October 2011, Volume 14, Number 10
by Michael Daher
Dearborn, Michigan, the home of Henry Ford Community College, hosts the largest contingent population of Arab immigrants in the United States. The Arab-American aura of Dearborn animates everyday life. At the Jiffy Lube shop, as you wait for an oil change, you might catch a glimpse of mechanics in a small side closet worshiping on prayer rugs; at the community center swimming pool, a woman in “modest swim wear” (fully clothed) might be doing the crawl stroke in an adjacent lane, and on the way out of the gym, you might observe a teenage girl scrappily ascending the rock climbing wall in jeans and a hijab (headscarf). While on campus, at a restroom sink, you might encounter a student performing ablutions; at the lunch table, you might overhear chemistry or nursing instructors discussing whether women in abayas or niqabs can effectively perform professional duties in laboratory and clinical settings. As you drive down Michigan Avenue, you will observe that the local McDonald’s restaurant advertises halal offerings, and that, not to be outdone, the Red Star Chinese restaurant posts a message on its window: “We’ve Got Halal.” As you cruise Warren Avenue, most signs will be in English and Arabic, particularly on the "bars-to-bakeries strip." This Dearborn neighborhood borders a crime-ridden sector in Detroit and has been redeemed from urban blight during the past thirty years by application of a Middle Eastern own-your-own-shop entrepreneurship that has packed the street with markets, restaurants, bakeries, and butcher shops.
This community represents a century of various waves of immigration to Dearborn, beginning with blue-collar workers who came in search of jobs at Ford Motor Company headquartered in the city. Unlike the early Middle Eastern Christian immigrant populations that settled in the eastern and northern sections of metropolitan Detroit, the Arab enclave in Dearborn, particularly after 1950, was primarily composed of Muslims. Many were refugees, emigrating principally from Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, but also from Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. Frequently, these recent arrivals were displaced professionals, a trend that continues today. Middle Eastern families will play an increasingly significant role in the future development of the city, as confirmed by the current demographic profile of the Dearborn Public School System, which identifies an Arab-American student population of over 50 percent. This figure is in part a consequence of a national trend in recent immigration to metropolitan Detroit, which between 2002 and 2009 hosted more immigrants from Arab countries than the three other principal urban areas in the country where Arabs tend to settle—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago (Schopmeyer, 2011, p. 58).
Within such a distinctive and dynamic community context, Henry Ford Community College established in 2008 one of the nation’s first degree programs in Arab cultural studies at a two-year college. The Arab Cultural Studies Program (ACSP) provides a liberal arts degree sequence suitable for a major, part of a double major, or a reservoir of electives. Courses include offerings in Arabic language, anthropology, history, political science, sociology, religion, fine arts, geography, science, and English. The multidisciplinary program affords students an academic foundation on which to continue advanced study at major colleges and universities specializing in Arabic language, literature, and cultures. The comprehensive curriculum not only offers the opportunity to develop specific skills, as in translation and foreign language fluency, but also cultivates an informed perspective essential to the practice of public diplomacy within local, national, and international contexts. Students who choose this program as a basis for bachelor or graduate-level degrees in Arab culture may ultimately pursue careers as teachers, journalists, translators, researchers, community organizers, attorneys, Homeland Security professionals, or foreign service officers.
The ACSP views its core mission as the provision of educational opportunities not only to enrolled students but also to the community at large. A thriving network of Arab-American community service and media organizations assist in publicizing ACSP events, as do human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Thus, when Libyan-American poet, Khalid Mattawa, winner of the prestigious 2010 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, conducted a poetry reading/dialogue on campus in the fall of 2010, literature classes, community members, and high school students participated. Like Mattawa, many in the audience had family roots in both the American and Arab worlds. Earlier that year when HFCC alumna Rima Fakih spoke at an ACSP conference on Arab women, the soon-to-be Miss U.S.A. provoked sharp repartee concerning appropriate female demeanor and dress. Her most avid listeners included females from 15 to 70 years of age from various professions. The range of dress among women in the room represented the expanse of perspectives: designer dresses, business suits, and abayas and hijabs.
