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How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights

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How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights

Oct 03, 2023 | 5:41 am ET
By Steve Neavling
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How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
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Metro Times graphic | Evan Salt

Standing at a microphone inside a packed school board meeting in Dearborn in October 2022, Brian Stone wasn’t sure he’d make it out alive.

The 36-year-old wrote a will, put an emergency contact card in his pocket, and told his partner he loved him.

Behind him, a furious mob of conservative Muslims shouted gay slurs, pumped their fists, and booed.

As a gay man who served his country in the Navy, Stone was not going to stay quiet amid the rising bigotry in his hometown. Hundreds of conservative Muslims and Christians packed Stout Middle School to demand the Dearborn School Board remove six books containing LGBTQ+ content.

Just three days earlier, police had escorted Stone to his car after authorities were forced to shut down a school board meeting when conservative Muslims became unruly.

With the microphone in his hand, Stone turned to the crowd. “Let’s talk about what this really is: You hate gay people,” Stone said, his amplified voice soaring above the boos and jeers. “And it’s obvious because look at how you behave when one gay person speaks.”

Stone found himself at the center of the culture wars that are flaring up at school board meetings nationwide as conservatives demand the removal of LGBTQ+ books.

Among those in attendance were high-profile Michigan Republicans and Moms for Liberty, a self-proclaimed conservative Christian organization that has been designated as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They stood shoulder to shoulder with Muslims, many of them wearing traditional garb, and they collectively chanted, “Protect our children!”

Together, the unlikely allies demanded the removal of books on the gay rights movement and novels with transgender protagonists.

In nearby Hamtramck, where the entire city council and mayor are now Muslim, religious and political leaders are forming a potentially powerful and dangerous new right-wing coalition bent on waging war against “wokeness.” They recently met with Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser for Donald Trump who previously called Islam “a cancer” and defended the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban.

Stone, whose step-mother is Muslim, says Republicans are willing to exploit any group to further its extreme agenda.

“What happened was horrifying and horrible,” Stone says. “This is the kind of extremism that is par for the course for the GOP. Jan. 6 is an example of where they are at now. This riot that occurred in Dearborn shows you they are willing and able to seek the same kind of violence and anti-democratic behavior and transport it to every community in the United States, including ones like Dearborn, which they spent decades defaming.”

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
Hamtramck Mayor Amer Ghalib | Viola Klocko/Detroit Metro Times

From foes to allies

Not long ago, many white conservatives in the U.S. saw Muslims solely through the lens of terrorism, vilifying and scapegoating them in the wake of 9/11.

Now conservative Muslims and white, Christian evangelicals have found common ground in their opposition to shifting gender roles, LGBTQ rights, and secularism. The erstwhile foes, bound by a shared commitment to conservative values, are now pledging to work together to combat sex and gender education in public schools.

But the nascent alliance is propelled by crackpot ideas that public schools are “grooming” and indoctrinating impressionable children. The baseless, misguided belief that children are being “turned” gay or trans is pervasive and fueling extremist ideologies in metro Detroit.

In interviews with Metro Times and during conversations captured on video, Muslim and Christian leaders have repeated false claims that children are being “indoctrinated” by a sinister left-wing agenda.

Hamtramck Mayor Amer Ghalib, for example, says many Muslims parents believe that schools are pushing LGTBQ+ propaganda on students.

“I think the main concern for the Muslim community is their ability to practice their religion and protect their family,” Ghalib, who identifies as a Democrat, tells Metro Times. “They are so worried about influencing their kids in schools and the indoctrination of their kids with the LGBTQ agenda. That’s the main concern. When they found that there is some aggressive implementation of this agenda, that’s when they started raising their concerns.”

In June, Ghalib led a successful campaign to ban the LGBTQ+ Pride flag from public property in Hamtramck. Since then, dozens of Pride flags on private property have been stolen or vandalized, leading to tension in a city that has long celebrated its diversity, nicknamed “The World in Two Square Miles.”

Hamtramck and Dearborn have large Muslim populations that have been growing for the past few decades. The longtime Democratic strongholds are now the target of Republican efforts to recruit Muslims to the faltering state party, which has been hijacked by extremists and election deniers who cast themselves as “anti-woke” warriors.

Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim population in the U.S. By many estimates, nearly half of the nearly 110,000 residents are Muslim.

