical to the future of the Southend. This conflict began when a group of Yemeni and Palestinian autoworkers broke into the Lebanese-led American Moslem Society (AMS) and performed the ʿĪd al-ʾAḍḥā prayers. Rather than celebrate the holiday on the nearest weekend, which was the established practice of the thirty-eight-year old congregation, these “trespassing” worshippers insisted on praying on the actual holiday, following the religious norms of their homelands. Shortly thereafter, the two factions went to court over control of the mosque. In 1976, a judge ruled in favor of the new, Yemeni-majority board of directors.3

These Southend struggles brought people together from a remarkable array of backgrounds. They coincided with the rise of Arab nationalist and Islamic movements in Michigan and linked these interests to those of Arab-American activists involved in the civil rights movement, labor organizing, and other campaigns for social and economic justice in Detroit. They created and sustained a relatively safe space in which the tens of thousands of Arab refugees who began arriving in Detroit in the 1970s (from Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, and Iraq) could establish a foothold in America. They launched the careers of community activists and “culture brokers” who worked together in the 1970s and 1980s to establish several of the nation’s leading Arab- and Muslim-American social service, religious, and community- based institutions. The Southend struggles, in other words, played a significant role in transforming Dearborn into a city that, by 2013, had a population of 97,140, of which 42 percent was Arab.4 Today, Dearborn is home to fifteen mosques, while greater Detroit has over eighty. Roughly 230,000 Arab Americans live in Detroit and its suburbs, and nearly half of them are Muslim.5

The Southend struggles of the 1970s were projects of place making. They produced new identities for the neighborhood, involving its residents in existential conflicts and a search for consensus. According to Arif Dirlik, place making “defuses claims to ‘pure’ identities that may be essential to struggles against existing structures of power” and encourages people to imagine and realize alternatives.6 Contests over space illuminate the flexibility, temporality, and constructed nature of identities, be they religious, ethnic, or geographical in origin. The political struggles that took place in the Southend in the 1970s are important because they explain how the Dearborn of today came into being. The city and its Arab population were transformed by these conflicts in vital ways. Within Michigan, the Southend struggles matter because they allowed Dearborn to persist and grow as the epicenter of both a large, diverse, and politically empowered Arab-American community and an equally large and similarly empowered Muslim-American community. Nationally, the Southend struggles matter because they represent, in highly concentrated form, the seismic changes that took place in Arab-American communities in the post-1965 era. The new immigration regime, coupled with new geopolitical conflicts and opportunities overseas, drew a broader spectrum of immigrants from the Arab countries. Unlike those who came to the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the post-1965 arrivals were much more likely to be Muslim and from sending nations other than Syria/Lebanon. Like their predecessors, they were eager to remain involved in the politics of their homelands, but as American interventions in the Middle East increased during the Cold War, it became obvious to new Arab migrants and their established American co-ethnics that their ability to participate fully and equally as U.S. citizens would depend on how the U.S. pursued imperial policies in the Middle East. In the Southend, the newer and older Arab constituencies joined forces to build an unprecedented institutional infrastructure that addressed these domestic and international changes. For all these reasons, the Southend struggles provide key insights into the political and social challenges that came to define Arab-American (and Muslim-American) identities in the half century that followed.

Because they represent different constituencies, the two narratives presented here—one centered on neighborhood preservation, the other on the takeover of a mosque—are rarely integrated in a single telling. One storyline is deployed to explain the rise of Dearborn’s left-liberal, secular, politically empowered Arab-American establishment. The other is used to explain the rise of Dearborn’s socially conservative, pious, and politically engaged Muslim-American establishment. Arab-American leaders frequently point out that Dearborn is the “largest and most highly concentrated Arab community in North America,” while its Muslim spokespeople refer to it as “the Muslim Capital of the West.”7 These equally real, equally imaginary, spaces overlap in Dearborn. Here, Arab-American history and Muslim- American history move in parallel orbits, intersecting at key moments, but resisting attempts to situate them in integrating frameworks. In this essay I will try to bring the two histories together and explain why more work, especially on the post-1965 era, needs to be done before we can make better sense of the political challenges Arabs and Muslims—as distinctive and overlapping communities—have faced in the U.S.

The institutions that grew out of the Southend struggles—principally, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) and the reformed AMS—gave their support to a variety of Arab and Muslim causes that were often at odds. They contributed to national organizations that, during the 1980s and 1990s, pulled Arab and Muslim networks in different directions, which may be why it has been important to keep the two histories separate for so long. Focusing on the left or the right, the secular or the pious, has inevitably privileged one identity at the expense of the other. In the post-9/11 era, as Arab and Muslim institutions have been driven together by crisis and opportunity, it has become possible (even necessary) to stitch these historical threads together. By doing so in this essay, I hope to illuminate the broader array of circumstances that compelled Arab Americans to work together across their many differences to defend a way of life and an urban space that offered them limited but important refuge. These conditions shaped the Southend in the 1970s, and they are essential to understanding the role of Arabs and Muslims in the city of Dearborn (and elsewhere) in the 2010s.


I began working in the Southend of Dearborn in 1987, when I was hired to establish a cultural arts program for ACCESS, then a neighborhood-based social service agency. My new colleagues were eager to fill me in on local history and folklore; they had wonderful stories to tell of labor organizing, goon squads, personal encounters with Henry Ford, Depression-era survival strategies, and life in Dearborn’s working- class “melting pot.” Those who lingered with me over cups of coffee in neighborhood haunts, or pored over newspaper clippings collected in family albums, exposed me to what Lucy Lippard aptly designates the “lure of the local.”8 Many of these narratives were passed on to me as preparation for the task of representing the local community in the grants I wrote to support ACCESS’s fledgling arts program. Like the storytellers all around me, I soon became a “culture broker and image-maker”9 in my own right. My job, after all, required me to explain who Detroit’s Arabs were, how they had come to live there, and what their lives were like. At ACCESS, these narratives always began in the Southend itself.

The Southend, I was told, took shape as a home to industrial workers in the late 1910s and early 1920s after Henry Ford began work on what would quickly become the world’s largest industrial complex, the Rouge Factory, along Miller Road.10 In its heyday, the Rouge employed over 90,000 workers who converted iron, coal, and rubber into automobiles. New migrants from the American South, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Mexico, and the Middle East settled in the Southend, as long as they were not black. Ford helped develop housing in Inkster, just west of Dearborn, for his black workers; the rest were encouraged to remain in Detroit.11 The white and off-white migrants who settled in the Southend had a great deal in common, although they had come to Michigan from very different places. They struggled to learn English, to earn enough money to get ahead in the world, and to build the social clubs, churches, and mosques that fostered the cultural forms they had brought with them. They faced the perils of urban life together.

Those who grew up in the Southend in the 1930s to 1950s delight in describing its broad ethnic spectrum. Joe Borrajo, using an allusion common in Dearborn, told me “In the 1950s, Ripley’s Believe it or Not had Dearborn listed in its book as being a very unique demographic area. It had 33 different nationality groups in that particular community. And, little did I know, or any of the guys I ran with (and the guys I ran with were of Mexican background, Italians, Romanian, Southern boys and Lebanese) and we would all go to each other’s homes and taste each other’s foods […] And we went with each other to the different churches that each of us belonged to.”12 Borrajo is himself the child of immigrants; his father was from Yemen and his mother from Yugoslavia. Despite having grown up in an isolated neighborhood during hard times, most former Southenders are conspicuously proud of their neighborhood’s complex ethnic mix. In his detailed examination of census data from 1940, neighborhood historian Rudy Constantine places this number of ethno-national origins carefully at 49.13

The Southend is also notorious for the brutal labor battles that took place there in the 1930s, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) fought to organize the last major automobile manufacturer that resisted unionization, the Ford Motor Company, or “Ford’s,” as it is still known in Dearborn. The Ford Hunger March took place on Miller Road in 1932. The four white men killed by the Dearborn Police in this confrontation are buried in nearby Woodmere cemetery.14 The “Battle of the Overpass,” which took place on Miller as well, in 1937, was a significant turning point in the campaign to unionize Ford.15 And in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the neighborhood’s “militant” UAW Local 600 led a “right to work” campaign that sought, despite tremendous opposition from their national leadership, to disrupt the decentralization and automation of the industry and end its growing reliance on the use of overtime.16 For neighborhood residents, participation in union struggles was not uniformly glorious and heroic, nor was it one-sided. Henry Ford’s best union-buster and all-around-thug, Harry Bennett, recruited several members of his “goon squad” in the Southend.17 This private militia enforced company policy in the neighborhood, at the factory gates, and on the shop floors.

Alan Amen, whose father worked at the Rouge for 34 years, explained to me that the union issue was not as clear-cut to Southend workers in the 1930s as it is today. Both sides promised better pay and working conditions. “You have to remember, Dearborn was Henry Ford: the benefactor, the old man, the guy who took care of you. Organizing in opposition to Ford’s wishes was not an easy task for immigrants who looked at Ford as a, what was he? This guy was the icon of American opportunity.”18 Don Unis, a Dearborn fire fighter who grew up in the Southend, tells a number of “clever fox” stories about his immigrant father and other Lebanese workers from the neighborhood celebrating their skill at escaping work by making the best of chance encounters with Ford himself or, a few years later, with Jimmy Hoffa.19 Many workers in the first immigrant generation were not interested in class struggle but in using personal connections and raw wit to leverage job security.

Stories about the multiethnic past and labor activism already seemed sepia-toned and a bit surreal in the late 1980s. The Southend’s six thousand residents were by then overwhelmingly Arab, immigrant, and disproportionately unemployed.20 When I visited Dix Avenue, the Southend’s commercial strip, for the first few times on my own, I was treated with outright suspicion and occasional hostility. The only non- Arabs left on Dix, it appeared, were INS officials, social workers, cops, and the occasional sex worker. By 1987, a new set of stories had emerged alongside the older ones, and they expressed the same eagerness to connect the local to the national and transnational, to assert the importance of this small, neglected place. These narratives were also about labor organizers and unions, immigration, diversity, and political activism. Yet neighborhood politics and class interests were now rendered in explicitly Arab terms. In the new stories Arabs were the leaders. Arabs defeated Dearborn’s infamous racist mayor, Hubbard. Arab workers, and their compatriots in the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, shut down the Dodge Main assembly line to protest UAW support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Arabs took over (and Arabs lost control of) the city’s oldest mosque. Most importantly, Arabs created the community organizations that now empowered them to tell these stories, like ACCESS and the AMS. In the Southend, Arabs were constructing a new politics that would connect Dearborn to an Arab/Muslim community that was decidedly American, yet global in orientation and impact.