The community-campus dynamic continued in a more layered format in the 2011 spring conference, “The Challenges and Achievements of Palestinian Women.” Palestinian architect, author, and peace negotiator Suad Amiry, and Canadian author Karen Connelly, who had recently traveled to Palestine to interview women, were the two featured speakers. Separately, they spoke to the college’s composition and creative writing students and to faculty writers from the college and public school system. Together, they addressed students and community members regarding the liberation of Palestine and the social and cultural restrictions placed on Palestinian women. Amiry, whose hometown is Ramallah on the West Bank, provided the insider’s view; Connelly offered a visitor’s and feminist’s first impressions. The March dialogue primed all in attendance for serious reflection on President Obama’s May 2011 address to American Foreign Service officers regarding the significance of the Arab Spring and, in particular, the appropriate parameters for a peace settlement in Palestine.
As the Arab Cultural Studies Program has evolved, it has refined its capacity to address topical issues in a rapid, precise, and organized fashion. For example, when the Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011, stunned the world, the ACSP spontaneously organized a panel discussion, “Liberating Egypt,” which featured an Egyptian professor of Arabic, an HFCC professor of Middle Eastern anthropology, and, via Skype, an area specialist from the United States Institution of Peace in Washington, D.C. The dialogue evolved into an energetic debate regarding the appropriate path to democracy for Egypt and kept a student and community audience engaged for two hours.
Both the successful creation and the sustainability of the Arab Cultural Studies Program can be traced directly to the foresight and prudence of the college’s president and vice president of academic affairs for arts and sciences. Over a number of years, the president has established an excellent working relationship with leaders in the Arab-American community. On campus, the vice president managed a faculty planning committee that affirmed the feasibility of an Arab Cultural Studies Program, proposed a program structure, and designated 2008-2009 as the start year. Following the committee’s recommendations, the vice president appointed an ACSP council of 12 members from across the disciplines. The council was charged with selecting a program director, who reports to the vice president. The ACSP director convenes the council each semester to identify program objectives, evaluate achievements, and propose initiatives. The council constitutes the core of the program’s talent pool—scholars and artists whose acumen propels projects to fruition. The prominent research and creative endeavor of this group have been manifested by the recent publication of anthropology professor Nabeel Abraham’s, Arab Detroit 9/11; English Language Institute director Mary Assel’s, 25 Icons of Peace in the Qur’an; and Arabic professor Talaat Pasha’s forthcoming, Islamists in the Headlines, as well as by art professor Hashim Al-Tawil’s Institute of Nantes exhibit, Images and Words. The council collectively brings to its enterprises decades of experience living and working in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Syria, and Palestine.
The framework has facilitated effective collaborative work with a number of governmental agencies and private endowments. For example, the director's participation in a 2009 United States Institute of Peace (USIP) seminar led to a USIP collaborating with HFCC in the design and facilitation of “Teaching Conflict Resolution in Dearborn, Michigan: Considerations in an Arab American Cultural Context,” a 2010 conference for students and community members. Later that year, ACSP and the Detroit Institute of Arts cosponsored speaking engagements at the museum and the college by Harvard physicist Peter Lu on “Modern Math in Medieval Islamic Architecture.” In the past several years, U.S. study-abroad programs have seen a 60 percent increase in enrollment by American students in Arab World educational institutions, and the director's participation in seminar for American college faculty, funded by the State Department and conducted in Jerusalem and the West Bank, has led to collaboration with Palestinian colleges in the development of a study-abroad option for HFCC students. Collaboration between ACSP and the Palestinian American Research Association in Washington, D.C., led to funding from the Carnegie Foundation for a specialist scholar to visit Dearborn for a series of campus and community lectures on “The Intersection of Islam, Politics, and Palestine.” None of these projects has depended on massive financial outlays by the college. The combined visions and savvy of faculty and administrators have generated presentations at the college by world-class organizations and scholars on the most pressing and complex contemporary social and political issues. Furthermore, these campus events have generated sustainable human and media resources that have been integrated into the Arab Cultural Studies Program’s curricula.