When news of the LGBTQ+ book controversy reached the Michigan GOP in October 2022, conservative candidates and leaders flocked to the city and joined Muslims in demanding censorship, with some holding homophobic signs at rallies. Among those who attended the rallies and school board meetings were failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, secretary of State nominee Kristina Karamo, attorney general nominee Matt DePerno, state Rep. Matthew Maddock, and his wife Meshawn Maddock, then the co-chair of the Michigan GOP.

“We’ve got some pretty sketchy books in schools, and [Gov. Gretchen Whitmer] made it clear that she thinks it’s funny to make a mockery of this, that these parents’ concerns don’t matter,” Dixon said at a rally. In a gubernatorial debate, Whitmer asked Dixon, “Do you really think books are more dangerous than guns?”

Dixon also pledged to sign a bill banning what she called sexually explicit books.

That same month, Meshawn Maddock 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!”

But not all Muslim leaders are cozying up to Republicans. Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud cited the GOP’s shameful history of denigrating and slandering Muslims.

“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.

Hammoud declined to comment for this story.

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
Hamtramck residents — including former Hamtramck mayor Karen Majewski, second from right — protesting the Trump administration Muslim travel ban. | Steve Neavling/Detroit Metro Times

From attacking Muslims to courting them

Some of the Republicans who gathered in Dearborn have a history of making Islamophobic remarks and surrounding themselves with anti-Muslim zealots. But the far-right reactionaries pushed their Islamophobia aside to score political points ahead of the 2022 election.

Karamo, a conspiracy theorist with a reputation for indulging in Christian nationalism, has described Islam as oppressive and violent. In a 2018 podcast, Karamo and a guest spent more than 50 minutes criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammad, the founder of Islam, whom Karamo called a sexual predator.

“Some of the things Muhammad did teach was it’s OK to rape. It’s OK to have a sex slave,” Karamo said. “People think many folks are just saying these things. It’s really true. He did teach that this type of behavior is permissible.”

In a video in 2018, Karamo said Islam is fundamentally violent.

“Oftentimes the media paints this picture that Islam is a peaceful religion,” Karamo said in a 2018 video. “You can survey Islamic countries and say that is not the case. Name one Islamic country where a religious minority and women aren’t persecuted. I’ll wait.”

The Maddocks also have a history of making anti-Muslim comments and speaking out against Muslim refugees.

In 2017, Meshawn Maddock bragged that she helped “support and promote” an “anti-sharia” rally in Southfield, where demonstrators spread misinformation about radical Islam taking hold in the U.S. The event was hosted by ACT for America, which claims Islamic law is incompatible with Western democracy. The Southern Poverty Law Center described ACT for America as an anti-Muslim hate group.

After a terrorist attack in France in 2015, Matt Maddock spread fear about Muslims in the U.S.

“It’s inevitable the same terror and mayhem will happen here,” Maddock wrote on Facebook. “It’s just a matter of time. They are already here. Pay close attention to how this plays out and their tactics. Tell (Gov. Rick) Snyder we don’t need any more Muslim refugees.”

Dixon also has been critical of Muslims in the past. On her TV show on the far-right media network Real America’s Voice in 2018, Dixon called Hijabs “oppressive garments” and suggested Iranian women are being “murdered by their own family” for marrying without their consent.

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
Matt and Meshawn Maddock at a rally calling for a so-called forensic audit in October 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

One of the Dearborn rallies also featured Tamara D. Carlone, a fear-mongering conservative who was running for a seat on the Michigan State Board of Education. Carlone has repeatedly mocked the Islamic faith and called it anti-American.

In 2019, Carlone blasted training for public school teachers that was designed to dispel misinformation about Muslims.

“It is in the curriculum, the books, the teachers minds, and our kids will be lied to and told Christianity sucks and Islam rules,” Carlone wrote on Facebook.

Using fear-mongering rhetoric that mirrored the propaganda about LGBTQ+ books, Carlone added, “They are going after our innocent kids with you and developing minds on purpose.”

All of those Republicans are zealous supporters of Trump, whose Islamophobia has resonated with voters and galvanized a significant portion of the American electorate. After declaring, “Islam hates us,” Trump instituted a ban targeting travelers from seven Muslim majority countries, prompting chaos in airports and communities like Dearborn and Hamtramck. Democrats joined Muslims to protest what they described as a policy rooted in ignorance and bigotry.