This newer way of talking about the Southend evolved against the backdrop of Arab Detroit as a whole, a community that spread across urban and suburban boundaries in ways the older, Southend- centric, multiethnic, working-class identities could not. The story of Detroit’s “Arab-American community” begins in the Ottoman Province of Syria (today’s Lebanon and Syria) with a handful of Christian villagers who decided to seek their fortunes in “Amreeka,” a world they had learned about from French and American missionaries in the Levant. By 1900, Detroit was already home to a small colony of Syrians, mostly peddlers and their local suppliers.21 Muslim Syrians had joined the migration and were quickly establishing themselves in Highland Park when Henry Ford, desperate to staff his newly minted and hopelessly tedious moving assembly, doubled the daily wage of workers in 1914. The economy of Detroit took off in this period, and the Syrian enclaves in Highland Park and near the Jefferson Avenue Chrysler plant on Detroit’s East side took off along with it. Village clubs and religious associations established in the 1910s developed into a half dozen Syrian-majority churches and mosques in the decades that followed. The Muslim families who migrated with Ford to Dearborn in the 1920s opened their first mosques, the Progressive Arabian Hashmie Society and the American Moslem Society in 1937 and 1938 respectively, near the intersection of Dix Avenue and (today’s) Vernor Highway. A small network of Iraqi and Palestinian Christians also established themselves in Detroit in the early part of the century. Most of these communities, once firmly in place, would sponsor the chain migration of relatives. This steady trickle of arrivals continued until 1965, when the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws, combined with political conflict in the region, encouraged the migration of tens of thousands of Middle Easterners to Detroit.22

The Arabs who settled in Dearborn’s Southend were mostly Muslim and working class, which set their community apart from the Arab Christian enclaves which were, by mid-century, largely middle class and dispersed among the city’s eastern suburbs. In addition to the two mosques, the Southend business district along Dix Avenue was home to Kamel’s, a small neighborhood restaurant, Ozman’s and Abbass’s restaurants, Shaheen’s Supermarket, several Turkish and Arab coffee houses, Berri’s Halal Meats (the first explicitly halal business in Michigan),23 Mr. Saad’s grocery, a cobbler, Louie’s Coney Island, and a plethora of non-Arab businesses: a small theater, a Chinese laundry, a bar, a five and dime shop, a drug store, and a gambling joint known as “the Hole.” This business district, usually referred to as “Dix” by Arabs living in other parts of Detroit, was the “symbolic center and heart” of the city’s Arab communities, and it was known not only for its tight concentration of businesses and people, but also for its “receptivity to and involvement with politics in the home country.”24

Abdo Elkholy, in his 1966 study of the local Muslim community, captures the feel of the Southend:

Members of the Detroit community… came from the old country directly to Detroit, where they established their ghetto-like colony in Dearborn … One cannot but observe the Arabic atmosphere on Dix Street: here are many coffee-houses whose patrons speak Arabic and drink the same strong tea and Turkish coffee in small cups that they drank in the old country and play the same games … The Syrian groceries import food from Syria. The Syrian bakeries and pastry shops provide familiar foods too.25

In the 1950s and 1960s, Lebanese, Palestinians, and a growing Yemeni population co-existed comfortably with their non-Arab neighbors, who were still, far and away, the Southend’s majority population. In the wake of the civil rights movement, however, cracks began to appear in the collective narrative of immigrant struggle and assimilation. Newly arriving Arabs were increasingly viewed as disruptive to the status quo, and, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the pan-Arab alliances that formed in solidarity and defiance quickly threatened earlier bonds that had encouraged Arab inclusion in the Southend’s white working class.


By the 1950s, Dearborn’s Southend had become politically expendable. It was an isolated neighborhood with a reputation for horrific pollution, militant autoworkers, and over-crowded housing. As Dearborn’s available landscape filled with homes and shopping malls, schools and “residents only” parks (a Dearborn euphemism for “whites only”), Mayor Hubbard was under pressure to set aside more land for heavy industry. Ford Motor provided over half of the city’s revenues,26 and this gave the auto manufacturer immense clout in city hall. The Ford Leasing Development Company, a division of Ford, constructed upper middle class housing and shopping malls on their land in central and west Dearborn, but zoning ordinances kept their heavy industry away from the city’s white collar precincts. The Southend also lay inconveniently between the gates of the Rouge factory and those of the Edward C. Levy Company, which converted slag and other industrial waste into asphalt for local roads. This combination of factors led Hubbard and the City Council to plan for the gradual rezoning of the Southend as an industrial park.

The Southend’s housing stock, much of it built quickly and cheaply in the 1920s, was deemed run down and inadequate in the 1950s. Iris Becker, a teacher and longtime neighborhood activist, described the conditions under which neighborhood housing was first created: “Some of [the housing] was very fast and part of it was self-built. You know, the people who were foreign-born or came from other places built small homes and some of them were larger. They did a lot of work themselves. Some of it was quality work and some of it was not quality work.”27 A report written about the neighborhood in 1940 by Sociologist Albert Ammerman described the housing as much more likely to be substandard than in other parts of Dearborn, reaching “near slum conditions” in some places and suffering from intense overcrowding. The data he drew on for this report was collected during the Great Depression, when the number of unemployed in Detroit reached over 400,000 workers.28 Many families doubled up during this period, but the boom years that followed (during World War II) did little to alleviate overcrowding as hundreds of thousands of new people flocked to the city to work in wartime industries. Detroit’s factories spilled out jeeps, tanks, and airplanes at record speed, but many new arrivals to the area lived in tents and other forms of temporary housing. In the post-war period, Ford, in particular, began to decentralize automobile production, introducing automation and reducing the size and power of the labor force at the Rouge.29 This too affected the Southend. The generation of neighborhood men who walked to their jobs at Ford’s was quickly passing away. When veterans returned from the war, many of them bought houses elsewhere. The Southend had come to be viewed as an immigrant ghetto. Many residents, despite their warm feelings toward the place, fled it as soon as they had the chance, moving usually into more stable, middle-class parts of Dearborn and its neighboring suburbs.

To make matters worse, the Southend was a residential island in a sea of heavy industry. The mile- long Rouge colossus bordered the community to the west and overshadowed its skyline. To the east, there was the Levy Company, with its uncovered mountains of slag. To the north, a series of trucking facilities, brick manufacturers, and other light industries added noise and exhaust. To the southeast lay Woodmere Cemetery and Patton Park, in Detroit. Just southwest of Dearborn, in Melvindale, was the Darling soap works and several oil refineries. Prevailing winds brought the emissions of the Rouge plant directly over the Southend. Winds from the south brought the sickening smell of offal that had not yet been perfumed to make soap. Winds from the east brought flecks of slag so steadily that in the 1960s, residents’ homes were covered by a thick film of residue.30 In 1971 the Air Pollution Control Division of Wayne County found the Southend’s air to have “on the average twice as many suspended particulates—dust, fly ash, coke, iron oxides (to name a few)—as the federal standards permit for health. On some days, it has more than three times the maximum.”31 Fly ash from the factory slowly ate away the paint on neighborhood cars. Houses were filthy on the outside, and difficult to keep clean inside as well. Drying laundry while keeping it free of soot and ash was an endless battle in the era of the clothesline.32 Neighborhood residents referred to Hashmie Hall, one of the mosques on Dix, as “the coal mine” because its uninsulated windows let in so much soot that the surfaces of the furniture had to be cleaned before each and every use.33 By the 1970s, the roof of the local elementary school began to collapse from the heavy weight of accumulated pollutants.34

It was the Southend’s location between the Ford and Levy facilities that led to the first confrontation between Southend residents and city officials. Levy had begun hauling slag away from the Rouge in 1922, and in 1948 opened a new slag processing facility at 8880 Dix Avenue, just across the border in Detroit, to deal with increased production at Rouge Steel and other nearby factories on Zug Island.35 Their somewhat convoluted entrance on Dix was not convenient to their new facilities, so they began to exploit their back entrance at the end of Eagle Street in the heart of the Southend’s residential area. To facilitate this shift, the city began repaving Eagle with reinforced steel roadbeds designed for multi-ton trucks in the early 1950s, even though city-zoning ordinances prohibited such industrial usage of residential streets. Soon thundering tandem vehicles, spraying slag as they drove past, were a constant nuisance and threat to local residents. The slag itself was stored in large, unprotected berms, directly across the street from neighborhood homes.36 In response, Octavius Germany, head of the Southend’s Homeowners Association, called on a young neighborhood resident, Michael Berry, who had just passed the state bar exam, to see if anything could be done to force the city to intervene on the residents’ behalf. Berry and Germany convened a meeting for affected homeowners at Romanian Hall and laid out a plan to draw media attention to their plight. They organized a series of protests that are best remembered today for the human chains local housewives formed to bar the trucks from their street. These tactics generated sympathetic press accounts, which helped Berry win a temporary injunction to halt the traffic and construction. A young and very green Berry then found himself facing off in court against William Henry Gallagher, among the leading trial attorneys in Michigan, who had the resources of Ford Motor behind him. The judge nonetheless found in Berry’s favor and halted the plans of the city and its corporate patrons.37

This courtroom defeat did not deter the city of Dearborn from its efforts to gradually phase out housing in the Southend. Instead, municipal authorities began to ignore levels of blight that were not tolerated in other parts of the well-resourced suburb, reduce city services, and pressure residents to leave. Neighborhood health hazards, including the trash-filled, stagnant “Baby Creek” and rat infestations, received no attention from city officials. In 1961, led this time by Darrell Donaldson (a Southend resident with roots in Kentucky), Joe Borrajo, and Helen Atwell (a Lebanese American), the Southeast Dearborn Community Council (SEDCC) organized to redress the area’s sagging appearance and endangered environment. According to Donaldson, “We fought absentee landlords—buildings filled with code violations—abandoned cars—etc. We took jars of bugs we gathered from rooming houses and took them to the health department. Mayor Hubbard would never meet with us. We lost every battle.”38 Joining with the International Institute of Detroit,39 residents began a “keep Dearborn clean” campaign to rectify environmental dangers and clean up neglected municipal spaces. Suzanne Sareini, whose family owned a Coney Island on Dix that later became a well-known nightclub, Uncle Sam’s, remembers complaining to business owners on Dix about the shoddy appearance of the business district. With a water hose in hand, she would spray the windows of offending store owners, yelling at them, “If you don’t wash your windows, no one is going to come down here and buy anything from you!”40

The early members of the SEDCC were representative of the neighborhood as a whole and not of any one ethnic constituency. The three presidents who followed Donaldson, for example, were Italian, Greek, and Cherokee in turn.41 Much of the SEDCC’s success was attributed to the multiethnic alliances the group enacted. Ironically, the city justified its plans to rezone the Southend by pointing to the same environmental factors SEDCC activists had long complained about, especially the poor air quality. As one city brochure put it, “one has to drive through the area himself to determine that the location is not best suited for residential use. The South End should have been, and some day will be, an industrial park.”42When, in 1961, the City began refusing to issue building permits to Southend residents, set about condemning homes that needed repairs, purchasing them at below market rates, and tearing them down—all with funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development—the SEDCC was positioned to fight back.

The first blocks of houses were destroyed in 1962, at a loss of eighty-five homes, and sold to the Levy Asphalt Company and Mercier Bricks. In 1966 another ninety-two families were displaced. Their properties were sold to the Ford Leasing Development Company. Eventually, more than 350 homes were destroyed and their families evicted, while the distance between Ford and Levy shrank, block by block.43What is more, the city posted signs in front of recently acquired homes that said, “Free at your risk, take any part of the house. First come, first served. Hurry.”44 By neglecting the properties they acquired, the city drove down the value of the homes of those who refused to sell, further contributing to the environmental crisis facing the community. Another sign, “Whoever wishes to sell to the city of Dearborn, call City Attorney,” followed by a telephone number, became ubiquitous in the neighborhood. Working with Detroit’s FHA and commercial lenders, the city was able to deny loans and loan insurance to private citizens attempting to make home improvements or purchase neighborhood properties.45

When the city of Dearborn, using strong-arm tactics like these, made an offer on Lebanese-American Katherine Amen’s house, she and her son, Alan, decided to stand their ground. They were joined by the newly committed membership of the SEDCC, which had grown and become more radical in its tactics as the city targeted scores of neighborhood homes and institutions. “[Ford and the city of Dearborn] messed with the wrong people,” remembers Ismael Ahmed, another Lebanese American who entered neighborhood politics in the early 1970s. “A lot of the older workers here were people who had organized the union—old Italian anarchists and Marxists—and a lot of people in the neighborhood who had nothing to lose but their homes.”46 They “shared tactics and strategies” with younger SEDCC activists, who then went out and applied them. If the council received news that a building was ear-marked for destruction, they would occupy the building and organize human chains to stand in front of the city’s bulldozers. Sometimes these tactics worked, but only for the short term. Residents sought support from the Teamsters (who operated the city’s tractors). Alan Amen went on a public speaking tour in West Dearborn and gave tours of the neighborhood to church groups from the west side and urban rights organizations that were forming in Detroit.47

