For These Muslim-Americans, the ‘Siege’ Has Not Lifted

At a Teatime for Peace gathering, a program of the Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, people of various faiths talk about their religion openly to help overcome differences and dispel myths.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — In this city of immigrants, as one Moroccan-American called his hometown, the Muslim community keeps a low profile amid the Islamophobia that has reared its head in the United States in recent times. As one of the largest Muslim communities in the country, including a large Palestinian component, the repercussions against Muslims here began right after the attacks of 9/11 and have persisted since.

“Here in Cleveland, the community has been decimated, people deported, an imam was deported,” said M. Isam Zaiem, a Syrian-American who has been living in Cleveland since 1974 and is a founder of the Cleveland and northern Ohio chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or Cair, a national group based in Washington.

“The community hasn’t bounced back since,” Zaiem added, referring to the post-9/11 world.

Now, as the Palestinian Authority’s announcement that it planned to apply for statehood through the United Nations Security Council on Jan. 15 may be fading, the Palestinian population in Cleveland can shrug. The last time the Authority applied for statehood, in September 2011, it failed; seven years later, Palestine was granted observer status by the UN. Its new application — if it happens — coincides with Palestine assuming the leadership of the Group of 77 countries’ caucus for 2019.

Although Cleveland doesn’t appear to track its population by religion, Muslims here say their community is dominated by African-Americans, then Palestinians, followed by other ethnicities, including Senegalese, Syrians, Somalis, Iranians and Yemenis. One local Palestinian activist, Abbas Hamideh, says Palestinians number at least 50,000.

An influx of Palestinians immigrated to Cleveland in 1948, after the Arab-Israeli War and the creation of Israel. Another wave arrived in the 1990s, and a Little Arabia thrives in western Cleveland.

Through interviews with leading Muslim-American men and women in Cleveland in mid-December, one theme resonated: the city remains a tolerant, welcoming place, but people who have immigrated from the Middle East feel they must stay quiet as nationalists in the current White House stoke Islamophobia and as hate crimes have spiked in the country.

As one Clevelander put it, the “constant drumbeat” of such steps as the US banning people from certain Muslim-majority countries has left a wound. Yet the election of two Muslim women to the US Congress this fall has buoyed spirits among some people in this city on Lake Erie.

Bassel Bahra, the office manager for the Islamic Center of Cleveland, said that he and his fellow Muslims are too busy to talk geopolitics as they raise their families, work and attend services at the mosque. The main problem with the Muslim ban, he said, is that “we can’t leave the US as easily as before” to travel outside and return to the country.

For decades, like other post-industrial urban centers in the Midwest, Cleveland has been losing population — it has only 385,000 residents — leaving it with pockets of severe poverty. African-Americans make up the majority of the population, while five percent of residents are foreign-born, with India, Mexico, China and Bhutan topping the list. Refugees have lifted the region, helping it to avert a bigger population loss and strengthening the economy.

On what was called Millionaires’ Row, Euclid Avenue, only three houses, tall brick edifices, remain intact from the manufacturing and railroad heyday of the early 1900s, which featured John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil and other capitalists. The mansions left standing have been turned into commercial or academic use, with some located next to parking lots or near empty storefronts and buildings, soup kitchens, men’s shelters and parts of Cleveland State University.

A vacant granite church advertises the whole building for rent. Yet interspersed in the neglected spaces, a creativity buzzes, with art galleries and studios tucked into former warehouses and factories, a café here and there, art schools for children and a public school dedicated to global affairs.

Farther east on Euclid, the central campus of the Cleveland Clinic takes up many long blocks, catering to an estimated 2.5 million patients nationwide and from abroad. That number includes royalty and elites from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the president of Yemen, has been visiting the clinic regularly since 2011. This fall he stayed for months, rumored to have undergone a heart valve replacement. He may be the legitimate president of his country, enshrined in a Security Council resolution, but he has been exiled in Saudi Arabia since that country and other Gulf states began obliterating Yemen with bombs in March 2015.

The stream of Middle Easterners flowing through the Cleveland Clinic is a minor distraction for Muslims here, particularly the Palestinians. They are still reeling from the US moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this spring. The decision by President Trump was condemned by most members of the UN Security Council, which holds monthly meetings on the Palestine-Israeli “situation,” without resolving the problems.