Even as conservatives reach out to Muslims and tone down their venomous rhetoric about Islam, Trump promised at a campaign rally in Iowa in July that he plans to bring back the travel ban.

“When I return to office, the travel ban is coming back even bigger than before and much stronger than before,” Trump said.

Dearborn has long been the target of conspiracy theories peddled by conservatives. In 2015, social media posts that claimed Muslims were marching through the streets in Dearborn in support of the terrorist group ISIS went viral, fueling fear that a radical brand of Islam was taking root in metro Detroit. In fact, the rally was Muslims protesting ISIS, whose goal is to create a state government by sharia, or Islamic law. Muslims were chanting, “No more ISIS in the world!”

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
The Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban prompted protests at airports. | Steve Neavling/Detroit Metro Times

Culture warriors unite

Despite the GOP’s attacks on Islam, conservatives are finding success in recruiting Muslims. In 2018, Whitmer won Dearborn with 70.2% of the vote. Four years later, Whitmer garnered 64% of the vote, compared to Dixon at 34%.

In the eastern part of Dearborn, where a larger share of the Muslims live, Whitmer’s performance was far worse. In 2018, Whitmer received 93% of the vote in the city’s Precinct No. 20, where an estimated 90% of the population is Arab American Muslim. In 2022, Whitmer only garnered 53% of the vote, compared to 46% for Dixon. That’s a nearly 40-point drop in just four years.

Notably, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim to represent Congress in Michigan and a strong advocate of the LGBTQ+ community, won by just four votes in the same precinct, narrowly defeating the Trump-loving Republican candidate Steven Elliot, who attended one of the Dearborn school board meetings.

In numerous other precincts in Dearborn where the majority is Arab and Muslim, support for Democratic candidates significantly declined at similar rates.

Muslim support for conservative politics is nothing new. Before 9/11, American Muslims often voted Republican. In November 2000, George W. Bush visited Dearborn and received 72% of the vote in the south end’s two precincts that are heavily Muslim, handily defeating Al Gore.

Support shifted for Democrats in subsequent elections in response to the anti-Muslim narratives perpetuated by Republicans. In the two south end precincts that voted for Bush, Barack Obama defeated the GOP candidates in 2008 and 2012.

In 2022, 46% of Muslims nationwide identified as Democrats and only 10% considered themselves Republican, according to a survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). Notably, however, about four in 10 Muslims identified as independent, a larger percentage than any other religious group.

“The large politically independent segment among Muslims suggests that many in this community make voting decisions based more on changing policy issues and less along fixed partisan lines, opening an opportunity for both parties to win Muslim support,” ISPU wrote. “It also suggests that many Muslims don’t identify with either party’s platform in full.”

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
Steve Neavling/Detroit Metro Times

How Democrats are losing Muslims

Due to the irreconcilable differences over LGBTQ+ issues, the Muslim electorate could become pivotal for conservative factions that previously vilified Islam.

Dawud Walid, director of the Michigan-chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a pro-Muslim group that has spoken out against LGBTQ+ books, says many Democrats have taken Muslims for granted and are dismissing their serious concerns about “hot-button social issues,” like LGBTQ+ books and transgender bathroom policies.

“We were painted as a homophobic community,” Walid teold the Metro Times. “If people who are progressive continue those kinds of talking points, then Muslims are going to feel alienated. And then there will be people on the right who will seize the moment and capitalize on it because politics in many regards is about capitalizing on the moment.”

Walid emphasizes that Islam is not a monolith, and he’s not convinced that many Muslims are going to swing dramatically to the right and join coalitions with conservatives who have demonized Islam.

“Michigan Muslims are a little more politically sophisticated than many people think,” Walid says. “Just because Muslims have a few issues with social issues doesn’t mean we are going to give our allegiance to the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. I don’t see that happening.”

One of the problems with Democrats, he says, is that their policies of inclusion don’t factor in how Muslims are impacted.

“If people really respect the Muslim community and Muslim votes, one group’s inclusion cannot be to our exclusion,” Walid says. “That’s the big takeaway.”

Like any religious group, the Muslim community is not homogenous and doesn’t share a single, uniform viewpoint. Ani Zonneveld, president of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), a progressive human rights organization, says she has feared the day would come when conservative Muslims would “get in bed” with Republicans because of social issues.