Meanwhile, the businesses along Dix also began to organize. Understanding that without a neighborhood to sustain them they would soon lose everything, several store owners set about repairing shabby storefronts and attracting new business to the area. The South East Community Development Corporation (CDC) was formed in the late 1960s and worked with Congressman John Dingell’s office to leverage low interest loans and grants from the federal government to provide the business district with a facelift and to rebrand the area as “Arabian Village.” Allan Mallad, whose family had long managed a restaurant on Dix, led this effort. In 1970, he and his father, Sam, converted their Coney Island and adjoining stores into a 225 seat night club named Uncle Sam’s, spending a half million dollars on the project. The full service bar and nightclub featured more than Arab food. It also presented live music and belly dancing, which were new to the Southend commercial district. Mallad, an admirer of Mayor Hubbard, remembers adopting the mayor’s personal slogan—“Clean your own doorstep and the whole world will be clean!”—as his own. Mallad’s sister, Suzanne (Sareini), ran a grocery store next to the restaurant that also catered to the “Arabian Village” theme. It was the first truly full service Arab grocery in the area, offering imported goods from the Middle East, fresh Arab breads and sweets, and the spice and grain bins that are ubiquitous in such stores today. Despite their shared goal of cleaning up the neighborhood and investing in its stability and growth, the CDC did not collaborate well with SEDCC activists, whose leftist politics were at odds with those of the entrepreneurs. Instead, Mallad encouraged Ford, his primary employer, to renovate its mile long parking lots and other facilities along Miller Avenue. Mallad’s efforts to transform this corridor into a “gateway” to the neighborhood failed.48

Renewed interest in the neighborhood by these different factions notwithstanding, time was running out for the Southend. A public school was destroyed in 1966. Dearborn bus lines reduced their services to the Southend, cutting it off further from the rest of the city. The neighborhood library and police sub- station were closed. While some of the neighborhood’s older, non-Arab activists began to abandon the struggle and sell to the city, Alan Amen quit his job and took on the fight to save the neighborhood full time. He became vice-president of the SEDCC in 1968 and president in 1970. In 1971 he filed a class action suit against the city, with the support of Wayne County Legal Services, to halt the destruction, and in 1973 he won an injunction to force the city to stop seizing properties and to end their urban renewal campaign.49In the decision’s wording, “Thus far this court has determined that the city of Dearborn through its agents […] has mounted a campaign in the South End and Eugene-Porath areas that constitutes a taking and that many of the sub-plans and clearance projects have been without a public purpose.”50 Among other actions, the city was forced to reimburse homeowners for the full value of their property, to work with the newly minted Environmental Protection Agency to enforce air quality regulations in the area, and to stop intervening in the acquisition of loans and loan insurance for residents. The issue was tied up in the courts for several years, but the neighborhood had won.


By the time the fight against city hall ended, roughly twenty-five years after Mayor Hubbard first declared the Southend a “blighted area,” the demographics of the neighborhood and the SEDCC had changed significantly. Many of the activists who supported the council in its early years had lessened their involvement or moved away, leaving the organization firmly in the hands of Amen and Atwell, with many of the community’s older Lebanese families providing manpower and moral support. These families were among the pioneer residents of the neighborhood. They had built Dearborn’s first mosques during the Great Depression: Hashmie Hall, which was Shiʿi, and the American Moslem Society (AMS), which was Sunni. The Shiʿi community, which was larger and more dispersed, had also established a second, more impressive and modern mosque, the Islamic Center of Detroit, a few miles away in 1963. By the early 1970s, Hashmie Hall was a shadow of its former self, whereas the AMS was an important Southend institution with an active Sunday school program and youth group, a new, American-born imam (Mike Karoub), and an active outreach program to local churches and universities. The mosque and the UAW Local 600 had clearly become (and still are today) the most vital institutions on Dix Avenue. Local residents who worshipped in Baptist churches or Roman Catholic parishes could (and did) find similar congregations in other parts of Detroit, but the same was not true for the Southend’s Arabs, who were overwhelmingly Muslim. For Lebanese Sunnis, in particular, the Southend felt like a hard won and irreplaceable home.

Along with the mosque, the area’s increasingly visible Arab businesses began to draw new immigrants to the Southend (initially, Yemenis and Palestinians). Arab student activists from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan were also a growing presence in the neighborhood. In fact, these young activists played a significant role in helping the SEDCC fund and even staff its legal campaign.52 Members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panther Party, and the White Panther Party were active in Dearborn, and members of the Organization of Arab Students (OAS), a national student organization founded in Ann Arbor in 1952 to advocate for the development of the Arab region, began to hang out in the coffee houses on Dix, as did members of several far-left factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).53 They got to know the established Lebanese-American population, the new Yemeni autoworkers, and the equally new Palestinians, who were mostly from Beit Hanina and El Bireh, West Bank villages that had recently been occupied by the Israeli military.

To the Arab student activists, the Southend represented an open field for political recruiting. George Khoury, who was prominent among these students, arrived in Detroit in the 1960s to study engineering at Wayne State. Khoury had been active in the OAS, but the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Sinai motivated him to abandon campus-based politics.54 He and his compatriot in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Mohsin Abdul-Munim, headed to Dix to seek a following among local Arab workers. Nabeel Abraham, a Palestinian American who grew up in Southwest Detroit and also became active in student movements and the Palestinian resistance movement in the late 1960s, described the interaction between campus activists and local community members: “I remember as a student activist at Wayne, guys like Hasan Newash—DFLP [Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine], oriented completely toward Palestine—started connecting with Dix.”55 Dix, with its coffee houses and Yemeni workers, represented “Arabs.” “We met Ali Bilead [a Yemeni nationalist and labor organizer], and we were impressed. ‘This is a community,’” he continued. “Hasan and the Palestinian activists hadn’t gotten anywhere with Arab students on campus, so they went to the Southend to get in with the people. […] This is the time when we were showing the Battle of Algiers at the mosque.”56

Laurel Wigle and Sameer Abraham capture this moment on Dix:

Late 1968 and the year 1969 saw Palestinian nationalism at its peak. Though the Palestinian sector of the community felt closest to the Resistance, every Arab identified himself with the struggle to liberate Palestine. In place of Nasser’s photo, posters of the fedayeen [freedom fighters] were pinned up in homes, stores, restaurants and many coffeehouses… Talk turned from Nasser and the affairs of Arab states to the activities of the fedayeen. The daily incursions into Israeli occupied territory were followed with great zeal in the news reports… These issues provoked a great deal of intense discussion and debate in the coffeehouses and restaurants.57

Ismael Ahmed, the son of a third-generation Lebanese-American mother with deep local roots and an Egyptian father, became involved with the SEDCC in this period. Connected to the SDS, both Panther parties, and other local Marxist groups, Ahmed entered Arab nationalist politics through his association with Yemeni and Palestinian autoworkers he met at Dodge Main in 1970. He joined forces in the factory with other radical labor organizers who had organized the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) in 1968 to fight worsening labor conditions and anti-black racism in the UAW. By this time, it was apparent that the several thousand newly-arrived Yemenis were routinely being assigned the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the plant, often being given the workload of two men. With poor English skills and little exposure to organized labor tactics, they were easy targets for management, while their UAW representatives looked the other way. They were also desperate for work, relatively isolated from other workers, and the wages they received were, by Yemeni standards, fantastically high.58 DRUM leaders became concerned over the plight of Yemeni workers and argued that Chrysler sought “to make conditions worse for all of us by first attacking conditions for the Arab workers.”59

In 1973, Ahmed brought together these radical black workers, Arab leftists, and Arab autoworkers to form the Arab Workers Caucus (AWC), modeled on, and in solidarity with, DRUM. The AWC sought to improve working conditions in the urban factories DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers operated in, where both black and Arab workers were concentrated. Just as significantly, they sought to compel the UAW to divest its sizable holdings of Israeli war bonds (a bad economic investment undertaken for political reasons that were hardly progressive). Among Arab workers (and many of the radical black workers) the insult of handing over part of their paycheck, via union dues, to support Israeli occupation forces was rich fuel for mobilization. As Ahmed wrote in 1975, “the role of Arab nationalism in building an Arab workers caucus should not be underestimated.”60

Yemeni workers were propelled into action by two dramatic events that took place back to back in late 1973. The first, in August, was the shooting death of a Yemeni farm worker in California during a United Farm Workers (UFW) protest.61 While Naji Daifullah’s death discouraged his co-nationals in California from joining the UFW, in Dearborn, it had the opposite effect. Yemenis organized a large demonstration in support of the UFW in September and sought to become more involved in the AWC. When the October Arab-Israeli War broke out, they joined Palestinian leftists who were active outside the factories and were even more galvanized to take action. 62 The AWC chose to picket the 28 November 1973, B’nai B’rith banquet where UAW president Leonard Woodcock was set to receive an award for his unflagging support of Israel. AWC and DRUM demonstrators demanded that the UAW sell off its Israeli war bonds, then valued at more than $750,000. Over 2,000 (mostly Arab and black) workers on the afternoon shift at Dodge Main walked out to attend the rally. This forced the closure of one of the two Dodge assembly lines and seriously slowed the second. AWC leadership was ecstatic. DRUM and other radical movements within the local black and left communities were also impressed. By working together, they had pulled off something akin to a wildcat strike. Surely this meant Arab Americans were a constituency to be reckoned with.63

The UAW was less impressed. In response to this labor action, it sold off $50,000 of its Israeli bonds (less than ten percent), and both Chrysler and the union soon began targeting Arab workers in retribution for their unsanctioned strike.64 This led to a serious rift between Yemeni workers, now cast as irresponsible hotheads, and Arabs from other national backgrounds. Many Yemenis were permanently laid off and forced to return to their homeland.65 In droves, Detroit’s Yemeni (and other Arab) workers walked away from the AWC and from work-related, class-based political organizing after their pyrrhic victory at Dodge Main. They were not alone. Despite their cathartic success at organized resistance, won by an alliance of Arab and black autoworkers opposed to U.S. imperialism in the Middle East and their own mistreatment by the UAW and their corporate employers, the fleeting nature of this victory, compounded by the longer lasting corporate retribution, resulted in a major shift of direction by Detroit’s radical Arab-American leftists. In the Southend itself, where Palestinian activists continued to vie with one another for local support, events in the Middle East (such as King Hussein’s crushing blow to the Palestinian resistance movement in Jordan in 1970) and intense local factionalism, led to a decline in their fortunes. Eventually many of the “locals” (Southend residents) came to suspect that the “revolutionaries” would never accomplish, and perhaps did not have, goals of practical significance. For some of these locals, the mosque began to provide a compelling retreat. For others, SEDCC and its neighborhood-based model of activism provided a more attractive outlet for their political energies.66


A slightly different set of campus-based activists were drawn into the mix of Southend politics in the same period. The Association of Arab University Graduates (AAUG), which was established in 1967, provided a forum for Arab scholars in the U.S. who wanted to counter hegemonic representations of the Middle East and its conflicts, with a special focus on Palestine, human rights, and American policies toward the region.67 These scholars were leftists who cared deeply about Palestine, but they were better able than others to connect the dots between the displacement of Palestinian refugees overseas and the sought-after displacement of Southend residents, an increasing number of whom were also Palestinian. Abdeen Jabara and Barbara Aswad, in particular, helped develop this new angle on the Southend struggle, turning it from a class-based, multiethnic campaign into a civil rights campaign on behalf of the neighborhood’s Arab minority. In very real ways, this framing of the struggle would fundamentally reshape Arab-American identity in Dearborn and Detroit for the next generation or more.

