Ramadan, American Muslims on life in the age of Trump

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The call to prayer bounces off the walls of the Hamtramck Islamic centre, punctuated by the sipping of lemon juice and the chewing of dates. It’s 8.53pm, the sun has set, and around 100 Yemeni-American men and boys sit cross-legged on the carpet, giving thanks and breaking fast for the seventh time this month.“It’s like gaining a new life,” says Arif Huskic, a Bosnian-Muslim interfaith leader who has come to pray here. “In submitting to God we’re testing ourselves.”

A hundred meters down the road, in this small Michigan city’s hottest new restaurant, an alert is sent to Tharia Begum’s iPhone. Her Muslim Pro app informs her group of six Bengali-American girlfriends, all college students in their early 20s, that it’s time to sip chai and demolish the plates of chicken sheesh and tabouli ready and waiting in front of them.“The first day is hard,” says 21-year-old Amina Ahmed. “But the second day, it’s like a boulder’s been dropped on you. It gets easier the deeper you go into the month.”

In one of America’s most rapidly evolving cities, purportedly the first in the country to elect a majority-Muslim city council, Ramadan is observed by an increasingly diverse population. But at a time of deep introspection for Muslims around the world, this year’s month of fast in Hamtramck brings with it both a sense of foreboding and a deeper connection to community as residents grapple with a climate of heightened Islamophobia ushered in by the presidency of Donald Trump.

“Since Trump won, yes we’ve become more alert but it kind of brought our community together,” says 21-year-old Shahria Islam, picking through the last scraps on her plate. “We look out for each other because we know we’re targets.”

At just two square miles, surrounded by the city of Detroit, Hamtramck was once a hub for Polish migrants drawn to the city by manufacturing jobs at the Dodge assembly plant that opened in the 1914. The factory’s closure in 1980 led to a relative exodus of Eastern Europeans who once made up around 75% of the city’s population of over 20,000 residents. An influx of Yemeni and Bangladeshi migrants now make up close to a majority of the population.

The brisk transformation is neatly underscored by the array of shop fronts and local businesses that line the city’s main high street, which stretches for less than a mile. A halal supermarket stands opposite a Polish food store; a hipster cafe showcasing local art is a few doors down from a Bengali clothes shop selling decorative silks and bright hijabs that shimmer in the spring sun. The brick walls are lined with murals, one depicts two covered Muslim women, another an American eagle flexing its wings.

At one hipster cafe, among bookshelves lined with old first editions and neatly stacked art magazines, Saad Almasmari starts his day handing out business cards and pitching his vision for the city to anyone who will listen.

The 31-year-old, who arrived in the US from Yemen in 2009 without a word of English, was elected to the six person city council in 2015, marking the moment the non-partisan body became a Muslim majority. The news sparked uproar among conservative commentators who branded the city in a suite of Islamophobic slurs and suggested Hamtramck was now under Sharia law.

Almasmari, who had campaigned on guaranteeing better funding for public schools and promoting diversity, was taken aback. “I’m just a social person. I love politics and helping people through elected office,” he says raising an eyebrow. “To see how people reacted, it was just sad.”

The ambitious father of three, who runs a local ice cream business to keep his family afloat, is now running for state office, campaigning as he fasts.

“It’s tough,” he says. “You’re knocking on people’s door and they come out and drink coffee or water, while you’re fasting and tired. But you have to smile at people, you have to act as the best person ever in front of the voters, even though you’re not eating for 15 hours.”

Resistance to the Trump administration’s discrimination against Muslims has been fierce among Hamtramck’s mostly liberal, multicultural populace. Thousands took to the streets here when Trump announced his first travel ban in January 2017, which targeted a group of Muslim majority countries. In April, ahead of a supreme court ruling on the ban, over 100 local business here shut down in protest.

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