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Muslims Control Michigan’s ‘Little Warsaw.’ Is It a Hollow Prize?

The small city of Hamtramck used to be a Polish American enclave. In the 21st century, it has morphed into something that couldn’t be further from its past.

Downtown Hamtramck, Mich. (Business View magazine)
Immigrants are playing an active role in the rebuilding of declining inner cities. Often these are small cities long dominated by the white working class. Hamtramck, Mich., may be the prime example. It is said to have the only Muslim-dominated local government in America.

Hamtramck has a population of just over 28,000. In 2013, it became the first Muslim-majority city in the United States. This was quite a transformation for a once-bustling Polish American enclave that was visited by Polish Cardinal (later Pope) Karol Wojtyla back in 1969. Before the election of Arab American health-care worker Amer Ghalib in 2021, all of Hamtramck’s mayors had been Polish since its founding as a city 100 years ago. Born in Yemen, Ghalib came to the U.S. at age 17 with little ability to speak English. Now, at 42, he plans to run this city while working toward becoming a medical doctor. Elected along with Ghalib were three Muslim City Council members. The council has been majority-Muslim since 2015.

Many Americans continue to fear that an influx of immigrants further strains an already strained educational and health-care system, increases the fiscal cost of city government, and creates a heavy dependence on relief programs. However, according to 2018 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workforce participation among foreign-born adults was 65.7 percent, higher than the 62.3 percent rate for the native born. Immigrants work more, rather than less, than the average American.

It’s also been argued that minority mayors inherit a “hollow prize” because they are elected after their cities have experienced significant fiscal declines. This can be said of Hamtramck. Five miles from the center of Detroit, it has a 46.5 percent poverty rate and a median household income of $27,166.

Local Muslim residents have experienced prejudice and discrimination. When Shahab Ahmed ran for the City Council shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, anonymous flyers accused him of being “the 20th hijacker that didn't make it to the airplanes," but two years later he ran again, won and became Hamtramck's first Muslim elected official. Strained police-community relations have also posed problems. In 2016, two men of Yemeni descent filed a civil rights complaint alleging that local police officers falsely accused them of having fake insurance for their ice cream truck and jailing them for two days without food, water and medicine.
Amer Ghalib, mayor of Hamtramck, Mich.

The political gains of Muslims in Hamtramck are part of a natural progression for immigrants who have adapted to life in an American city, gained employment and become active citizens. Some older residents of the city have lamented local demographic changes as the city transformed from its “Little Warsaw” reputation to one with a majority Arab, Asian and Muslim citizenry. As these new groups gain political parity, they must grapple with continuing anti-Muslim attitudes at the same time as they work to enhance their economic well-being.

The center of Hamtramck has been burdened in recent years by empty buildings, crumbling sidewalks and closed factories. But over the past three decades, Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and southeastern Europe have created a bustling society amid the decay. Because of them, Hamtramck has not lost its small-town feel, but it also has new citizens with powerful political voices.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Sharon Wright Austin is a professor of Political Science at the University of Florida where she teaches courses in Asian American politics, African American politics, American politics, and public policy.
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