“Most of the Muslim community is upset,” said Zaiem of Cair, regarding the Jerusalem move, which revealed that the US is “not a neutral broker” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “It should have recused itself from being a broker in the Middle East equation; it should have played honest broker. It’s like having a court proceeding with an opponent whose father is the judge. How can you ever find a fair solution?”

The Jerusalem relocation has worked surprisingly well for Palestinians, in one respect, however.

“Trump’s moves have helped our cause,” said Hamideh, the activist, who heads Al-Awda, a grass-roots coalition that advocates for the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and original lands.

The relocation of the embassy has led an “awakening in the United States on the Palestinian situation, to the persistence of the Palestine people,” Hamideh said. “People are coming out and listening” to the cause of the Palestinians’ right of return through teach-ins at universities, student-justice groups on campuses and via social media, he added.

The interviews for this article occurred just as Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, gave her farewell speech in the Security Council meeting on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

In her speech, which she seemed to relish, she teased the Council by saying she had actually read the Trump administration’s peace plan, although it has not been publicly unveiled.

“I don’t expect anyone to comment on a peace proposal they have not read,” Haley said. “But I have read it. And I will share some thoughts on it now.”

She called it “much longer” than previous US plans and said it contained “much more thoughtful detail.” It brought new elements to the discussion, such as “taking advantage of the new world of technology that we live in.

“There are things in the plan that every party will like, and there are things in the plan that every party will not like. . . . And I assure you there is a lot for both sides to like.”

Still spilling no details, Haley reinforced America’s preference for Israel: “That is an unshakeable bond between our two peoples. And it is that bond — more than anything else — that makes peace possible.”

The Islamic Center of Cleveland, one of the region’s largest mosques, is located in Parma. The center tries to bridge the gap between Muslims and other religious denominations in the city by offering an open house for churches in the area. It also holds a class on Islamophobia.

The overall peace process advocated by the US has been devastating, Zaiem said, citing the “exponential growth” in Israeli settlements, which has made the two-state solution “pretty much impossible.”

Even the UN is not considered a reliable partner for Palestinians. Hamideh of Al-Awda said that Palestinians in Cleveland perceived the UN, which has dedicated entities and internationally binding resolutions on the people’s right to a two-state solution, were “dismayed” by the Trump administration’s financial cuts to Unrwa, the UN organization that supports Palestinian refugees and institutions of daily life in Gaza.

Hamideh’s advocacy on Palestinians’ right of return is sourced to UN Resolution 194, adopted in 1948.

“We like to cite it because it’s international law,” Hamideh said. “At the same time, if you are Palestinian, you know that the UN is actually the entity that created the division of Palestine” — started actually through the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which supported a national home for Jewish people. “So, we have a love-hate relationship” with the UN. The International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, he said, “is a front and sort of assists illegal occupation.”

Yet discussions among Muslims in Cleveland about such topics is hush-hush, they say. What also frustrates Muslim advocates here is that they have a unique understanding of the Muslim world outside the US, but “we’re not consulted, our knowledge is not used,” Zaiem said.

Overt violence against Muslims in Cuyahoga County, of which Cleveland is part, has not risen since 9/11 or the Trump Muslim ban, and people in the area “feel relatively safe,” said Julia Shearson, executive director of the Cair-Cleveland chapter.

But subtle incidents — people saying negative things about Muslims — have been voiced, with Islamophobia increasingly noticed during elections.

The Islamic Center of Cleveland’s mosque, an imposing structure set off from a busy road in Parma, a city near Cleveland, offers a weekly class on Islamophobia. The mosque also holds open houses for the wide variety of churches  — from eastern Orthodox to Protestant and Catholic denominations — throughout Cleveland.

“The challenge with all of this is: our community is so much under pressure, but we are striving to have an impact,” Zaiem added. “We’re a very diverse community with a wealth of experience. Muslim women are very well educated. But we are not in a position to have influence in US policy. Obama listened a little better, Bush [George W.] did some.”

Nevertheless since 9/11, the community, he said, “has been under siege.”

Despite the negativity, Zaiem said he was hopeful, as the Trump administration has “worked up people who do not accept injustices. People are standing up for justice, asking Muslim communities how they can help, what can they do.”

“Occasionally, I feel depressed,” he admitted, his face revealing a patch of sadness, “but if I look at the bigger picture” — Americans becoming more aware and sensitive to the plight of Muslims in the country — “it is going to be very bright and optimistic.”

This article was updated on Jan. 8. 

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