Abdeen Jabara, a Lebanese-American attorney from Northern Michigan, belonged to an immigrant family that had come to the U.S. at the same time, from the same region, and along the same routes as many other Lebanese in Dearborn. He grew up attending the AMS when his family came to Dearborn to celebrate Muslim holidays or the weddings of kin and friends. While not a resident of Dearborn, Jabara was also not a stranger there. When he first learned about the SEDCC campaign, he volunteered to work on the Amen class action suit and eventually filed a legal brief on their behalf. The lead attorney on the case was Michael Barnhart, who worked for the Center for Urban Law and Housing, a division of Wayne County Neighborhood Legal Services. Barnhart had actively advised the SEDCC since 1965, long before Jabara’s involvement. Jabara nonetheless acted as a bridge between the civil rights legal community in Detroit and the AAUG, and he was able to leverage financial and personnel support from these outside constituencies for the neighborhood campaign.68

For instance, Jabara introduced anthropologist Barbara Aswad to the Southend when she was hired at Wayne State in 1968. Of Scottish ancestry, Aswad had carried out her field research on the border between Syria and Turkey and later married a Syrian engineer, Adnan Aswad, who was also a founder of AAUG. From her position at WSU, Aswad carried out a landmark needs assessment study of the Southend’s Arab community in 1971 that established a baseline portrait of a population that accounted for only a quarter of Southend residents at the time, but was in the midst of significant change and on the brink of exponential growth.69 Aswad’s study framed the Arab population of the Southend as a newly arrived, fragile, and disadvantaged population, an image very unlike the white, working class, well- established American identity that was more familiar to the Amens themselves, or to other SEDCC activists like Ismael Ahmed, Helen Atwel, Don Unis, and Joe Borrajo, all of whom were American born. Aswad’s team found that 85 percent of the Southend’s Arab residents were foreign born and of rural origins, with a third having lived in the U.S. for fewer than five years. The educational attainment of this population was low relative the rest of the city, with 21 percent having received no formal schooling whatsoever and another 30 percent having no more than an eighth grade education.70 It was this vivid representation of the population as minoritized, recently arrived, economically marginal, and consisting mostly of disenfranchised post-colonial subjects, that became central to the new Arab-American identity with which Dearborn was associated in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ironically, this way of seeing Arabs in the Southend has been retrofitted to explain the Southend struggle itself, which is nowadays depicted as a distinctly Arab-American campaign. While it is true that the victory of the SEDCC had the greatest consequences for Arabs who remained in the Southend, and that the group was led by Arabs in its final days, it is important to remember that the Southend was still a majority non-Arab neighborhood in 1973. Moreover, the SEDCC still had prominent non-Arab supporters, like Donaldson and Iris Becker, local school teachers who had a long history of working closely with the SEDCC. According to Barbara Aswad, most neighborhood Arab Americans did not participate in the SEDCC campaign at all. Instead, they were “waiting to see who emerges the victor, the City or the Council.”71 Nor were the Palestinian student activists involved. Jabara and Aswad were the rare outside activists who clearly understood how the local plight of Southend residents was related to U.S. foreign policy and Arab nationalist causes overseas.

Another somewhat anachronistic way of describing the Southend struggle is the attribution of anti- Arab attitudes and an ethnic-cleansing agenda to city planners and Mayor Hubbard. Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin suggest that “Mayor Hubbard had never made it a secret that Dearborn was a ‘white man’s town,’ and the Arabs were considered to be so many ‘white niggers’.”72 In a similar vein, Barbara Aswad links the mayor’s stepped up actions to the growing Yemeni population in Dearborn.73 The newly-arrived Yemenis, as these writers point out, were generally darker-skinned than the Lebanese, and they certainly had fewer English language skills or other socioeconomic advantages. Most Yemeni auto-workers were in the U.S. without their families, and they were widely seen to have a destabilizing impact on the neighborhood. Suzanne Sareini, who sold beer and wine at her Arab grocery store, remembers binge drinking, qat chewing (a stimulant narcotic consumed legally in Yemen that went unregulated in Dearborn until the 1980s), and frequent street-level fighting. “We had a hard time getting people to come down to the Southend. It was like the Wild West down there, with guys throwing punches and bullets flying through the windows,” Sareini recalls today.74 And yet in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Yemeni population lived mostly in an area south of the mosque, which was not included in the city’s urban renewal plans.75 It is unclear the extent to which city officials were even aware of the diversity of the Arab community at the time.

Alan Amen likewise attributed the mayor’s hostility to the Southend to several factors, race primary among them. “The issue of racism as it played in the Southend of Dearborn had a particular bent when it came to the dark-skinned citizens of the Southend, who were the Arabs. That’s a term used by Orville Hubbard. He referred to what he needed to do with his ‘dark-skinned citizens’ in the Southend. But it’s basically an issue of racism, an anti-black and anti-African American sentiment extended onto people who are dark.”76 Joe Borrajo adds that by the 1950s and 1960s many of the older Lebanese families in Dearborn were doing well enough financially to purchase homes in East Dearborn, a neighborhood that was then largely Irish, Italian, and Polish. “Arabs were confined to the Southend at the time, so we weren’t looked upon as a threat to be concerned about. But when we started moving into the east end, holy jeez, then … that’s when the problem starts.”77

Hubbard’s anti-black racism was well known in Michigan and nationally. In Dearborn, the popular slogan “Keep Dearborn Clean” was a euphemism for keeping it white, and while Ford Motor had depended on black labor, Henry Ford had been equally careful to maintain racially segregated housing for his workers. The most infamous segregationist mayor in the North, Hubbard also expended a great deal of energy trying to keep blacks out of the city. During the housing shortages of WWII, he adamantly opposed the construction of public housing in Dearborn, arguing that “housing Negroes is Detroit’s problem,” and, more evocatively, “When you remove garbage from your backyard, you don’t dump it in your neighbor’s.”78 A generation later, during the 1967 uprisings in Detroit, Hubbard also stood alongside his police force on the Michigan Avenue border and commanded them to “shoot any looters on site.”79 As Amen puts it today, “People knew where they were supposed to live by your color and your level of assimilation and your job.”80 Those who lived in the Southend in the 1950s and 1960s certainly understood their privileged status as white workers. They also sensed their less than privileged ranking in the class divisions of Dearborn, where it was generally felt that “only persons of foreign birth would live in the South End.”81 In Joe Borrajo’s words, “we were all from immigrant backgrounds. We were called ‘culturally deprived.’ The stigma of being from the Southend… We were treated as pariahs in the rest of Dearborn.” Ismael Ahmed recently asserted that the discrimination he experienced growing up in the Southend was class based, and that he felt it “not as an Arab, but as a person of the Southend. Because as you began to go out of the neighborhood, the Southend had this terrible reputation in the city, mainly because it was a low-income neighborhood, I think. We were called ‘factory rats’ then and so forth.”82

This sense of exclusion was a far cry from the violent, anti-black racism of Hubbard and his supporters. Nonetheless, as the Southend became more Arab, existing classist and racist sentiments were projected onto the newly arriving Arabs, who were described in the local press as “arrogant, unclean and sloppy, untruthful and clannish beyond belief”; who were referred to as “camel jockeys” and “sand niggers” in the hate-mail received by the mosque; who were euphemized as “the foreign element” by representatives of the city; and who were told, in a familiar refrain, to “go back where you came from” at the SEDCC.83 “So pervasive” was “the Arabic atmosphere” of the neighborhood that many of the non- Arabs who remained there began to complain of feeling “‘in a foreign country’ in one’s own neighborhood.”84 Yet there is no evidence to suggest that Dearborn stepped up its efforts to replace Southend housing with heavy industry in direct response to the increasing Arabization of the population. The latter trend developed only toward the very end of the Southend struggle. The neighborhood itself was not a majority-Arab enclave when the SEDCC began its fight in the early 1960s. It is more a matter of coincidence that the most heavily Arab-populated areas happened also to be those located nearest to the Amazon entrance to the Levy Company. Yet because the Southend became an Arab majority area in the period immediately following the SEDCC legal case, the memory of the Southend struggle has been Arabized in retrospect. In the 1980s, this narrative twist allowed the earlier-arrived Arab families and the new Arab immigrants to attach themselves to a locality, and a local history, that now belonged uniquely to them.

Additionally, many of the activists who took part in the Southend struggle—a small group from the AAUG, several leaders of the SEDCC, Palestinian and Yemeni leftists, and the leadership of the AWC— came together to found the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in 1974, with George Khoury, Helen Atwell, Ismael Ahmed, and Charles Albert as its first officers.85 Initially, in 1971, a smaller collection of Arab leftists and AAUG supporters opened a storefront organization on Vernor Highway in Southwest Detroit that they called the Arab Community Center for Employment.86There they began to address “the pressing domestic problems plaguing the immigrant community, problems which were largely ignored by them in the past. In so doing, the activists sought to link the social and economic concerns of the immigrant workers to the broader issues of Arab nationalism.”87 The fledgling organization initiated efforts to redress the problems Aswad had identified in her 1971 study via English classes, employment services, and translation services. The volunteers quickly recruited SEDCC members and a few leaders from the growing South Yemeni National Liberation Front and their neighborhood assistance outlet, the Yemeni American Benevolent Association (YABA), who all insisted the group relocate onto Dix Avenue, where they operated out of Hashmie Hall. Ron Amen (Alan’s older brother), George Khoury, Hasan Newash, Ali Bilead, Mohsin Abdel-Munim, Abdeen Jabara, Sobhi Abdel Sater, the Aswads (Barbara and her husband, Adnan), and Don Unis were the activists who joined forces to build ACCESS in its earliest days.88

Ismael Ahmed joined the group in 1973, shortly after the excitement and disappointment of the AWC campaign led him to re-evaluate his goals and to walk away from the radical left. In a 1985 interview with Robert Mast, he describes this transition in the following language:

During those years in the plants, I worked with a lot of Marxist groups. But there was a parting of the ways at a certain point. This was a very rhetorical time among the left. I would work in the community and see that talking about Soviet revisionism didn’t make sense. That’s the last thing on people’s minds. The main difference I had with a lot of the left people was that they called community work reformist. And to me it was the only thing that mattered. So I resigned from the plant and began writing grants for ACCESS. I wanted to help develop it into a community-based organization that not only provided services but took on social issues and built allegiances with other, mainly minority, working-class folks.89

Ahmed was welcomed at ACCESS because the student activists thought he might hold the elusive key to mobilizing Arab workers. He instead steered the organization toward providing much-needed services to Arab workers and immigrant families. These goals were supported in the beginning by small grants from AAUG, the International Institute of Detroit, the Presbyterian Church, and by the gratis use of the YABA building on Salina Street. Inspired initially by the breakfast program of the Black Panther Party, the Saul Alinksy community organizing model, and Latino service organizations in Southwest Detroit, the ACCESS agenda gradually came to be dominated by Ahmed and several SEDCC organizers, whose initial success at landing government block grants distributed by the city of Dearborn turned their heads away from the radical left and toward municipal, state, and federal funding sources.

While they remained sympathetic to revolutionary aspirations and Third World liberation movements of every stripe, Southend activists increasingly focused their efforts on rebuilding the neighborhood and improving the quality of life for its residents. In the years after it defeated Orville Hubbard, the SEDCC was able to leverage a $3.4 million grant from HUD to develop public housing on the site of destroyed neighborhood homes. They also received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to explore the aesthetic traditions of their once-diverse community.90 The Community Development Corporation active on Dix was finally able to give the business district a facelift using city block grant dollars, constructing a series of Arabesque arches along the street’s storefronts and officially renaming the district “Arabian Village.” These efforts were not administered by ACCESS, but by its neighborhood rivals. By 1979, Arabs made up roughly three-quarters of the area’s residents. The Southend had lost its multicultural working class profile and was now an enclave of newly-arrived, poor, often unskilled Arab immigrants. ACCESS and the SEDCC came to resemble one another in personnel, form, and intent. They began to compete, not for workers and volunteers, but for government assistance, especially Dearborn block grant funds. ACCESS won this competition, and the SEDCC closed its doors in 1985.91 Today, the ACCESS annual budget tops $18 million. Many of its activities are national in scope, including the Arab American National Museum, which ACCESS launched in 2005. In creating ACCESS, a confluence of organizers discovered the power of language and identity to shape political alliances. They came together to address the immediate concerns of Arabs in Dearborn. Rather than focus principally on nationalist movements in the Arab world, ACCESS turned it energy toward quality of life issues in the Southend, labor movements in Detroit and elsewhere, and the civil rights movement. Pam Pennock argues that this merging of political and social issues was not unique to Dearborn or Detroit. The OAS, AAUG, and other activist organizations of the period were also “creating a transnational, activist, increasingly Arab American identity built upon a leftist, non-sectarian political orientation that championed Palestinian Revolution.”92 What these organizations lacked, however, were the firm links to American public and private funding sources that ACCESS had managed to create out of this long process of struggle and place making.


