In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 6: Why is this Newt Smiling?

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Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Traveling Companion: Rodney Crowell

Events: Eid Celebration with Islamic Leaders; A-OK Detroit Community Serve in Clark Park.

I wanted to visit Detroit’s large Islamic community–the largest, it is said, outside the Middle East and Paris–and we arrived in town at opportune time: at the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of daytime fasting and prayer (an elongated adaptation of the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur), which is celebrated by a feast called the Eid. Happily, Saeed Ahmed Khan, a professor at Wayne State University who was quoted in Bobby Ghosh’s recent Islamophobia cover story, was able to invite me to an Eid being held by Victor Begg, a very successful businessman and one the leaders of Detroit’s Islamic community.

Saeed was raised in a small town north of Detroit; his father is a doctor. “On the night of 9/11, my parents noticed that there was a police squad car in the driveway,” he told me. “My father went out to see what was wrong and the officers said, ‘We thought we’d hang out here tonight. We know you’re family, part of the community, but there are a lot of crazies out there.”

And that has been more the rule than the exception in this heavily Muslim area. Muslims, Christians and Jews live and work together. The Muslims have been–ok, I’ll use the dread term–model immigrants, starting businesses and mosques, clinging to their conservative religious practices (all the women who came to Victor’s house that evening were dressed in hejab, so their hair could not be seen, and colorful shalwar kameezes–most of the guests were immigrants from India and Pakistan). “Businessmen; strong families; conservative religious views–natural Republicans, right?” Saeed told me. “And they were, until recently. Victor still is a Republican.”

Greeting guests at Eid dinner in Detroit, Michigan. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME


You are? I turned to Victor, who was sitting on my other side. “Well, I haven’t changed my registration, but I’m not active anymore,” he said–because of the conservative demagoguery over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, and the would-be Florida Quran burner. “I want you to see something,” he said, reaching into a drawer and showing me pictures of him shaking George W. Bush’s hand, shaking the former Michigan Republican Governor John Engler’s hand. “Ahhh, here’s the one I wanted you to see,” he said and handed me a photo of him shaking hands with Newt Gingrich. “Look at him! He’s so happy to meet us! My wife, Shaheena, was standing there with me, a hejabi woman, and he’s telling us how happy he is that we’re Republicans–and what great Americans we are. And now he’s comparing us to Nazis. Tell me what this is about?”

I don’t understand, either. I’ve known Newt for 20 years and I’ve never known him to be a bigot before. Perhaps it has something to do with politics. It certainly represents a permanent stain on what’s left of his reputation.

One of the problems with hateful demagoguery is that it begets even more hateful demagoguery–and Victor’s Eid was interrupted continually by phone calls from other Muslim leaders: one of their flock was threatening to burn an effigy of the Florida pastor on his front lawn. The media trucks were already there. How was the Muslim community to react? “We finally decided to just ignore it,” Victor said. “Our real statement is going to be tomorrow: On 9/11 you’re going to see hundreds of Muslims joining Jews and Christians in an interfaith effort to do community service in Clark Park and elsewhere. We want to build this country, not destroy it.”

That brings us to this morning. Rodney and I were off having breakfast with Terri Salas Polidori–a reader who’d extended an invitation for me to join her family’s weekly meal at a diner in Dearborn–and some of her co-workers at Statewide Disaster Restoration Co.(I’ll have more about that conversation in a later post). Meanwhile, Peter Van Agtmael, our official trip photographer, had headed over to Clark Park where he found Victor upset: a leader of one of the Christian groups had complained to the organizers about having the Muslim Imam deliver a prayer at the opening ceremony; no such prayer had been scheduled–but the complaint ran precisely counter to the spirit of the morning.

Interfaith community service on the morning of September 11 in Detroit, Michigan. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael- Magnum for TIME


Later, Rodney and I went over to Clark Park where the leaders of the community service project were distraught: Gail Katz, one of the co-leaders, said, “We really wanted to make a statement on 9/11–an interfaith statement that in Detroit we’re about working together to better the community. I mean, if you can do it in Detroit, you should be able to do it anywhere, right? But we’ve had this happen–and yes, the leader of the One by Youth group mentioned that he didn’t want the Imam to deliver a prayer. And now, with all the time and energy we put into getting this organized, if there’s a negative spin on this, it’s going to break my heart.”

I hear you, Gail. All too often we media types focus on the kerfuffle and forget about the good works. And there were significant good works going on in Detroit on this 9/11–Rodney and I drove past several parks where City Year volunteers, Muslims, Christans and a scattering of Jews (who’ll join in greater strength tomorrow after the Sabbath and Rosh Hashonah have ended) were cleaning, painting, laughing and talking. Together.

But the act of ignorance happened, too–and it’s one small example of the sort of injustices that solid citizens like Victor Begg, and several million other Muslims, are experiencing in this country right now. As we were leaving, Rodney and I constructed a conversation between Jesus and Mohammed, watching all this from heaven. “Where did I go wrong, Mo?” Jesus is saying, “Some of my followers didn’t get the ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ bit.” And Mohammed replying, “You think you’ve got problems, Jess? Three words: Osama. Bin. Laden.”

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.

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