“This is going to become what I call ‘an ugly monster,’” says Zonneveld, an outspoken advocate for gay, bisexual, and transgender Muslims. “Many Muslims have always been homophobic. That hasn’t changed. During the Trump days, the conservative Muslims have used the human rights language as its facade to camouflage their real values so they would be defended by the political left. And the political left bought into that facade.”

Zonneveld’s group has been meeting with progressive Muslims and lawmakers to combat the pivot to the right and the attack on inclusion. To address this issue, MPV is hosting a national conference in New York City on Sept. 30 to “formulate collective strategies and actions, uniting our voices effectively in the pursuit of promoting and upholding human rights values and social justice for all.”

Calling the budding relationship between Republicans and conservative Muslims “a shitshow,” Zonneveld says conservatives have outfought progressives on many issues, giving the GOP an edge in courting Muslims.

“The progressives are sleeping at the wheel and not working in a coordinated, cohesive manner in the way the right has,” she says.

The battle over LGBTQ+ books in the U.S. is going beyond America’s borders. Conservative Muslims across the globe are also joining the fight. In December 2022, the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA) in Saudi Arabia teamed up with Family Watch International in Arizona, an American Christian right-wing organization that falsely claims homosexuality is a mental disorder.

“His Excellency explained that any violation or manipulation of the concept of marriage, which means that sacred natural contract between a man and a woman, leads to the gradual eradication of the human race, and the obvious ensuing destruction and ruin,” IIFA wrote in announcing the global partnership.

Hizb ut-Tahrir America, an extremist group that calls for a global Muslim caliphate governed by Sharia law, announced its support for banning LGBTQ+ books in Dearborn.

“As Muslims, we have a duty to uphold, stand firm, and call others to what is best for them in this life and the life to come,” the news release states. “Allah and his Messenger (peace be upon him) have declared what is appropriate and inappropriate in terms of family structure, sexual relations, rights and wrongs — and the response of the Muslim who has rationally accepted that basis is to only say in response that we hear and we obey — no matter what the pressure, petty partisan politics, or a school board!”

Despite the protests against LGBTQ+ books in Dearborn, school officials declined to remove most of the material from the shelves.

The backlash against LGBTQ+ and racial justice books has been gaining momentum nationwide. In 2022, public and school libraries across the country received a record 1,650 calls to remove books, more than a third of which featured LGBTQ+ content, according to the American Library Association.

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
In Hamtramck, public hearings got tense when the all-Muslim City Council banned LGBTQ+ Pride flags. | Violet Klocko/Detroit Metro Times

Hamtramck’s shifting demographics

In Hamtramck, more than half of the population is believed to be Muslim. In January 2022, Hamtramck became the first city in the U.S. to have an all-Muslim city council.

The demographic shift is momentous. Until 2021, Hamtramck’s mayor has been Polish-American Catholic since the city was incorporated about a century ago. For decades, the city’s population had been predominantly Polish, so much so that the city of 28,000 residents was nicknamed “Little Warsaw.”

But the influx of immigrants, especially people from Yemen and Bangladesh, dramatically reshaped the city’s identity. New restaurants, shops, and mosques have opened up, and city leaders welcomed the newcomers.

At the same time, the city’s LGBTQ+ community grew. The low costs of housing and a vibrant arts and music scene attracted young progressives.

Between 2010 and 2020, Hamtramck’s population rose by 27%, making it the second-fastest growing city in Michigan.

On the surface, at least, Hamtramck appeared to be a postcard of tolerance and diversity.

But tensions between conservative Muslims and progressives began to simmer in the summer of 2021, when then-Mayor Karen Majewski broke a 3-3 city council tie to fly a Pride flag outside of City Hall.

A backlash ensued as conservative Muslims began to complain, saying the flag was an affront to their religion. Mayoral candidate Ghalib, a health care worker and Muslim immigrant from Yemen, made the flag a campaign issue and handily defeated Majewski, a four-term mayor, in November 2021.

In mid-June, the council unanimously banned the Pride flag on city spaces, prompting outrage from the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. At the council meeting, emotions erupted as dozens of supporters and opponents crowded the council chambers and hallways at City Hall to speak out.

“We are not going to sit here and tolerate you guys coming in here and saying, ‘Oh, it’s Pride Month,’” said Hassan Aoun, a Lebanese American and activist based in Dearborn. “If you’re gay, no problem. Be gay by yourself. Don’t sit here and throw it down my throat or anyone’s throat.”