Today, stories about the Southend struggles of the 1970s are a tremendous source of power and legitimacy for ACCESS, and they appear often in print, public art, and museum exhibitions. They summarize the complex, messy chain of events that gave rise to the Arab-American community ACCESS serves, administers and, in very real ways, hopes to control. The left/secular/engaged identity formation these narratives sustain is embraced by many of the Arab-American institutions that evolved in the wake of ACCESS and AAUG: for instance, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute, the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, the Arab American Political Action Committee, and the Arab American News, to name just a few. And yet the Southend struggles also contributed to a much more conservative Arab/Muslim identity, one that is equally common in Detroit (and especially in representations of Dearborn) ever since. Because this identity did not emerge out of campaigns waged against the state (city officials) or industrial interests (Ford, Chrysler, and the UAW), but out of conflicts waged among Arab Muslims themselves, it has been much more difficult to narrate in public contexts. This silence should not be interpreted as evidence that the events I am about to describe are less well known in Detroit, or that they are less vital to Dearborn’s Arab/Muslim communities. Instead, it suggests that another kind of public is at stake.

In the 1960s and 1970s, not all recently arrived Arab workers in the Southend spent their spare time and money in the coffee houses and bars on Dix Avenue. Many had chosen to settle there, despite the neighborhood’s shrinking size and apparent neglect, because there was a mosque in the neighborhood, and not just any mosque. The AMS was the oldest mosque in Michigan. Expanded and renovated in the 1950s, it had a sizeable prayer area, classrooms, a simple dome and small, symbolic minarets. It looked and felt like a mosque to those who worshipped there. Although it was one of a handful of mosques in the U.S. that had been built explicitly as a mosque, rather than renovated from an earlier structure, the AMS was not like a Middle Eastern house of prayer. Its American born imam, Mike Karoub, who assumed leadership of the congregation when his father, Hussein Karoub, passed away in 1973, preached in English. The younger Karoub’s left-progressive perspective was of a piece with that of the SEDCC, AWC, and ACCESS. He worked closely with Masjid al-Mu`mineen, Detroit’s oldest black Sunni congregation, and with other black converts throughout the city. He supported women’s rights, civil rights, legal access to abortion, and worker’s rights, while opposing the Vietnam War, Israel, and other U.S.-backed imperial projects. Under his leadership, the AMS was not uniformly open on Friday at noon for prayer, instead holding its communal prayers on Sunday mornings. The Women’s Auxiliary of the mosque held almost as much sway over the institution as did its all-male Board of Directors, and women came and went from the mosque as if it were their second home, wearing the fashions of the period, including shorts, short skirts, and sleeveless dresses. Scarves were donned in the mosque by women only when they entered the prayer hall to pray. Just as importantly, the mosque was kept under lock and key when not in use. If a group wanted to use the mosque outside its regular worship hours, they were asked to pay a small fee to help maintain the building. This was equally true of weddings, funerals, practice sessions for the mosque’s dabka troupe, and for groups who met at the mosque to hold Qurʾanic recitations or other religious programs not overseen by the board or the imam.93

As the demographics of the Southend began to change in the 1970s, the Lebanese families who had sustained the mosque since it was established in 1938 found themselves increasingly on the defensive. The younger Karoub’s leadership style, which had long been problematic for the board’s more conservative members, was odd and offensive to many new immigrants. Some felt that the imam’s Arabic was not strong enough, even though he was fluent and had long edited an Arabic language newspaper. Some felt that his informal religious education, consisting of long tutelage at his father’s feet and a religious studies degree from WSU, was inadequate. Many were uncomfortable with his politics. For Abdo Alasry, the problem was one of spiritual leadership. Alasry arrived in Dearborn from Yemen in 1967, and like many of his fellow nationals, he embraced a conservative lifestyle and religious orientation that were explicitly averse to the leftist politics of the period. He was not impressed with the AMS, the Southend, or the Muslim Americans who lived there. “The institution was very bad. If you looked at it from a [Muslim perspective], lot of people they do not practice Islam. They do not pray. It doesn’t matter. You could not make a difference between them and other people, you know. Lot of them. You might see a few people practicing Islam, but the majority, no. You see gambling places. You see bars. They have alcohol, a lot of places. Also they had some Arab people being killed in this area, too.”94

This perspective was common among the new, post-1965 migrant cohort, most of them recently displaced by the Israeli Occupation, related political instability in Lebanon, or the independence movements and civil wars that beset North and South Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s. Echoing patterns from the early twentieth century, the newcomers who settled in Dearborn were often bachelors or married men whose families remained in the homeland. Their religious expectations were different from those of the already established congregation at the AMS, which was now predominately American born. The new Muslim immigrants endorsed a general turn away from the secular left and toward a more intentional and explicit Islamic practice. They also sought to preserve their culture and identity in ways the AMS founders, who now felt very at home in the U.S., found irrational and extreme. The mosque’s board became nervous, not just about Karoub, but also about the tensions that came with this new demographic reality.

Nihad Hamed, an Egyptian engineer who was the mosque’s president, worked with Imam Karoub to change the mosque’s bylaws in order to protect the status quo. The imam asked for a permanent seat on the board, and the president attempted to have his own term extended from one to four years. Additionally, the women’s auxiliary tried to deny voting rights to new members of the congregation. The board, however, fearing the influence of Karoub and the women’s auxiliary, and in some cases siding directly with the conservative doctrines and social values expressed by the mosque’s newest members, blocked these proposals.95

As these conflicts brewed at the AMS, Muslim revivalists began to visit the coffeehouses on Dix. The most visible of these missionaries were associated with the Tablighi Jamaʿat, a Pakistan-based piety movement that encouraged Muslims to focus on the everyday practice of their faith. Tablighis had first targeted Detroit’s Muslim enclaves in the early 1950s, sending Pakistani missionaries who were welcomed at Masjid al-Mu`mineen, a black Sunni mosque in Detroit. By the 1970s, many African Americans had joined the movement and became missionaries themselves. To them, the Southend’s Arab Muslims represented a curiosity and a prize. According to Alasry:

They start going to the places, to the coffee shops, the stores where the people go. Sometimes they go even to the bar to talk to the people. They do this until 1976, and then some of them start talking to some of the people who are in charge of this mosque, the Lebanese people. Some people told him [Nihad Hamed], “OK, can we have the key for the mosque? Can we have the key so we can open the mosque and go inside and pray?” He said, “Yes, we can issue you a key, but you have to pay the bill.” Because at that time the society was very poor.96

The new Muslim activists convinced the board to let them use the mosque, but it struck them as odd that they should have to pay a fee to pray in the mosque or hold religious classes there. The newcomers also complained about the infrequency of the formal jumʿa congregational prayer at the mosque and the overall laxity of religious observances there. As their complaints gradually escalated into demands, Hamed devised a radical strategy to fend them off. He organized a meeting of the city’s Muslim clerics and scholars and asked them to issue a formal edict—to “make shura,” as Alasry put it—declaring Sunday a legitimate substitute for Friday as the day of congregational prayer for Detroit’s mosques. “Of course, the imams and the scholars are not going to ask for this,” Alasry assured me, “to move the prayer from Friday to Sunday. I think it was the members, because the majority does not have knowledge. They want to have it on their day off. To them, they said, ‘OK. Everybody can come on Sunday, we’ll have the meeting on Sunday.’”97 The Shura Council rejected this suggestion outright,98 and the mosque began (or returned to) hosting formal congregational prayers on Friday in addition to their Sunday lectures.

The issue of rescheduling religious observances for the weekend, however, resurfaced later that year onʿĪd al-ʾAḍḥā. The English-language faction planned to celebrate the holiday on the weekend, as they always had. The Arabic-language faction showed up instead on the ʿīd itself, a Wednesday, and were blocked by Hamed and others on the board. “Today is the eid,” Alasry remembers the newcomers crying. “We have to pray today. Today is eid.” Rather than be turned away, the would-be worshippers broke the lock on the door and went inside to pray.99

Shortly after this incident, another conflict took place that ultimately doomed the Lebanese congregation at the AMS. On a Friday evening, the Yemeni faction was hosting a class upstairs in the mosque, and the Lebanese faction was hosting a dance downstairs in the social hall. The building was not soundproofed, and the loud, raucous music was disruptive to the group gathered upstairs. When the adhānwas called for the evening prayer, the Yemenis expected the music to pause for the prayer itself. When it did not, the upstairs crowd became angry and asked the others to stop the music so the prayer could be conducted in peace. Their request was denied. The Lebanese felt their right to hold a party in the social hall of the mosque was being violated. The Yemenis felt their right to hold a prayer in the mosque was being violated.100 At this point, the newcomers decided to take over the mosque’s board. In 1977 they elected (Hajj) Fawzi Mura`i president of the AMS board. Hajj Fawzi was a Palestinian from Beit Hanina, a West Bank village on the outskirts of Jerusalem where Israel was constructing of one of its earliest and largest settlements. He was a very conservative Muslim, sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, and a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights. His election—by a Yemeni-dominated but culturally diverse block of voters—marked the end of nearly forty years of Lebanese control over the mosque.

The new board reflected a very different political position from that of the founding congregation. Dissatisfied with the failures of Arab nationalism and the Arab Left in general, and equally critical of American materialism, social injustice, violence, mistreatment of Arab immigrants, support for Israel, immorality, and hollow religiosity, the new board turned instead to the precepts of the Qurʾan and sunna as a guide for personal and collective reform.101 The two groups attempted to use the mosque jointly, but the new board quickly solicited an imam from Yemen and established a new set of rules for the AMS.102These included gender segregation in all the mosque’s activities, including Sunday school classes and congregational prayers. The hijab had to be worn by women at all times, everywhere in the building. This hijab could no longer be a simple scarf to cover the hair, but also entailed covering all parts of the body except for the hands, face, and feet. All social functions hosted by the women’s auxiliary were banned from the premises. When the women’s group protested these moves, the new imam told them, “I am here to teach you the right way; you have gone astray.”103 When the women protested further, they were banned from the mosque outright.

The two groups went to court over these new, restrictive policies. Representatives of the founding congregation argued that the mosque itself was one room in the larger facility and appropriate religious attire was observed historically in that room alone. They argued that they had built and sustained the mosque for forty years and should be able to determine the facility’s rules. But the judge, siding with the new board, asked the Lebanese faction to turn over their keys to the building. “In the beginning,” Alasry explained, “we were ok with them. We said, ‘You have the key, you can go in anytime. No you cannot make dances, and [wear short dresses]. They may make a wedding with no problem, but not like with dancing as it used to be in a club. Not in a mosque … belly dancing, that is what I mean. That’s why we don’t want it here. We couldn’t. We said, ‘That is not right.’” 104

The women’s auxiliary of the AMS, still in possession of their savings account, was able to open a new, smaller mosque in 1982. Tucked inside a former warehouse on a quiet side street (Chase Road) in northeast Dearborn, this new mosque, the American Muslim Bekaa Center, returned to providing English language sermons at their Sunday lectures and congregational prayers. High school graduation parties, wedding showers, and youth activities were equally at home there. Women at the Bekaa Center did not enter through the back door, segregate themselves from the men in any of the mosque’s functions, except prayer, or allow others to dictate when and how they should cover their hair and bodies. This new mosque was located closer to where the majority of the city’s Lebanese Americans now lived—in east Dearborn rather than the Southend. This shift was not precipitated solely by the city’s efforts to rezone the Southend, or by the loss of the AMS to a more conservative congregation. Many Lebanese and Palestinian families followed their non-Arab neighbors to east Dearborn and other Detroit suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s. Their Southend homes were purchased by newly arriving Lebanese, Palestinian, and, increasingly, Yemeni families. Today the Southend is a Yemeni-American enclave, the business district is overwhelmingly Yemeni, and the AMS leadership is Yemeni also.

