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Robert C. Koehler: Diversity in the crosshairs

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“Welcome to Dearborn, America’s Jihad Capital . . .”

No, this is not the official “you are now entering Dearborn, Michigan” sign, at the corner of Michigan and Wyoming avenues, or whatever. This prosperous Detroit suburb — not only the hometown of Henry Ford but my hometown as well, the place where I grew up —which has one of the largest Arab-American populations in North America, was recently the target of a snarky, racist op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal. The above words were its title.

It’s so easy to toss hatred at the chosen enemy of the moment. It’s so easy to dance joyously at the “us vs. them” divide, celebrating the evil of The Other (and thus quietly basking in our own obvious goodness). Evil is external and all we have to do is kill it. This seems to be humanity’s organizing principle. Can we evolve beyond it?

In the wake of the WSJ article, Dearborn’s Mayor Abdullah Hammoud expressed deep concern that it would feed Islamophobia and put the city’s residents in danger, noting that is has “led to an alarming increase in bigoted and Islamophobic rhetoric online targeting the city.” The mayor has increased police patrols around mosques and other places of worship and has called on the Journal to retract the op-ed, written by Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

Stalinsky pushed the usual buttons in response, belittling protests in the city against President Biden’s military support for Israel in its ongoing bombing of Palestine. He asked why the mayor “has allowed support inside Dearborn for U.S.-designated terrorist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran and its leaders and its proxy militias . . .”

Huh? Protests against Israel’s devastation of Palestine — with more than 27,000 civilians killed so far, many thousands of whom are children — have been going on all around the world. But the mayor of Dearborn shouldn’t have “allowed” such protests to occur in his city, much less publicly declared support of “U.S.-designated terrorist groups”?

Murder is murder, on both sides of any war. But conceding the U.S. government the power to designate which organizations are terrorists (and therefore very, very bad) requires a complete mental blackout of the country’s history — its hideous wars merely in recent decades . . . including Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq . . . which have inflicted death and displacement on millions of people. In other words, when you’re certain who the enemy is, facts don’t matter. There’s only one valid point of view. This is the nature of hell.

The point I’m struggling to make here is summed up succinctly by Abed Ayoub, director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He described the WSJ piece as the likely beginning of a media assault on Dearborn and its Arab population, in the midst of the Israeli devastation of Palestine (with U.S. complicity). That is, it could be the first of numerous attempts “to make this community look like ‘the other.’”

The Other! Good vs. Evil. It’s just way too easy. George W. Bush and his Axis of Evil come home, shake hands with Jim Crow. Maybe it’s time to start bombing Dearborn. That, in any case, seems to be the quiet implication of the words in the title of Stalinsky’s column: “America’s Jihad Capital.”

Uh oh. We’d better get rid of it.

As Time Magazine wrote a year ago: “Dearborn is known as the Arab capital of North America for its high concentration of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Yemeni communities, and the city claims the largest American Muslim population per capita, as well as the country’s largest mosque.”

Not only that, the article informs us, when the city entered into labor negotiations with city employees last year, it became the first city in the country “to offer Eid al-Fitr, one of Islam’s major holidays that marks the end of Ramadan, as a paid holiday for city employees” . . . joining “the likes of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Good Friday.”

This is called diversity — indeed, evolving diversity. I grew up in Dearborn in the 1950s and ’60s — when Dearborn was nothing like this at all. It was just a typical white, segregated suburb, with a famously racist mayor known as the George Wallace of the North. My response to this evolving Dearborn is, simply, wow. I couldn’t be prouder.

But the nature of war is always us vs. them — that is to say, us vs. someone. That “someone” becomes the enemy and everything specifically — culturally — associated with it becomes a symbol of evil. And once this has penetrated a society’s collective consciousness, dialogue, respect, and a desire for understanding disappear. They’re replaced with hatred and, eventually (all too often), violence. Read some uncensored American history. We know about this all too well.

So I kneel in honor not simply to the city in which I grew up, but to the way it has changed and evolved. Welcome to Dearborn: An American Diversity Capital.

Robert Koehler ([email protected]), syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound, and his newly released album of recorded poetry and art work, Soul Fragments.

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