In the three months since the ban, LGBTQ+ residents and allies have reported dozens of instances of vandalism and stolen Pride flags at homes and businesses. Flags have disappeared from the Hamtramck Hostel and Planet Ant Theatre, and people have yelled profanities and homophobic slurs at the businesses and gave them bad ratings online.

Both the businesses have been defiant and are refusing to back down. Planet Ant Theatre hosted a festival called “Alphabet Fest” in July to support the LGBTQ+ community.

At the Hamtramck Hostel, where two Pride flags have been stolen this summer, owner Scott Aaronson is prepared to make an even bigger statement if the thieves come back.

“I got 20 of those flags waiting to go up once they get stolen,” Aaronson tells Metro Times. “I’m going to make them bigger and bigger each time. If I could, I’d love to find one that is big enough to see over Joseph Campau.”

Aaronson says many of his guests come from all over the world, including countries where being gay is illegal.

“We are proud to show that the LGBTQ community is important to us, and they deserve the same rights and protections as everyone else,” Aaronson says.

At The Black Salt, a new Pagan-themed bar in Hamtramck, owner Zooey Ashwood hung a Pride flag on the front and back of her three-story building “to make an outward statement that, despite being in Hamtramck, you are protected and you are included here.” The flags are too high for thieves to steal, but this summer, two masked men pummeled her building with eggs and struck windows near where her baby was sleeping above the bar.

“The eggs hit my kiddo’s windows and could very easily have shattered the windows,” Ashwood says. “It absolutely scared my kiddo. My mom thought we were getting shot at.”

The next day, after she cleaned the messy slime from her building, the culprits returned and threw eggs at her bar and home again.

Ashwood reported the incident to the police, but nothing has come of it. She feels like the city is looking the other way as the LGBTQ+ community comes under attack.

“They banned the flag and then allowed a ton of hate crimes to happen,” Ashwood says. “They motivated an anti-LGBTQ backlash in the community. They didn’t do a thing to make people feel welcome in our community.”

Homes also have been targeted. A 35-year-old gay man, who spoke to Metro Times on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety, says his Pride flag has been stolen and vandalized, and his house has been egged over the past three years. He’s moved the flag inside his home near a window.

“I feel a little bit unsafe because it’s clear my house is being targeted,” he says. “The fact that they keep coming back to my house year after year is concerning.”

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
Over the summer, former Hamtramck mayor Karen Majewski joined a protest where a Pride flag was raised on city property. | Violet Klocko/Detroit Metro Times

Former mayor speaks out

Majewski, the former mayor, doesn’t regret hanging the flag outside City Hall. A long-time LGBTQ+ supporter, Majewski was popular among progressives who came to see Hamtramck as a tolerant and friendly community that embraced its diversity.

Asked if she expected such a strong backlash to the Pride flag outside City Hall, Majewski didn’t mince words.

“Honestly I don’t know that I thought about it. I wouldn’t have given a shit,” Majewski tells Metro Times. “I don’t care if you don’t like it. It was the right thing to do.”

For a mayor who welcomed diversity and the influx of new residents, Majewski says she’s disappointed in the direction of the city, saying she suspects the current leaders are more interested in building a homogenous community than embracing tolerance.

“The folks who are coming here who are not Muslim are coming because they value a diverse community, and yet they are the ones who I think are being pushed out or discouraged from being here, and I think that’s a conscious strategy,” Majewski says. “I hear from people all the time who are coming to me saying, ‘Where do I go? I don’t want to leave, but it’s uncomfortable to stay.’ It’s really maddening.”

Majewski, who was an advocate for the immigrant community during her tenure as mayor, says the current leaders don’t reflect the attitudes of many Muslims, who are still friendly and wave to her on the street.

When Trump passed the travel ban in 2017, Majewski rallied alongside Muslims. She fired back when outsiders made Islamophobic statements. Now she and many others feel like they aren’t welcome in the community.

Earlier this month, the city council abruptly removed Majewski from the city’s Downtown Development Authority.

“There was no reason to remove me from the DDA,” Majewski says. “It was completely retaliatory. It has nothing to do with my community service.”

The city council says Majewski was removed for urging the state to stop sending funds to the city because of its mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community.

In an interview with the Metro Times, Ghalib was soft-spoken and genial. He was born in a village in Yemen and moved to the U.S. when he was 17. He began working in a factory making plastic car parts and later learned English and received medical training.