In the 1980s Detroit’s older Arab communities, which dated back to the early decades of the twentieth century, were reduced to minority status by new Arab migrants, most of whom did not know about or identify strongly with the historical roots of Arabs in the area, and who arrived with, or would soon develop, a powerful subaltern consciousness of their own. The United States, for the newcomers, was a purveyor of economic and military policies that threatened Arabs, Muslims, and people of color around the world. These immigrants saw themselves, and were often seen by others, as people who had no place in mainstream American political and religious culture. Many of them wanted to maintain this separation and they looked to their mosques and churches to help them do so. This stance was especially hard for the older AMC and SEDCC activists to understand. Not only had they struggled to build the very mosque the newcomers now controlled; not only had they fought to protect the neighborhood and infrastructure of communal life that was now so hotly contested, but they had done so as part of a distinctly white, working-class and (originally) multiethnic alliance. The takeover of the AMS was a paradigm shift that established a new regime, one not of incorporation or accommodation but of confident orthodoxy and (initially at least) principled separation from the larger society.

The conflicts that engulfed the AMS in the late 1970s were just as important to the development of the Southend and the city itself as was the fight against Mayor Hubbard. To most of the community organizers who allied with the SEDCC and ACCESS in its early days, the outcome of these intra-mosque battles was one of devastating loss. They were experienced as a foreign takeover by an extremist, backward, un-American faction—by a misogynistic, fanatical Islam. In the several mosques that were later built elsewhere in Dearborn by refugees from the AMS, this is still how many people speak of the Southend and the Arab-Muslim identity it represents.

To the mosque’s new leaders and the tens of thousands of new migrants who joined them in Detroit in the 1980s and 1990s, the story of the AMS takeover is told as a cautionary tale of a very different kind. It depicts a mosque and a larger Muslim community that had strayed far from its roots and was successfully redeemed from error. This tale of victory against unrestrained assimilation is told today in hopes of keeping mosques relevant, vital, and on the straight path. I have heard it told by scores of mosque leaders across Detroit—by Palestinian and Yemeni Americans, by Syrians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and African Americans—and it is a staple narrative at mosque fund raising events. More recently, I have also been told the story by members of the original AMS congregation who have made peace with the Southend’s new Arab-Muslim identity. “The new mosque they got, it is beautiful,” Hussein El Haje told me in 2005, in reference to the AMS’s latest renovation effort. Now over 1,000 worshippers can pray there at one time. As a young man in 1938, El Hage helped dig the foundation of the original mosque. For him “it is beautiful to see a thousand people praying together. But sometimes they say things about our community [the founding Syrian-Lebanese congregation], and I don’t like that.”105


The Muslim-American establishment in Detroit today rivals that of the secular Arab establishment. Groups like CAIR-Michigan (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), the Michigan Muslim Community Council, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Muslim Family Services, the Huda Clinic, and the region’s mosques (which now number more than eighty) arguably exceed the secular Arab-American establishment in terms of influence, dollars raised, and services provided. This is a remarkable accomplishment, given that this infrastructure of religious institutions is supported primarily by the Muslim community itself. The same could be said of the Muslim-American establishment nationally, which has gained prominence in the post-9/11 era, as Islam has become one of the key sites of inclusion and exclusion in American public culture. Like Arab-American identity, and other minoritized ethnoracial formations, Muslim-American identity is the product of a complex cycle of trauma, crisis, and incorporation,106 and the true value of narratives about the Southend is that the traumas described in these stories were not necessarily of the larger, geopolitical kind. The fights over control of housing stock and prayer spaces predated the Iranian Revolution, the Israeli invasion and occupation of South Lebanon, the Palestinian Intifadas, the 9/11 attacks, and the decade of American wars in the Middle East that followed. Arab and Muslim identities in Detroit have always evolved in relation to momentous events that occur overseas, but the traumas of the Southend were local; they warranted local responses and created local identities in the process.

Urban space is a site of contest between strangers, especially those whose lives have been shaped by migration and faith. Today’s scholars are eager to theorize this contest as a locus of creativity and dynamism as well as a generator of racial, class, ethnic, and religious hierarchies. Ayse Caglar and Nina Glick Schiller, for example, encourage us to upend our more traditional focus on how migrants are changed by cities and look instead at “how migrants actively contribute to the restructuring and repositioning” of the cities they inhabit.107 Dearborn and its Arab/Muslim populations have certainly been “transformed together” over the past century of dwelling, conflict, and narrative imagining, co-producing a center of belonging through “cooperation, solidarity, the usage of broad networks and resources, [and] shared knowledge.”108 What has been difficult to see in these narrative imaginings is just how tightly they have been woven together into what Gerd Baumann calls a “convergence.” A convergence occurs when different ethnoracial and migrant populations assert their cultural identities vis-à-vis each other and the state, when they “seek the same point of agreement; but each of them does so from its own point of origin and by its own route.”109

Precisely such a convergence occurred in Dearborn in the 1970s, and it is time that the narratives that account for the city’s remarkable Arab/Muslim persona also converge. In reality, Detroit’s Arab and Muslim establishments are not now and have never been far apart, even when the struggles of the Southend were waged most heatedly. Once the AMS takeover was accomplished and the mosque moved on to new crises and controversies, activists from the SEDCC and ACCESS quickly came to its aid. They supported the mosque in 1980 when it began broadcasting the call to prayer from loudspeakers on its roof and was taken to court, this time by the city. They supported it a few years later when the mosque broke ground on a large expansion project and the SEDCC stepped in to integrate the new mosque design with the Arabian Village facades. Similarly, ACCESS is predominantly staffed by and provides services to an immigrant, Muslim-majority constituency.

In fact, it is rare to encounter a prominent Arab organization in Detroit today that is not led (or significantly influenced) by Muslims or a high profile Muslim organization that is not led (or significantly influenced) by Arabs. The AMS is no longer the isolationist congregation that it was in the 1980s, but an integral part of Detroit’s religious landscape and of the public life of Dearborn itself. Likewise, ACCESS is no longer predisposed to wage battles against the state and global capital. Today, like much of the Arab-American establishment, ACCESS runs on support from government agencies (state and federal), corporations (like Ford and Chrysler), and charitable foundations. ACCESS and ADC have long been welcoming to devout Muslims and include hijab-wearing women on their boards and in executive positions. Similarly, Ron Amen, who was once kicked off the board of the Islamic Center of America for his role in founding ACCESS (then rumored to be a hotbed of atheism and communism) is today the board president of this very large and prominent mosque.

The Southend of Dearborn is an urban space whose Arab and Muslim histories continue to converge today as scholars narrate its history on paper, artists paint it into murals, religious leaders teach it to their followers, and activists call it to the attention of a new generation of community organizers. The story of Arab/Muslim Detroit does not begin in the Southend, but it cannot be told without referencing this distinctive space and the many struggles that took place there. The Southend was home to Detroit’s working class Arabs, to its most viable and influential mosques, and to its most visibly Arab commercial district from the 1930s-1980s. When threatened with displacement and dispersal, its residents knew that something more than their homes was at stake. They fought to protect the Arab and Muslim identities the Southend made possible. This Arab/Muslim space continues to draw new migrants to Dearborn. Despite its persistent marginality, the Southend remains a compelling space. It is a space of fragile power, amassed over decades of political and cultural struggle, but it is a space of power nonetheless.


1 Kathy Horak, “A Reversal of Fortunes,” Dearborn Press and Guide, 3 August 1978:1.

2 This landmark battle was first documented in Barbara C. Aswad, “The Southeast Dearborn Arab Community Struggles for Survival Against Urban ‘Renewal’,” in Aswad, ed., Arabic Speaking Communities in American Cities (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1974) 53-84; and more recently in Barbara C. Aswad, “How a Dearborn Community Gained the ACCESS it Needed,” Dearborn Historian, 51:1 (2014), 9-18.

3 This landmark case was first documented in Nabeel Abraham, “Arab Detroit’s ‘American’ Mosque’,” in Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock, eds., Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), 279-311; see also Sameer Abraham, Nabeel Abraham, and Barbara Aswad, “The Southend: An Arab Muslim Working-Class Community,” in Abraham and Abraham, eds., Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab- American Communities (Detroit: Wayne State University Center for Urban Studies, 1983) 163-185; and Sally Howell,Old Islam in Detroit: Reimagining the Muslim American Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 30-42, 104-127.

4 U.S. Census Bureau, “Selected Social Characteristics in the United States, 2010 American Community Survey 1- Year Estimates” for Dearborn, Michigan (DP02),

=table (accessed on 18 July, 2015).

5 For Muslim and mosque estimates see Howell, “Old Islam,” 5; for Arab estimates see Kim Schopmeyer “Arab Detroit after 9/11: A Demographic Portrait,” in Nabeel Abraham, Sally Howell and Andrew Shryock, eds., Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011), 29-65.

6 Arif Dirlik, “Place-Based Imagination: Globalism and the Politics of Place,” in Roxann Prazniak and Arif Dirlik, eds.,Places and Politics in an Age of Globalization (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001) 39.

7 For the origins and veracity of the Arab American claim, see Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock, “Introduction: Qualities/Quantities,” Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock, eds., Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000) 39-44. The Muslim American claim is from Hassan Qazwini, American Crescent (New York: Random House, 2007) 112.

8 Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: New Press, 1997).

9 Anne McClintock, “’No Longer in a Future Heaven’: Gender, Race, and Nationalism,” in Anne McClintock, Amir Mufti, and Ella Shohat, eds., Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 100. For more on the early days of the ACCESS Cultural Arts Program see “The Art and Artistry of Arab Detroit: Changing Traditions in a New World” in Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock, eds., Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), 487-514; and Sally Howell, “Cultural Interventions: Arab American Aesthetics between the Transnational and the Ethnic,” in Diaspora, 9:1 (2001), 59-82.

10 Heather Barrow, “’The American Disease of Growth:’ Henry Ford and the Metropolitanization of Detroit, 1920- 1940,” in Robert Lewis, ed., Manufacturing Suburbs (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004), 200-220.

11 Joe Darden, Richard Hill, June Thomas, and Richard Thomas, Detroit: Race and Uneven Development, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); and Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

12 Joe Borrajo interview, Dearborn, Dec. 2, 2000.

13 Arabs, at 653, were the fourth largest group in the neighborhood, following “Americans” (mostly Southerner whites), Romanians, and Italians. Rudolph Constantine, personal communication (March 17, 2015).

14 Another young man died several weeks later of his injuries. As a black man, he could not be buried in this white’s only cemetery. Steve Babson, Working Detroit (New York: Adema Books, 1984), 92-93.

15 Ibid.

16 Sugrue, “Urban Crisis,” 158-162.

17 Allie Saide was the Arab American member of Bennet’s team, which included representation from each of the major ethnic groups in the neighborhood; Don Unis interview, Dearborn, Nov. 17, 2000; Constantine, personal communication.

18 Alan Amen interview, Dearborn, Nov. 1, 2000.

19 See, for example, Donald Unis, “Dumb like a Fox,” in Nabeel Abraham and Andrew Shryock, eds., Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), 103-106.

20 Aswad, “Community Struggles.”

21 See Alixa Naff, Becoming America: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985).

22 Howell, “Old Islam,” 30-42, 104-127.

23 Ronnie Berri interview, Dearborn, Feb. 14, 2013.

24 Nabeel Abraham, “From Campus to Coffeehouse: The Spread of Palestinian Diaspora Politics (1968-1978)” (unpublished manuscript, 12 April 2002); Laurel Wigle and Sameer Abraham, “Arab Nationalism in America: The Dearborn Arab Community,” in David W. Hartman, ed., Immigrants and Migrants: The Detroit Ethnic Experience(Detroit: New University Thought Publishing, 1974), 279-302.

25 Abdo A. Elkholy, The Arab Moslems in the United States: Religion and Assimilation (New Haven: College and University Press, 1966), 55.