A 21st Century Lyceum
The Arab Cultural Studies movement draws on the principles of an inventive American tradition in learning—the lyceum movement promoted by American transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In direct opposition to the escalating nativism of their times, Emerson and Thoreau successfully promoted learning within the context of a lyceum that (1) explored the complexities, distinctness, and commonalities of diverse cultures, with a concentration on Asian perspectives; and (2) perceived schooling as part of a broad process of community education. The ACSP, like Thoreau and Emerson, sees the fusion of community and academic education as a means by which to undermine the capacity of schooling to enhance class divisions. In an era of incredibly expanding class cleavages, we hope to graduate noble men and women—not a postmodern equivalent to noblemen and noblewomen.
Consequently, the annual fall film festival, Middle Eastern Visions, designed by the ACSP plays to both the community and the curriculum. Documentary films such as Remnants of War, feature films such as Dunya: Kiss Me Not on the Eyes, and films promoting nonviolent peace movements such as Encounter Point and Little Town of Bethlehem are first publically screened on campus free of charge. When appropriate educational rights have been secured, the films—18 so far—become available to faculty and students in the college library, with resource material and suggested writing assignments provided on the ACSP website. This dimensionality—a town-and-gown based pursuit of the liberal arts—characterizes all ACSP events.
To encourage active community participation in the film festival, the ACSP schedules festival features throughout a semester, complementing film screenings with audience discussions. Featured in the 2010 festival, for example, was the film biography, American Radical, a portrait of the controversial political scientist Norman Finkelstein. After the screening, Finkelstein himself spoke to an audience of 200 students and community members regarding the prospects for peace between Palestine and Israel. Although he had established his reputation as an articulate Jewish spokesperson for support of Palestinian human rights in works such as his recent This Time We Went Too Far, his professor’s instincts inspired him on this occasion to generate an animated dialogue among the largely Arab-American audience by stating in detail not only the Palestinian but also the Israeli perspectives regarding the question and dilemma of Palestine. The resulting spirited three-hour discussion, led by Finkelstein, ended only when the event’s organizer diplomatically ushered the guest speaker off the stage so he would not miss his plane.
Admonition and Advocacy
From its inception, the Arab Cultural Studies Program has drawn obstructive criticism as well as politically inspired support. During the project’s initial stages, a small contingency of faculty insisted that despite the demographic uniqueness of Dearborn, the program had no valid social or intellectual rationale and was “unnecessary.” Other faculty protested that such a program would divert from the main mission of the 21st century community college, which in their view was to concentrate all available resources, at least in the liberal arts, on “developmental education.” By contrast, some community organizations with principally activist, as opposed to educational, objectives, proposed extensive collaboration with the ACSP—looking to secure college credit as well as financial support for their programs. Careful administrative decisions have overcome opposition to the creation and functioning of the program, while diplomatic dialogue conducted by the director and council members has recognized the legitimacy of political activists in their particular arenas while maintaining the Arab Cultural Studies Program’s educational independence and integrity. However, these two points of stress—too little and too much support—will not simply dissipate. They constitute the price of innovation, the reason why the cutting edge is incisive and precarious.