Ghalib insists that he wants all residents to feel welcome in the city, but says he and other leaders have an obligation to protect children from sexually explicit material and what he considers LGBTQ+ propaganda.

“How can you go and put that flag up, ignoring a majority of the city,” Ghalib asks. “We don’t want to kick anyone out of the city. People here are peaceful. They don’t want violence. Do what you want on private property. No one cares.”

When Hamtramck leaders displayed the Pride flag in 2021, “this was the spark that started the problem in the community,” Ghalib says.

But public opposition to the LGBTQ+ community in Hamtramck began earlier. In June 2008, the city council passed a human rights ordinance by a 6-1 vote. The ordinance extended resident protections to cover sexual orientation and gender equality and expression. It banned discrimination in areas including housing, employment, and the use of public facilities.

That summer, conservative Christians and Muslims teamed up to overturn the ordinance. The Thomas More Law Center and the American Family Association of Michigan launched a successful petition drive to secure a referendum on the November 2008 ballot.

Voters passed the referendum with 55% of the vote.

During the campaign, Asm “Kamal” Rahman, a Bangladeshi American who works for the city of Detroit, outrageously claimed the ordinance could protect people who commit bestiality and said it was “discrimination against people who are non-homosexual.”

Rahman is now a “main adviser” to Ghalib, Majewski says. When asked for comment, Ghalib says in an email that he is friends with Rahman and appointed him to the housing commission.

Ghalib says many people in the community feel like the LGBTQ+ community is forcing its values on others.

“Their attempts to make Hamtramck look like an LGBTQ community is disrespectful to a majority of the community,” Ghalib says. “People are grateful that they can pray and practice their religion. That’s all they want. They don’t want others’ values [forced] on them.”

Saying many residents are “disappointed” with Democrats, who sided with the LGBTQ+ community on the Pride flag controversy, Ghalib agreed to meet with conservatives.

In July, a month after the council banned the Pride flag on public spaces, Ghalib appeared on Dixon’s podcast, despite her past disparaging comments about Muslims. During her gubernatorial campaign, Dixon also was featured at a fundraiser hosted by Carle Higbe, a disgraced conservative activist who resigned from his post in the Trump administration after making racist, anti-Islam remarks.

On the podcast, Ghalib took aim at a group of LGBTQ+ supporters who defiantly displayed a Pride flag over a public sidewalk following the ban, saying “they are acting like a militia.”

During her campaign, Dixon said, “I had a lot of people who said to me, ‘You know, you’re a Christian American and you’re not going to be able to win over the Muslim community.’ And then as the campaign went on, we started to connect with our friends in the Muslim community, and they were like, ‘Look, we believe in policies.’ I mean, we’re, we’re obviously putting our faith aside, but it’s our conservative values that we agree on.”

Ghalib agreed, saying Muslims and Republicans have a lot in common.

“Muslims are conservative,” he said. “They give high value to their faith and their families and their freedom, the three Fs. But I will say they put faith and family first and, and some people will sacrifice some of their freedoms in order to protect their faith and family structure.”

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
Tudor Dixon, GOP nominee for governor campaigns in Brighton on Nov. 4, 2022 | Laina Stebbins

Meeting with far-right conspiracy theorist

Faith, family, and freedom also became the theme of a meeting in Hamtramck in early September between Muslims and Michigan Republican leaders and Flynn, a retired three-star general, Trump loyalist, and conspiracy theorist who has spread fabrications about COVID-19, election fraud, and the indoctrination of children in schools. Flynn, who was convicted for lying to the FBI in 2017 about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, was also a board member of ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “far and away the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.”

Flynn previously said he didn’t believe all cultures are “morally equivalent” and called Islam “a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” that is the product of an inferior culture and has to be “excised.” He also falsely claimed Democrats in Florida voted to impose sharia law at the local and state level and sided with Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

In an interview with Fox News, Flynn said, “I’ve been at war with Islam, or a component of Islam, for the last decade.”

Despite his Islamophobic past and pattern of spreading falsehoods, several dozen Muslim leaders applauded him as he urged them to unite with conservatives to defend traditional conservative values.

Before introducing Flynn, Ghalib said the point of the meeting was to build bridges with the Republican Party and forget about past clashes.

“We are here to strengthen our unity and focus on what unites us and rise above what is trying to divide us,” Ghalib said. “We have so much in common. We are here to open a new page, build new channels of communication. We can learn about each other.”