26 Aswad, “Community Struggles.”

27 Quoted in Barrow, “American Disease,” 208.

28 Ibid.

29 Babson, “Working Detroit.”

30 Amen, interview.

31 Quoted in Aswad, “Community Struggle,” 79.

32 Constantine, personal communication; Amen, interview.

33 Chuck Alawan interview, Dearborn, August 2005.

34 Amen, interview.

35 Edward C. Levy Co., “Our Legacy,” (accessed 13 May 2015).

36 Amen, interview.

37 This legal victory launched the political career of Berry, who went on to serve as Wayne County Road Commissioner and was a leader in Michigan’s Democratic Party from the 1970s-1990s. See Susan Griffen, Michael Berry(Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2007), 41-43; Amen, interview.

38 Darrel Donaldson, “Letter to parents and community leaders” (6 August 2000).

39 Borrajo, interview.

40 Suzanne Sarieni interview, telephone, February 24, 2015.

41 Amen, interview.

42 Horak, “Reversal.”

43 Aswad, “Community Struggle,” 71.

44 Katherine AMEN et al., Plaintiffs, v. CITY OF DEARBORN, a municipal corporation, et al., Defendants. United States District Court Eastern District. Michigan Southern District, 14 August 1973.

45 Ibid.

46 Ismael Ahmed, interviewed in Detroit Lives, ed. Robert Mast (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 28.

47 Amen, interview.

48 Alan Mallad interview, telephone, 25 February 2015; Sareini, interview.

49 Amen, interview, is the source of much detail for the entire paragraph. Published accounts of the Southend struggle can also be found in Aswad, “Community Struggles” and “How a Dearborn;” and in Janice Terry, “Community and Political Activism Among Arab Americans in Detroit,” in Michael Suleiman, ed., Arabs in America: Building a New Future (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 241-256.

50 Amen v. Dearborn.

51 This chant was used by DRUM and AWC in the late 1960s and 1970s. See Finally Got the News (Stewart Bird, Rene Lichtman and Peter Gessner. Icarus Films, Detroit, 1970).

52 Abraham, “From Campus to Coffeehouse,” 2002.

53 Ahmed, interview.

54 George Khoury interview, Dearborn, October 22, 2000.

55 Nabeel Abraham interview, Dearborn, Dec. 11, 2000.

56 Ibid.

57 Wigle and Abraham, “Arab Nationalism,” 279-302.

58 Abraham, “From Campus to Coffeehouse,”

59 SPARK bulletin sited in Dan Georgakus and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (Cambridge: South End Press, 1998), 31.

60 Ismael Ahmed, “Organizing an Arab Workers Caucus,” MERIP Reports 34 (1975), 19.

61 Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” MERIP Reports 34 (1975), 22-26.

62 Ahmed, “Organizing,” 19.

63 This walkout and demonstration followed an equally large rally that took place in the Southend several weeks earlier. The first march, which was also attended by over 2,000 people, began at the AMS and proceeded down Dix to the UAW Local 600. The mosque was critically involved in this campaign. Ahmed, “Organizing,” 19; Abraham, Abraham, and Aswad, “The Southend,” 179.

64 Ibid; and Ahmed 1994.

65 Nabeel Abraham, National and Local Politics: A Study of Political Conflict in the Yemeni Immigrant Community of Detroit, Michigan (Ph.D. thesis, University of Michigan, 1978), 136; Ahmed, “Organizing,” 19; and Ahmed, interview.

66 Abraham interview; Terry, “Community.”

67 Pamela Pennock, “Third World Alliances: Arab American Activists at American Universities, 1967-1973,” Mashriq and Mahjar: Journal of Middle East Migration Studies 4 (2014), 55-78; and Michael Suleiman, “‘I Come to Bury Caesar, Not to Praise Him’: An Assessment of the AAUG as an Example of an Activist Arab-American Organization,”Arab Studies Quarterly 9: 3, 4 (2007), 75–95.

68 Abdeen Jabara interview, Dearborn, October 27, 2000; Abraham, “From Campus to Coffeehouse.”

69 Aswad, “Community Struggle,” 74.

70 Ibid.

71 Ibid, 75.

72 Georgakus and Surkin, “Detroit I do Mind Dying,” 63.

73 Aswad, “Community Struggle,” 59.

74 Sareini, interview

75 Aswad, “Community Struggle,” 72.

76 Amen, interview.

77 Borrajo, interview.

78 See especially Sugrue, “Urban Crisis,” 76-77.

79 David Good, Orvie: The Dictator of Dearborn: The Rise and Reign of Orville L. Hubbard (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987).

80 Amen, interview.

81 Quoted in Kathy Horak, “A Home Away From Home for Middle Easterners,” Dearborn Press and Guide, 20 July 1978:1.

82 Ahmed interview, 12.

83 Quoted in Kathy Horak, “Residents Express Fear, Anger, and Understanding,” Dearborn Press and Guide, 17 August 1978:1; and Aswad, “How a Dearborn,” 10. See also Kathy Horak, “The Gradual Move to the East End,” Dearborn Press and Guide, 10 August 1978:1.

84 Abraham, Abraham, and Aswad, “The Southend,” 167.

85 Articles of Incorporation, Michigan Department of Treasury, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), May 22, 1974.

86 Terry, “Community,” 248.

87 Abraham, “National and Local Politics,” 128.

88 Amen, interview.

89 Ahmed, interview, 29.

90 Helen Atwel interview, Dearborn, December 1, 2000.

91 The battle between the two organizations became bitter and involved back-room meetings with the mayor, the trashing of the SEDCC’s offices by angry ACCESS “thugs,” and worse.

92 Pennock, “Third World Alliances,” 61.

93 Howell, “Old Islam,” 175-182.

94 Abdo Alasry interview, Dearborn, 2008.

95 Alasry, interview; Nihad Hamed interview, Farmington Hills, 2005; Abraham, “’American Mosque.’”

96 Alasry, interview.

97 Ibid.

98 Alex Balooly interview, Dearborn Heights, 2008.

99 Alasry, interview; Hamed, interview; Abraham, “’American Mosque.’”

100 Abraham, “’American Mosque.’”

101 See Larry Poston, Islamic Da`wah in the West: Muslim Missionary Activity and the Dynamics of Conversion to Islam(New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

102 Alasry, interview; Abraham, “’American Mosque;’” Howell, “Old Islam.”

103 Quoted in Abraham, “’American Mosque,’” 292.

104 Alasry, interview.

105 Hussein El Haje interview, Dearborn, 2005; Howell, “Old Islam,” 208-217.

106 For a fuller discussion of this cycle, see Andrew Shryock, Nabeel Abraham, and Sally Howell, “The New Order and Its Forgotten Histories,” In Abraham, Howell, and Shryock, eds., Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011), 381-394.

107 Ayse Caglar and Nina Glick Schiller, “Introduction: Migrants and Cities,” in Glick Schiller and Caglar eds., Locating Migration (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 2.

108 Dimitris Papadoulous, Niamh Stevenson, and Vassilis Tsianoa. Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the Twenty-first Century (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 220.

109 Gerd Baumann, The Multicultural Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic, and Religious Identities (New York: Routledge, 1999), 126.

Sally Howell is Associate Professor of History and Arab American Studies at University of Michigan-Dearborn; Email:

© Moise Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies 2015

Copyright (c) 2015 Sally Howell

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies

College of Humanities and Social Sciences


NC State



Exposing Socialist Zionism Panel at Socialism 2017 Conference

Exposing Socialist Zionism Panel at Socialism 2017 Conference
Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine
Chicago, July 7, 2017

Let’s start at the beginning: In the narrative of the oppressed – in this case, the Palestinian narrative — “Israel” is not a place, but a colonial-settler regime. Just as Zimbabwe was never “Rhodesia,” all “Israel” is occupied Palestine, and there is no such thing as “Israel-Palestine.”

Therefore, the “Occupation” is not just the West Bank and Gaza, which have been Israeli-occupied since 1967, but every inch of land stolen by the Zionist state since 1948. In the Palestinian narrative, “Israel” or “Israel proper” are known as 1948 Palestine, or simply ’48. Conversely a free Palestine refers to *all* of Palestine, from the river to the sea, with equal rights for all its inhabitants.

Think: Make Israel Palestine Again.

Against that narrative is “Progressive Except for Palestine” (PEP), which reflects Zionism’s long-term impact on the U.S. left, specifically through the misappropriation and misapplication of  the right of national self-determination, civil rights, even “socialism” itself, to Israeli settler-colonialism, and often linked to the notion of binationalism.

As discussed by Tikva Honig-Parnass and others, this misappropriation was spearheaded by the Histadrut, the Zionist labor federation, which was the Israeli state-in-waiting until 1948, and then ruled the Zionist regime for its first 30 years. Even before that, the social democratic Second International supported Labor Zionism as part of its overall support for imperialism: both the First World War “at home,” and colonialism abroad. Indeed, imperialist regimes like Britain saw Zionism as a way to undermine Bolshevism and the October Revolution of 1917. It’s no surprise that, to this day, the Histadrut is closely aligned with the Second International.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, at the Histadrut’s behest, social democratic garment union leaders in this country enlisted both the AFL and CIO — they were separate federations until 1955 — to loudly demand establishment of a “Jewish state” in Palestine.

This misappropriation of the right to national self-determination and other genuinely-socialist principles was also adopted by the non-Social Democratic left. In the 1920s and 1930s, virtually all communists and socialists had staunchly denounced Zionism as a reactionary, colonial movement. But during the Second World War, Stalin supported a “Jewish state” in Palestine, mainly in the delusional hope of helping Russia replace Britain as the dominant imperial power in the Middle East.

Toward that end, he sent 142,000 displaced Eastern European Jews – willing or not – to displace indigenous Palestinians, organized the necessary two-thirds majority for UN partition in 1947, armed the Zionist militias that carried out the Nakba, and made Russia the first country to recognize the Israeli regime. As U.S. Communist Party chief William Z. Foster boasted in the early 1950s:

“The only true friend of the Jewish people in their fight for national freedom was the Soviet Union, which steadfastly supported the setting-up of the longed-for homeland of the Jews. . . . Eventually, the Jewish masses themselves virtually settled the matter by establishing the Republic of Israel, in May 1948. They then defended their government, arms in hand, against the British-inspired attacks from the neighboring Arab governments. . . . Within the United States. . . . [t]he Communist Party took a very active part in the whole struggle.”

Ironically, some Trotskyists took a virtually identical position. Amidst the Nakba, Hal Draper stated the majority view of the Independent Socialist League: “We not only support the Palestine Jews’ right to self-determination but draw the necessary conclusions from that position: for full recognition of the Jewish state by our own government; for lifting the embargo on arms to Israel; for defense of the Jewish state against the Arab invasion in the present circumstances.”

Now obviously, Draper did not share Stalin’s motives for supporting a Jewish state in Palestine. Rather, his position was rooted in binationalism — the same premise shared by Socialist Zionists of the Hashomer Hatzair — that Jews have an equal right to self-determination in Palestine, including a right to a *separate* state. Jewish and Palestinian workers were to unite for a “socialist” Israel. To put this into perspective, it is like saying that, as communities suffering oppression in Europe, the Boers in apartheid South Africa, or European immigrants in Americas, had the right to a separate — i.e., apartheid — state on stolen indigenous land.

Though common on the left, this premise didn’t go unchallenged. During the 1936-1939 Arab uprising in Palestine, the South African Trotskyists noted that some Marxists had “been swept off their feet by the widespread anti-Semitic wave [in Europe] and have fallen victims to nationalism,” and reminded readers that, “[a] clear, unambiguous stand in support of the colonial people in their struggle against imperialism is the first duty of revolutionary socialism.”

Palestinian Marxists asked how “socialist” were kibbutzes — or “Jewish states” — built on top of the ruins of Palestinian villages like Deir Yassin, site of the most infamous Zionist massacre of the Nakba?

As documented in Black Liberation and Palestine Solidarity, this same position was upheld in the 1960s by Malcolm X, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and others, who condemned not only particular Israeli policies, but Zionism itself. This was based on the understanding that Palestinian oppression — and resistance – was part of the same international system of racism and colonialism inflicted on Black South Africans, Vietnamese, Latin Americans and African Americans. Indeed, in 1973, thousands of Arab and Black workers held a wildcat strike in Detroit to protest UAW support for Israel.

