Bush spotlights Dearborn

Apr 30, 2003 at 12:00 am

George W. Bush, installed president of the United States, military victor over Saddam Hussein and somewhat worried candidate for re-election, came to Dearborn on Monday, as the press release said, “to discuss the future of a newly liberated Iraq.”

That rings more than a little false, since Our Leader is fond of sneering that he doesn’t depend on “focus groups” to tell him what to do. Naturally, he doesn’t want advice at all, but a photo opportunity.

Ismael Ahmed is arguably Dearborn’s most important Arab-American leader; he is executive director of ACCESS, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

ACCESS probably has done more than any other institution to turn immigrants from the Middle East into people with a stake in this society. But Ahmed wasn’t invited to George Bush’s meetings with the Arab community Monday. Why? Alas, Ish not only has a mind and a mouth of his own, but is — horrors — a Democrat.

Dearborn, incidentally, voted for Bush in the last presidential election, which was fairly unusual for these parts. Bush lost Michigan solidly and this part of the state overwhelmingly, but the presence of Joe Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, on the Democratic ticket clearly cost Al Gore some votes among Arab-Americans.

However, some of those may have begun regretting their votes. The vast majority of Arab-Americans thought the war was a pretty poor idea — and the guessing here is that many of them still feel the same way.

Yes, Saddam is gone, and so are thousands, probably, of Iraqi women and children, whose deaths were ignored by the mainstream media, or at best treated as if they were so many alewives washed up on the beach. Collateral damage — can’t be helped.

“The only ones supporting (the war) really, were Iraqi Shiites, who suffered terribly under Saddam,” Ahmed noted.

Bush operatives were beating the local bushes last week, frantic to turn some up who could be counted on not to rock the boat if they got to meet with the president. There aren’t that many Shia here of Iraqi origin; at most, 15,000, say, out of a Detroit-area Arab-American population than may be as large as 300,000.

But according to Ahmed, who interacts with Shiites every day, even some of them are becoming disillusioned with Bush. The reason why isn’t terribly hard to figure. The liberation is steadily looking more and more like an occupation.

We intend, despite our transparent denials, to have an Iraq that is, if not exactly a puppet, a pliant client state. If you had a nationwide vote in Iraq on what form the next government should take, it seems likely a plurality would choose an Islamic republic.

But Secretary of War (to give the job its original, more honest name) Donald Rumsfeld dropped the veil and vetoed that immediately.

“How would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country? The answer is: That isn’t going to happen,” he said last week.

Still think Dubya really came to Dearborn to find out what local Iraqis-in-exile think about the way their newly conquered province should be run? Well, maybe in part ... but if they are smart, they may think twice about telling him. Word has it that there are still a few cages unoccupied down at Camp X-Ray.

Incidentally, Dearborn — quite apart from all this hoopla — is a fascinating story. What happens to it may show, more clearly than anywhere else in this nation, whether mostly Muslim Arabs and Christians of European origins can coexist in the same city.

Three years ago, demographers estimated that slightly more than one-quarter of Dearborn’s almost 100,000 residents were Arab-Americans. That number has been slowly but steadily increasing, however, not without the inevitable culture clash.

Dearborn isn’t a place where the locals are big on political change. America has had a dozen presidents since World War II began. Dearborn has had only three mayors in all that time: The infamous Orville Hubbard, John O’Reilly and now Mike Guido.

Guido, who is just over halfway to Orvie’s record 34 years in office, is a warm and witty politician who, however, has had a spotty record with regard to the Arab-American community. When he first ran for the job in 1985, his campaign literature talked about the “Arab problem.” Four years ago, he openly criticized the “personal hygiene and habits of cleanliness” of new immigrants.

Nobody thought he was talking about arrivals from Iceland. Two years ago, he was challenged for re-election when, for the first time in Dearborn’s history, an Arab-American, Abel Hammoud, got into the runoff. Guido moderated his rhetoric, courted Arab-American leaders, and won in a nearly 4-1 landslide.

Today, Guido says he is sensitive to the Arab community’s concerns, but thinks the media pay too much attention to Dearborn’s Arab population and their problems and not enough “to the three-quarters of the population who are of other ethnic groups.”

But that is shifting. Kurt Metzger, Wayne State University’s leading demographer, believes Dearborn’s Arab population is bound to steadily increase. “It’s probably 30 percent now, and growing,” he says. Arab arrivals tend to have larger families.

Given that not all are citizens yet, or voters, and that the last election was held in the shadow of Sept. 11, Hammoud may not have done that badly. There is no sign, yet, that non-Arabs are fleeing Dearborn. Indeed, Dearborn’s old-stock population has deeper roots than Detroit’s now-vanished white population ever did.

The real test will come after Dearborn elects, as it surely will, its first Arab mayor. If the Hubbards and O’Reillys and Guidos stay put, and especially if a mayor named something like Tariq Ahmed is someday followed by one named David Good, a pluralistic America as it was supposed to be may really have a chance.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]