Bernadette Smith, ethnic vice chair with the Michigan GOP, told the audience that the meeting is a “history maker,” and she framed the clash with Democrats as a battle against evil.

“We don’t want to see the things that the left is trying to put on all of us,” Smith said. “As we join forces together … I think we can take down what the enemy is trying to do to us.”

Flynn, 64, spoke for more than an hour and a half and often complimented Ghalib’s character, saying he’s “really sharp” and has a bright future.

Flynn claimed liberals were indoctrinating children and trying to control “how our children think and how they act.” He falsely claimed the disputed LGBTQ+ books were “pornography.”

“The forces that are against us are very real,” he said. “They will crush you, and they will come down and say this is how you are going to live.”

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn in Clearwater, Fla. on Dec. 20 | Mitch Perry/States Newsroom

Flynn urged the Muslim leaders to act now before it’s too late.

“If we don’t do that, we’re going to lose our country,” Flynn said. “We are this close to having something that is not even recognizable as the United States of America anymore. That has nothing to do with demographics. It’s about the rule of law.”

As preposterous as Flynn’s claims were, no one in the audience questioned the veracity of his allegations when he opened the meeting to the audience. Several Muslims, though, asked about his past statements on Islam and his connections to Trump.

Ahmed Ghanim, co-founder of the Metro Detroit Political Action Network, a group that was created to fight against social, environmental, and racial injustice after Trump was elected, told Flynn that he had organized “protests against [Flynn’s] comments in the past.” But, Ghanim said, Muslims and Republicans are now fighting for a common cause.

“You said all cultures are not morally equivalent. You said Islam was a cancer. In 2015 you said you were at war with Islam for a decade,” Ghanim said. “I don’t expect you to change how you view Islam or Muslims. Working in a coalition is different than loving each other because it’s not a romantic relationship. It’s a political coalition we are forming here.”

Ghanim said he was worried that Trump’s influence will “make Michigan lose the election as what happened last time.”

Flynn then launched into a rant about the 2020 election being rigged.

“If we don’t have a fair election system — and we don’t — I will leave here tonight and you can try to convince me until the cows come home, I don’t believe it,” Flynn said. “I don’t buy that we have fair elections right now. That’s not good. I can’t tell you that 2024 is going to be any better.”

Another Muslim said he abandoned the Democratic Party after “sexually explicit books began to surface.” He pointed out that Whitmer lost votes among Muslims in 2022.

“People went out and voted and wanted to protect our children. They are against the woke identity by all means,” he said. “We are fighting big, big, big, big people who are trying to change the nature of God’s creation of human life.”

Flynn riled up the audience by making false claims that California Gov. Gavin Newsom “wants to put hormone blockers in elementary schools and do so without parents’ permission.”

An audience member interjected, “That’s child abuse.”

When asked what Republicans are doing to combat racism and ease immigration policies so family members in the Middle East can immigrate to the U.S., Flynn spread falsehoods about the southern border, saying “whole prisons and insane asylums are being released” and crossing into the U.S. Without addressing racism, Flynn admitted his response was “a lousy answer to your tough question.”

Flynn arrived at the meeting with Alfie Oakes, a far-right, conspiracy-peddling, anti-vaccine businessman who was at the U.S. Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

Talking to the crowd, Oakes insisted Biden “is controlled by globalists,” claimed COVID-19 was “a sham,” and attacked Black Lives Matter.

Asked by the Metro Times why he’d meet with someone who denigrated Islam, Ghalib says conservative Muslims and Christians want to start over with a shared purpose.

“This was a step to overcome that gap, as they said, and start a new page, focusing on what unites them with the Muslim community,” Ghalib says of the Republicans. “They were talking about family values and faith and freedom.”

In early September, Ghalib and other Muslim leaders refused to march in the Labor Day parade because LGBTQ+ supporters were directly behind them in the procession. In a statement after the parade, Ghalib accused the parade organizers of trying to provoke city leaders.

“Basically, they wanted to destroy our image in front of our supporters by making us look like we were leading the queer group with all those flags flying behind us,” Ghalib said.

The city council’s decision to ban the Pride flag has drawn strong criticism from Democrats and neighboring cities, driving an even bigger wedge between conservative Muslims and liberals.