Who defended Israel against these protests? Labor/Left/Socialist Zionists and social democrats, including black moderate civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the Workmen’s Circle – the same “left” forces who jumped on the bandwagon for U.S. and Israeli wars in the wake of 9/11.

However, 9/11 and its immediate aftermath also sparked the first visible labor anti-Zionism since the 1973 UAW wildcats, including New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW) and Labor for Palestine, both co-led by Black radical activists from the 1960s.

And since the most recent Israeli massacre Gaza massacre in 2014, we have seen a small, but growing number of labor bodies standing with Palestine, including the refusal of the dockers in ILWU Local 10 to handle Israeli Zim Line cargo, and the adoption of BDS resolutions by a small but growing number of labor bodies. This has paralleled growing intersectional solidarity from Black4Palestine, the Movement for Black Lives, Labor for Standing Rock, immigrant rights and other grassroots social justice movements in the United States.

That kind of solidarity with Palestinian resistance is the antidote to Socialist Zionism.

Black4Palestine was proud to sign Labor for Palestine’s petition

Black4Palestine was proud to sign Labor for Palestine‘s petition in support of the strike, and which called for US labor organizations and workers movements to support the strike and reiterate a call for continued labor/worker solidarity with Palestine. The strikers demonstrated the power of collective action that we must all embrace.

Through their 40 day hunger strike, the brave prisoners mobilized forces around the country and the world for Palestine. The global labor movement supported the strike from South Africa, Canada, Europe, and Uruguay. Local supporters of the statement included the groups below:

The Movements of Immigrants, Black Lives, Refugees and the Indigenous Talk About the Centrality of Palestine

The Movements of Immigrants, Black Lives, Refugees and the Indigenous Talk About the Centrality of Palestine

The Movements of Immigrants, Black Lives, Refugees and the Indigenous Talk About the Centrality of Palestine



To a standing-room-only crowd of about 75 people, a discussion: “From Palestine to Mexico, All the Walls Have Got to Go” was held on Wednesday, March 22, at 6101 Wilshire Blvd., formerly Johnie’s with the theme, “grassroots movements for human liberation increasingly recognize #Palestinian liberation as a central component of intersectionality (sic),” according the Facebook page of the event.

Also according to the same Facebook page, the event was sponsored by Al-Awda the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, American Indian Movement Southern California, California for Progress, HP Boycott Campaign-Los Angeles, Idle No More L.A., Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, Jewish Voice for Peace-L.A., Labor for Standing Rock, LA4Palestine, and March and Rally Los Angeles.


Karen Pomer, who was the lead event organizer, also according the Facebook page, and who is also with Labor for Standing Rock, said, “If we are missing a few people tonight, it’s because we have hundreds of people that we helped organize along with many other groups outside the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office tonight fighting back against the raids and again protecting the state of California from ICE (U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

To read the Facebook page, which announced the discussion, click here.


Pomer introduced Garik Ruiz.  Ruiz said he’s the North America liaison for the Palestinian BDS Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) National Committee (BNC).  Thus, he works with organizations fighting for human rights for Palestinians against the Israeli state.  Ruiz reported last week the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia released a report for the first time named Israel as “creating a system of apartheid” and asked governments to respond to the BDS campaigns.  Because of pressure from the U.S. and Israel, the U.N. removed the report.  In response, the director resigned rather than withdraw the report.  He also reported the Israeli state had detained prominent Palestinian human rights defender Omar Barghouti placed him under “intense interrogation” to intimidate him and the BDS movement.  Click here to read the the full statement on Barghouti by BNC.

Ruiz then introduced the panelists: Amani Al-Hindi Barakat, who was born in Kuwait and is the National Chairwoman of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right of Return Coalition; Alfredo Gama, who is a member of the Papalotl Brown Berets and an organizer of the recent immigration protests; Nana Gyamfi, who is a member and co-founder of Justice Warriors 4 Black Lives, a network of attorneys and non-attorneys providing legal support for the Movement for Black Lives, including BLMLA; Michael Letwin, who is a New York City public defender, former president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (United Auto Workers Local 2325) and Labor for Standing Rock; Lydia Ponce, who is an organizer with the American Indian Movement and Idle No More of Southern California and an organizer of the No Dakota Access Pipeline protests in Los Angeles; and Ameena Mirza Qazi, who is the Executive Director of the L.A. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, civil rights attorney who has worked on free speech, social and economic justice, discrimination and due process issues.


Barakat characterized herself as a Palestinian-American immigrant and refugee.  She said, “Trump’s win … has been very difficult and exhausting for many of us…. Aside from him (President Trump) bringing us together today, we’re only two months into his administration and we’re already seeing a change in the American landscape….Tens of thousands of citizens across the country have stormed congressional offices and town hall meetings.…We can see today policy flourishing in the larger institutional structure that serve only select few in the American society.  Whether you’re Black, Latino, Native American, LGBQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Queer) or a Muslim, the system excludes you equally….As a Palestinian, I can say with certainty that injustices we face are the same ones our Black, Latino and Native American brothers and sisters have faced for far too long.”


Next was Gama.  He said when he was first asked to speak he was reminded of the Facebook picture, which said, “From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson to Palestine.”  He then explained that Ayotzinapa is “where 43 students went missing, to Ferguson, where Michael Brown was murdered right to Palestine, where … indigenous Palestinians are also being murdered…. We have to understand we are still a colonized people…. The law is not about justice but power…. We are illegal because we are profitable…. We are saying we are here and we are here to stay.”


Gyamfi followed Gama.  She almost immediately said, “It is clear that everyone that’s here is someone who understands that how this system is constructed is completely wrong, that it needs to be destroyed and that we need to build a new world.”  She pointed out the Platform for the Movement for Black Lives in 2016 included support for BDS and Palestinian autonomy because Pan-Africanism and the struggle of the Palestinians are a result of colonialism.  At the end, she said, “We are talking about the onslaught on the freedom, the liberation, the autonomy of indigenous populations and we will win together.”


Letwin followed Gyamfi.  He said the struggle around Palestine is “a beating heart” of intersectionality, which puts Palestine in the center.  Letwin rhetorically asked what the Trump administration means for the movements?  He said while the Trump era is troubling and worrisome, the response, the resistance to it is hopeful.  He pointed out that the policies of the Trump administration that the grassroots movements are responding to are the policies that were part of the Obama administration and all the administrations before it.  Letwin’s last point was that different struggles must include those struggles that have been most marginalized, like the struggles of Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, and Palestine.


Ponce immediately reminded the audience they were on the land of the Tonga people.  She said when we come to these kinds of gatherings and meetings, “we recognize that we are all healing from our historical trauma and that the value of coming together like this is to do it more often.”  Ponce said activists “need to step out of their comfort zone and “just show up” even when it “may not be your thing.”  She added, “For solutions tonight, … is to accept the idea the economic elite has declared war on all of us and has signed a death certificate for earth mother.”


Last to speak on the round was Qazi.  She wasted no words.  She described briefly that the question of Palestine was important to the Middle East South Asian Committee, which is part of the International Committee of the National Lawyers Guild.  She spoke of the Arabic concept of “ummah,” which means community, but also “transcends space and time” and the need to return to that concept that was used before 9/11.  She said, “The United States plays the most active role in oppression of foreign peoples with the suppression of Palestinian rights.”

Ruiz posed some questions to the panel.  First, besides just showing up, are there ways to develop what Ruiz called, “joint struggle.”  Barakat said it was important to learn about each other’s struggles and then participate.  Gama said it was important “to show up but to shut up.”  He said for himself, while he can learn about the Palestinian struggle and stand in solidarity with it, he understood the Palestinians must lead their own struggle.  Gyamfi said issues need to be identified that “we have the same opposing force” and that we understand that we are oppressed and harmed in different ways.  Letwin said one area for potential struggle is to look at “class” and when attempts are made to exclude folks, we need to figure out a way to participate without being silenced, including our own contingents.  Ponce echoed Gama and ended her thoughts with “honor the differences but find the similarities.”  Qazi said it was important to create safe spaces for all of us.  She used a recent example, where it was necessary for the NLG had to boycott a meeting because the Anti-Defamation League (According to the Electronic Intifada, the ADL had been advising universities how to isolate the BDS movement.  Click here to read the Electronic Intifada article.), was participating.  To educate those at the meeting, the NLG sent a letter explaining its decision.

Ruiz posed a second question: what does it mean for us to be supporting Palestinian indigenous resistance, when we are doing that work here on indigenous land and how can we better shape our campaigns and messaging?  Ponce said it was divestment and the need to support the United Nations’ Declaration of Rights for the Indigenous People.

Ruiz posed a third question: how can the Palestine Solidarity Movement in the U.S. do more to support the Movement for Black Lives?  Gyamfi said one way is “to address the anti-blackness within in the Palestinian population.”

ROUND TABLE DISCUSSION: “From Palestine to Mexico, All the Walls Have Got to Go!”


From #BlackLivesMatter to #StandingRock, from#NoBanNoWall to the #InternationalWomensStrike, grassroots movements for human liberation increasingly recognize #Palestinian liberation as a central component of intersectionality.

Join some of the leading representatives from these movements to discuss how we can deepen coalition building and a united front within mushrooming resistance in the Trump era.

WHEN: Wednesday, March 22nd
6:30 PM: Reception with refreshments
7:00 PMRound Table starts promptly

WHERE: Formerly Johnie’s Coffee Shop 
6101 Wilshire Blvd, (at Fairfax) Los Angeles, CA 90048


MODERATOR: Garik Ruiz, the North America Liaison for the Palestinian#BDS National Committee (BNC), the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society. He works with local and national partners throughout North America to support BDS campaigns and be a direct link for local organizers back to the BNC leadership in Palestine. Garik spent 6 months in Palestine at the height of the second Intifada in 2002 and 2003 working with Palestinians resisting the occupation non-violently through the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). LA-based Garik has been deeply involved in local struggles for racial and environmental justice over the years.


Amani Al-Hindi Barakat, Palestinian-American community organizer, refugee born in Kuwait, and originally from the village of Tantoura in the suburbs of Haifa. Currently the National Chair of Al-Awda the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and a board member of the newly launched Palestine Foundation; organizer of many of So-Cal Palestinian Solidarity actions.

Alfredo Gama,
 member Papalotl Brown Berets; undocumented (illegal) youth organizer; organizer of many of the recent large immigration #NoWallNoRaid protests in the Los Angeles area.

Robert Gardnerstudent activist; member of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UCLA, who has been targeted by ultra rightwing Zionists for his activities; a senior studying Political Science, African American Studies, and Urban Planning.

Nana Gyamfi, member and co-founder of Justice Warriors 4 Black Lives, a network of attorneys and non-attorneys dedicated to providing legal support for the Movement for Black Lives, which includes BLMLA; represented all the BLMLA members who were arrested/had court cases/went to trial from 2014 – 2016; will continue to represent BLMLA members who ask for representation. 

Michael Letwin, 
NYC public defender; former president, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW 2325; 1960s-1970s L.A. youth activist (Red Tide); co-founder of New York City Labor Against the War, Labor for Palestine, Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, Labor for Standing Rock.

Lydia Ponce, organizer with American Indian Movement-SoCal; Idle No More LA; lead organizer of all the many #NoDAPL protests in LA.

Ameena Mirza Qazi, Executive Director of the LA chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. A civil rights attorney and activist; she has worked on free speech, social and economic justice, discrimination, First Amendment, equal protection, and procedural due process issues, including #NoWallNoBan.

Al-Awda the Palestine Right to Return Coalition, American Indian Movement (AIM) So-Cal, California for Progress, Idle No More LA, Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, Labor for Standing Rock and LA4Palestine, March and Rally Los Angeles.


An Appeal by Black Americans Against United States Support for the Zionist Government of Israel (NY Times advertisement)