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Michigan Town Elects What May Be Nation's First Muslim-Majority City Council

Hamtramck residents have elected a Muslim majority to the city's six-member city council, symbolizing the demographic changes that have transformed the city once known for being a Polish Catholic enclave.

By Niraj Warikoo

Hamtramck residents have elected a Muslim majority to the city's six-member city council, symbolizing the demographic changes that have transformed the city once known for being a Polish Catholic enclave.

In Tuesday's election -- with six candidates running for three seats -- the top three vote-getters were Muslim, while the bottom three were non-Muslim. Two of the Muslim candidates, Anam Miah and Abu Musa, are incumbent city councilmen, while newcomer Saad Almasmari, the top vote-getter, also was elected. The seat of another Muslim incumbent councilman, Mohammed Hassan, was not up for re-election, and incumbent City Councilman Robert Zwolak came in fifth place.

Some believe the city is the first in the U.S. with a Muslim majority on its city council. Four of the six council members will be Muslim: three of them of Bangladeshi descent and one Yemeni.

"Hamtramck has made history," said Hamtramck community leader Bill Meyer. "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."

Councilman Musa, who came in second place, told the Free Press that he will work to represent everyone in the city regardless of background.

"I'm a very good Muslim," said Musa, an immigrant from Bangladesh. "I try my best to pray five times (a day), but when I get elected, every single ethnic votes for me, not (only) the Muslim vote for me, but Christians, every single ethnic group, African-Americans, Polish. I'm a good friend of the Polish."

"I represent every single citizen in Hamtramck," he said. "I'm serving all city of Hamtramck."

Formerly known for its Polish population, Hamtramck is now about 24% Arab (mostly Yemeni); 19% African American; 15% Bangladeshi; 12% Polish; and 6% Yugoslavian (many Bosnian), according to U.S. Census figures.

The percentage of residents who are Muslim is unclear since the U.S. Census does not ask about religion. Estimates of the Muslim population range from one-third to more than one-half of city residents.

Almost all of the Yemeni Americans in Hamtramck are Muslim, while the growing Bangaldeshi-American community in Hamtramck has Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. The city has a Bangladeshi Hindu temple and Bangladeshi mosques.

On Friday, Gov. Rick Snyder attended the opening of Bangla Town, an area that will celebrate Bangladeshi-American culture in Hamtramck and bordering Detroit neighborhoods. About 41% of the city are immigrants, the highest percentage among cities in metro Detroit. Pope John Paul II, who was Polish, visited Hamtramck in 1987; a statue of him commemorating his visit is in a city park.

Three of the Muslims on Hamtramck's City Council are of Bangladeshi descent, while Almasmari is of Yemeni descent. The council's only other Arab-American Muslim in its history was Abdul Algazali, who died in February.

The issue of Islam has sometimes come up in recent years as the Muslim population grows. After contentious debate, the city allowed in 2004 the Muslim call to prayer to be broadcast publicly five times a day from mosques through loudspeakers.

The call to prayer has drawn complaints from residents who say it's loud and intrusive, waking them up early and bothering them. City Council candidate Susan Dunn, who came in fourth place, raised the issue during the campaign, prompting a response from Almasmari during a city council meeting last month.

"We all want to live peacefully and respectfully," he said to the council during the October meeting, according to a video he posted to his Facebook account. "Our special thing is ... the diversity in this town."

Almasmari said the call to prayer "is not as loud as (Dunn) thinks." Moreover, if "we are considering the call to prayer as noise," then so would "the loud music all night long while we are sleeping."

"We as Muslims respect our neighbors and we don't like to bother anybody," he said. "As the Prophet Mohammed said: he who believes in Allah and the last day, let him not harm his neighbors."

Meyer, who is not Muslim, said that Muslims in Hamtramck "have helped bring stability, security and sobriety while lessening the amount of drugs and crime in the city."

(c)2015 the Detroit Free Press

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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