Conservative Muslims join forces with Christian right on Michigan book bans
Tom Perkins in Dearborn, Michigan
Sun 16 Oct 2022
A recent school board meeting at which about 1,000 people gathered in Dearborn, Michigan, to pressure district officials to censor books with LGBTQ+ themes was in most ways similar to hundreds of other recent book ban hearings across the US.
Speakers alleged the books “promote mental health issues” and “self harm”, while the school district and liberals were seeking to “indoctrinate children”. Gay people, they said, were “creeps and pedohiles”, and gay lifestyles were equated with zoophilia.
“American values and the American way is not child pornography,” one angry parent told the Dearborn public school board.
But the speakers were not the white, rightwing conservative Christians usually behind efforts to censor literature in public schools. Instead, the heated audience was almost all Muslim Arab Americans.
In Dearborn, a city that’s 47% Arab American and reliably Democratic at the polls, some conservative Muslim residents have joined forces with the Christian right to censor literature in the city’s public schools.
Although the right wing in America has frequently vilified Muslims and Islam, the alliance highlights how some deeply socially conservative Arab Americans are willing to put that aside and join in the culture wars. Several parents who spoke with the Guardian insisted the effort had nothing to do with politics and did not answer questions about why they would campaign alongside Donald Trump supporters.
“This has nothing to do with Trump,” Hassan Anoun, a Dearborn schools parent, said, adding that he is a Republican. “We don’t want our kids to be exposed to this. These books should be banned.”
Book ban campaigns have proliferated across the US in part because they reliably stoke conservatives anger toward liberals. A recent American Library Association (ALA) report documented about 1,650 challenges to books made this year through September. The nine-month tally already exceeded the 2021 total.
The challenges typically target books on race and sexuality – about one-third the ALA identified contain LGBTQ+ themes or prominent characters.
The Dearborn hearing was called after a previous meeting on the same topic descended into chaos and was cut short by the school board. Police had to verbally disperse a crowd of largely Arab Americans angered over perceived disrespect from the board, according to reports.
Amid a heavy police presence, the most recent meeting was nearly as chaotic at times. Audience members shouted anti-gay slurs at speakers who opposed banning books or identified as gay, or told them to “sit down and shut up”. At other times, those opposing the book bans shouted at the audience.
Several district teachers and parents charged that the controversy was manufactured by outside political forces seeking to sow divisions.
“Political groups from outside the community are whipping up hate … groups that have a history of embracing anti-Muslim ideology,” said Jason Skidmore, a Dearborn schools parent.
Whether or not the book ban effort started organically, it’s now viewed by Republicans as a political opportunity to drive a social issue wedge into a blue city and voting bloc. Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of the Michigan Republican party, earlier this week tweeted: “Democrats have a BIG problem. Over 800 Muslim and Christian parents showed up to protest the sexualization of their kids in Dearborn Public Schools!”
Meanwhile, at the meeting, Republican Michigan secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo – widely seen as an extremist – admonished the school board for “sexualizing” children, and Matthew DePerno, a Trump-backed candidate for Michigan attorney general, claimed current Democratic attorney general Dana Nessel “wants to put a drag queen in every classroom”.
Mohamed Mousa, a former Dearborn schools student, told the school board to “listen to the majority and don’t put the books on the shelf”.
Several other parents echoed that sentiment, but it’s unclear that the conservative position is held by the majority in Dearborn. Joe Biden won 74% of the 2020 vote, and in the primary the far more progressive Bernie Sanders handily defeated Biden.
Dearborn’s mayor, Abdullah Hammoud, who was among the Michigan state legislature’s most progressive members when he represented Dearborn in the chamber until last year, came out against the ban, as have other prominent community members.
“The same dangerous ideology that once considered people like me ‘a problem’ in Dearborn is now being revived under the guise of preserving ‘liberty’,” Hammoud wrote on social media.
But tension over LGBTQ+ supporters and metro Detroit’s large Muslim community is not new. Nearby Hamtramck holds large Yemeni and Bangladeshi American populations and elected the nation’s first Muslim-majority city council.
The elected officials ignited a controversy when they called for a pride flag raised on a city-owned pole to be taken down. Meanwhile, a gay Muslim teacher in the city is taking legal action against a charter school for allegedly firing him because of his sexuality.
Here and across the country, school officials have been accused of promoting child porn and pedophilia, sometimes to police. The ALA analysis found police reports had been filed against library staff at least 27 times. Stephanie Butler, a Dearborn schools mother who is credited with calling attention to the controversial books, has said she filed a report over one of the works, called This Book Is Gay. Officers on Thursday said they could not confirm the report.
This Book Is Gay is billed as a guide for coming out for LGBTQ+ teens, adressess stereotypes and is among the books most commonly targeted for bans in the US.
At the meeting’s conclusion, Dearborn resident Jackson Wagner stood up and declared that he was gay, and told the audience: “The far right in this country despises us all.
“Dearborn should be a city where everyone knows they’re safe and loved and supported,” he continued. Moments later, boos rained down as he concluded his brief speech, and he was confronted by Anoun, who had to be ordered back to his seat by police.