Some commentators have insisted that the events of the last decade, particularly since 9/11, clearly demonstrate the principal international dynamic of the 21st century to be a “clash of civilizations.” This conviction has inspired provocative cultural policies and declarations in a number of settings. The Swiss have banned the construction of minarets (Cumming-Bruce, 2009; Kimmelman, 2010). The French have forbidden the wearing of headscarves by girls in public schools and banned other forms of female Muslim dress in public places (Scott, 2007; Sociolino, 2011). Germans have bestowed celebrity status on a banker-author who has denounced the “dumbing down” of the nation by Muslim immigrants (Slackman, 2010). Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik explicitly cited such rhetoric as inspirational in the composition of his 1,500-page manifesto excoriating what he perceived as the twin scourges of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration (Erlanger, 2011). Americans in 35 states, the most hostile of whom are also quoted in Breivik’s manifesto, have opposed and obstructed the construction of mosques and in New York City have fiercely resisted the opening of the so-called “ground-zero” mosque, an edifice which is neither located at ground zero nor, in essence, a mosque (Barnard, 2011; Haberman, 2010; Shane, 2011). Dearborn, Michigan, has seen an extremist Qur’an burning, and a Christian pastor from Florida has made a number of visits with the explicit purpose of publicly denouncing Islam in the center of Muslim neighborhoods (Brand-Williams, 2011; Heraty, 2011; Pepper, April 2011; Pepper, May 2011; Mail Foreign Service, 2010).
For National Endowment of the Humanities Director Jim Leach, the notion that the Arab world must be isolated or purged represents a regression to the Dark Ages. In a “Bridging Cultures” initiative, NEH has generated nearly 100 projects dedicated to identifying Arab and Muslim contributions to world culture, a program that seeks to cultivate mutual respect between the United States and the 1.2 billion Muslims around the globe of various ethnic and national affiliations. The example of NEH, mirrored in cultural projects sponsored by government entities such as the United States Institute of Peace, the Fulbright Endowment, and the Peace Corps, as well as private agencies such as the Carnegie Foundation, offers a political and ethical alternative to the “clash of civilizations” ideology. This framework, which recognizes the heritage of the Arab world as a foundation of a cosmopolitan civilization, serves as the intellectual rationale of the Arab Cultural Studies two-year degree program at Henry Ford Community College.
Barnard, Anne. “After Uproar, Developers of Islamic Center Near Ground Zero Try a New Strategy,” New York Times, August 2, 2011.
Brand-Williams, Oralandar et al. “Stand-off with Protesters Cancels Jones’ Visit to Arab Fest,” The Detroit News, June 17, 2011.
Cumming-Bruce, Nick and Steven Erlanger. “Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques,”
New York Times, November 30, 2009.
Erlanger, Steven and Scott Shane. “Manifesto Shows Plan of Attack, Fear of Islam,” New York Times, July 24, 2011.
Haberman, Clyde. “In Islamic Center Fight, Lessons in Prepositions and Fear-Mongering,” New York Times, July 26, 2010.
Heraty, Daniel. “Controversial Pastor Returns,” Dearborn Times-Herald, May 4, 2011.
Kimmelman, Michael. “When Fear Turns Graphic,” New York Times, January 17, 2010.
Pepper, J. Patrick. “Terry Jones to be Here Again on Friday,” Dearborn Press & Guide, April 27, 2011.
Mail Foreign Service. “White House warning to extremist pastor who says he WILL burn the Koran on September 11,” Mail Online, September 8, 2010. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1309949/Pastor-Terry-Jones-WILL-burn-Koran-9-11-despite-White-House-warning.html
Pepper, J. Patrick. “Jones Elicits Response from Counter-Protesters,” Dearborn Press & Guide, May 4, 2011.
Obama, Barack. “Barack Obama’s Speech on Middle East—Full Transcript,” The Guardian, May 19, 2011.
Schopmeyer, Kim. “Arab Detroit after 9/11: A Changing Demographic Portrait,” Arab Detroit 9/11, eds. Nabeel Abraham, Sally Howell, Andrew Shryock, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011.
Scott, Joan Wallach. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Shane, Scott. “Killings Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.,” New York Times, July 25, 2011.
Slackman, Michael. “Book Sets Off Immigration Debate in Germany,” New York Times September 2, 2010.
Sociolino, Elaine. “The French, the Veil, and the Look,” New York Times, April 17, 2011.
Stelter, Brian. “Al Jazeera English Arrives on New York Cable Outlet,” New York Times, August 1, 2011.
Michael Daher is director of the Arab Cultural Studies Program at Henry Ford Community College.
Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.