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Michigan city elects first-ever Muslim majority city council

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Paul Sancya

(Read caption) Muslim women walk past the Polish Market in downtown Hamtramck, Mich., Monday, April 19, 2004.

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The city of Hamtramck, an enclave of Detroit, made history this week when it became what is likely the first city in America to elect a Muslim-majority city council.

Historically Polish, the city of about 22,000 voted three Muslim Council candidates onto the six-member panel, one of whom was an incumbent Muslim council member not up for reelection this year. This means that the freshly formed council now has a two-thirds Muslim majority. The mayor, Karen Majewski, is Polish.

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According to Bill Meyer, a Hamtramck community leader who isn’t Muslim, the incumbent Muslim councilmen have accomplished a lot for the city.

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"[They’ve] helped bring stability, security and sobriety while lessening the amount of drugs and crime in the city,” he told the Detroit Free Press.

The election was also a landslide, he added. "The election was far from close, with the three Muslim winners each gaining over 1,000 votes, while the other three candidates garnered less than 700 votes each."

Many believe it’s the first time an American city has elected a Muslim majority city council, though the city itself has been under a similar spotlight before. In 2004, Hamtramck garnered heavy attention when the city council allowed a mosque to broadcast its call to prayer from loudspeakers. Opponents claimed it was an intrusion of Islam into their lives.

At that point, only one city council member was Muslim.  

But Hamtramck’s Muslim population has been steadily growing, thanks to heightened immigration. Today it is estimated that half of Hamtramck is Muslim. According to University of Michigan-Dearborn professor Sally Howell, Hamtramck might have become the first city to have a Muslim majority in 2013.

“The growth is taking place in these Muslim communities, and they are transforming the city scape,” Howell told Washington Post. “It’s become much more visible in the last 15 years.”

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In the early 20th century, Polish immigrants flocked to Hamtramck because of a Dodge Brothers plant built in 1914. By the 1970s, Polish-Catholics made up 90 percent of the city. But Asian and Arab immigrants began to settle there as the Poles moved to the suburbs. Most of them come from Bangladesh and Yemen.

The latest US Census surveys found that Hamtramck is now 24 percent Arab, mostly Yemeni, 19 percent African American, 15 percent Bangladeshi, 12 percent Polish, and 6 percent Yugoslavian. Out of the four new Muslim council members, three are Bangladeshi and one is Yemeni.

Getting to a Muslim majority wasn’t easy. In the past, Muslim candidates have been harassed, accused of terrorism, and some Bangladeshi voters were asked to show proof of citizenship by poll workers.

One of the winners Tuesday is Saad Almasmari, a 28-year-old student who received the highest percentage of votes – 22 percent. He moved to the US in 2009 and two years later, he became a US citizen.

At the end of the day for Hamtramck, he said, it’s not about religious unity.

“Although we are Muslims, it doesn’t have anything to do with serving the community,” Almasmari said. “It’s not about religion. It’s not about Muslim unity. We are planning to work for everyone.”


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