The city of Dearborn has long held a special place for American Muslims. A town first associated with the rise of Ford Motor Co. and long inhospitable to people who were not white or Christian, it has in recent decades been better known as boasting the largest and most diverse Muslim and Arab populations per capita of any U.S. city. It’s also home to the nation’s largest mosque, the Arab American National Museum, and some of the country’s most acclaimed and delicious Middle Eastern cuisine.
Now, at long last, Dearborn has its first Muslim mayor in Abdullah Hammoud, the son
of Lebanese immigrants. The 2021 elections actually saw the election of the first three Muslim mayors in Michigan — Bill Bazzi, 58, of Dearborn Heights and Amer Ghalib, 41, of Hamtramck are the other two — but it’s Hammoud, at 31 already a veteran of two terms in the Michigan House, who emerges as a rising Democratic star and focus of national media attention given Dearborn’s prominence.
“The symbolic capital of Arab America, Dearborn, Michigan, finally has an Arab American mayor to speak on behalf of this unique population,” Sally Howell, director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan Dearborn, told CNN. “Representation matters.”
Hammoud, whose wife was expecting their first child in December, spoke to Hour Detroit days after his easy victory about his plans for his city, the significance of his election, and his intentions to represent more than his own ethnic or religious community. (This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.)
Hour Detroit: When did you decide you were interested in politics?
Abdullah Hammoud: The first campaign I ever worked on was actually 20 years ago. There was a candidate for mayor by the name of Abed Hammoud who ran against then-Mayor [Michael] Guido. That was the year of 9/11, and he was unsuccessful in that endeavor. But I never imagined a career in politics. My first passion was medicine. That didn’t pan out. I got my master’s in public health and got waitlisted for medical school for a few years. In 2015, I was a senior health care strategist for Henry Ford Health System when I lost my brother unexpectedly from a seizure. He was 27 years and nine months young. At that moment, I really reflected on my purpose. A few months later, I decided to pursue a life of public service and try to give back to my community.
You were elected in 2016 to the Legislature where you were, at the time, the only Muslim serving. Did you feel pressure to represent?
That was the election Trump won and, in his first month of office, put forth the ban on travel [to the U.S. by people from several Muslim-majority nations]. Protests at the airport erupted, and there was certainly the pressure that you’re no longer just representative for the city of Dearborn but this burden that you represent all Muslims across the state as the only Muslim in office. I tried to build bridges across various ethnicities and religious people so we would have allies willing to stand up.
Did you run for mayor of Dearborn because it was frustrating to be in the minority in Lansing?
Well, I saw ways in which the mayor’s office could have addressed issues, and that power wasn’t utilized. I pursued the mayor’s office because, yes, we can work without as many roadblocks in place because of the partisan politics and being in a minority in Lansing. I’d rather be an executive of a city that can build an administration that truly delivers and helps improve the quality of life.
What’s first on your agenda?
We have roughly 35,000 homes in Dearborn, and this summer 20,000 experienced some degree of flooding. So that’s top of mind. Be it retention basins or rain gardens, fixing some of our crumbling infrastructure is No. 1. Another major issue is speeding, reckless driving, and car theft. We have one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the whole state with asthma rates three to four times the average. We have high property taxes that are pushing young families out of the city.
Your election is one of many firsts for Muslim Americans in recent years, including the first federal judge, the first Oscar and Emmy winners, the first Muslim women in Congress, and the first Cabinet appointee. Are we seeing a shift in the roles Muslims are pursuing?
You know, for children of immigrants, success was defined financially, so you traditionally pursued the pathways of engineer, lawyer, or doctor. As the Muslim community matures, though, we are branching out to all facets of American society. You need to be in the media, in the arts, in politics. There is this urge to demonstrate that Muslims are as American as anyone else, that we can participate and be a voice not only for Muslims or any ethnic group that we are a part of but for the entirety of the districts that we represent.
Are you surprised it took this long for Dearborn to elect a Muslim mayor?
Dearborn is unique. We’ve only had six mayors in our history, and the last three reigned for a fairly long time. This is the first time in the last 35 years the seat has been open. But our success isn’t tied strictly to just winning the Muslim vote. We won across the whole city.
It’s also a city where, when Muslims first achieved political power on City Council, right-wing activists claimed Dearborn was coming under Sharia law. Did such accusations play a role in the 2021 race?
Not that I experienced. More than anything, my campaign wasn’t about breaking barriers. We never ran to be the first; we ran to be the best with concrete plans, ideas, and solutions to the most challenging issues facing the city.
Were you the target of any Islamophobia during the mayoral campaign?
I’d be lying to say there were no dog whistles that the Arab Muslim candidate will only represent the Arab Muslim community. That’s why we ran on a message about helping working families all throughout the city. That tended to come up often, the idea that we have to demonstrate that we are for all people and not one subset of the community. This town demonstrated we are willing to elect an individual based on the direction they want to lead, no matter the direction in which they pray. That’s a very powerful message.