In a statement, Mayor Mike Duggan proudly said the state’s largest city displays its Pride flag outside city hall.

“The City of Detroit proudly raises our Pride Flag at the start of every Pride Month and allows it to fly throughout the year to show our unwavering support for the LGBTQ+ community and the diversity within,” Duggan said. “It’s the role of city officials to ensure everyone feels welcome in their community, and everyone is welcome here in Detroit.”

Democrats and others said they’re worried that the LGBTQ+ community is once again going to feel alienated and maligned after more than a decade of progress.

“To Hamtramck LGBTQ+ community members and their families — please know that you have many allies throughout the city and state, and that includes me as your state senator,” state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, said. “You are loved, you are welcome, and you are valued. Hamtramck has had a long history of being a place of hope and opportunity for people of all backgrounds.”

About a week after the ban, more than 200 LGBTQ+ supporters rallied outside of Hamtramck City Hall.

“I am not a stranger to you, I am not an agitator, I am your attorney general, and yes, I am also gay,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said. “… I come here today to implore the government of the city of Hamtramck to repeal its resolution to ban the Pride flag. And to instead pledge to love, support and recognize the dignity and the value of all those who live, visit, and do business with Hamtramck.”

Ghalib encouraged Muslims to stay away from the rally, claiming on Facebook that protesters “are trying to create chaos, division and disrupt security in the city.”

The rally was peaceful, and no chaos ensued.

Shiraz Ahmed, a filmmaker and journalist who recently lived in Hamtramck, says Ghalib’s remarks are “pretty off-putting” and that the flag ban is underpinned by a kind of intolerance that Muslims have faced themselves.

“Muslim communities have fought hard, and are still fighting, for our rights to practice our faith freely in the U.S.,” Amed, who has collaborated with local Muslim-run community organizations since 2015, tells Metro Times. “When I was in high school in suburban Texas, locals would host pig races around the sites of potential mosques. I think [Ghalib is] taking some of these hard-earned freedoms for granted given the idiosyncratic nature of his community’s political power in Hamtramck.”

How some Michigan Muslims united with extremist Republicans against LGBTQ+ rights
The protest over Hamtramck banning LGBTQ+ Pride flags on city properties, June 24, 2023 | Viola Klocko

Fighting ignorance

For Jacob Zain, a 23-year-old queer Muslim who moved from Yemen to Hamtramck about 15 years ago, the intolerance toward the LGBTQ+ community is personal and painful. He grew up in a conservative family and described his Muslim upbringing as insular and rigid.

As a child, he was relentlessly bullied in school and called “gay,” even though he had no idea what that meant. His family told him his voice wasn’t deep enough and he didn’t walk the right way.

The conservative customs suffocated his sense of self and hindered his sense of belonging.

And without sex education in school, he grew confused and felt like he was a sinner.

“I didn’t know how to come out,” he tells Metro Times. “I didn’t have sex education my whole life. I thought people slept in the same bed and had babies. They don’t even teach you about sexual things in school.”

When he joined the Army, Zain was seriously injured in 2019. With spinal injuries and a head fracture, Zain questioned how he survived.

“I would often ask myself, ‘Why did God choose to save me when I’m a sinner and ultimately will go to hell?’” Zain recalls.

When Zain finally came out last year, his family was outraged.

“They made a big deal about it,” he says. “They threatened to kill me. They wanted me to get married by December. They said, ‘Now you are going to live under our own terms.’”

Zain has started to think about Islam in a way that is different than he was taught. Despite some of the mainstream teachings, he has discovered there are alternative ways to interpret the Quran. Like many religions, Islam is a diverse faith, and in some Muslim cultures, sexual orientation is not taboo.

“Where you are born and what you are taught as a child stays with you as an adult,” Zain says. “As an adult, I had to reconcile a lot with my religion and what my family said.”

His own research showed him that Islam encompasses a range of beliefs, and not all of them lead to intolerance.

“My own perception of it is, a lot of people are misled into this black-and-white space about what Islam is,” he says. “And they try to justify it by citing specific verses in the Quran. But they don’t look at the theological content.”

He adds, “I had to grow up in this closet for a long time, and I had this mindset that there is only one true way to be a Muslim.”

As Zain tries to heal, he knows his journey won’t be an easy one. And it’s clear that metro Detroit’s communities have a lot of healing to do as well.

This story first ran in the Detroit Metro Times. Follow them: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook Twitter