For most of a week, the United States seemed on the verge of plunging into another war in the Middle East. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to order a hit on powerful Iranian General Qassem Soleimani brought a counterstrike by Tehran on Iraqi bases where Americans are stationed and led to the downing of an airliner carrying dozens of Canadians.
In the first days of a new decade, Americans find themselves at a familiar crossroads: facing the possibility of an overseas conflict that would demand U.S. treasure and sacrifice. In these moments – whether it’s 9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars or the battle against the Islamic State – the country typically rallies around the flag in the early days.
Will that pattern hold in Washington’s confrontation with Iran? It is too early to know for sure. The tea leaves are still swirling in the cup. But for a preliminary read, it makes sense to visit Dearborn, Mich. Few places capture the deep political divisions and growing anxieties about the U.S.'s course in the Middle East like Dearborn – vibrant and diverse, and a short drive from the U.S.-Canada border.
Mr. Trump won Michigan by just 11,000 votes in the 2016 presidential election, giving him a key 16 Electoral College votes. The state’s biggest city, Detroit, is home to tens of thousands of people with roots in the Middle East. Dearborn, a Detroit suburb that is the base of Ford Motor Co., has the highest concentration of Arab Americans of any U.S. city.
The Globe and Mail spent a couple of days there last week talking to community leaders and ordinary people. Tragic news of the downing of the passenger plane by Iran had yet to emerge. Their feelings ran from apprehension to anger to triumphant satisfaction over Mr. Trump’s decision to kill to Gen. Soleimani, who was not a popular figure among many Middle Eastern exiles.
The Globe’s visit began at the Fairlane Town Center mall, a sprawling complex not far from Ford’s famous glass-clad headquarters.
Retired Ford engineer Joe Williams, 68, was hanging out in the food court with three buddies. He worried that Mr. Trump “doesn’t have a plan to get us out of this.” The President, he said, went after the second most important leader in Iran, but had no idea what to do if Iran struck back. He was “completely over his head.”
A few tables over, Danielle Coulter, 24, was sitting with her squirming toddler. She was finding the whole thing frightening. What if Iran bombed the White House – or carried out another attack overseas? She has friends in the armed services and was concerned for their safety. “It’s pretty crazy,” said Ms. Coulter, who works in a call centre. Mr. Trump “shouldn’t have let it go so far.”
At the Iraqi consulate, a 20-minute drive away,Thaddeus Krasinski, 44, saw things differently. He was parading back and forth on the sidewalk with three friends, all of them waving big U.S. flags. They were protesting the consulate’s decision to open up a record of condolences for the “righteous martyrs” who died in Baghdad on Jan. 3 in the U.S. drone attack that killed Gen. Soleimani. Mr. Krasinski said the general was a terrorist, plain and simple. Iran shouldn’t be surprised that the U.S. took him out. “If you mess with the bull, you get the horns.”
Dropping by the consulate to get some paperwork, Huda Khaleel, 56, was equally unmoved. “I am very happy for this attack,” the mother of five said. Gen. Soleimani, she said, did much harm to her home country of Iraq, which she left seven years ago to come to the United States.
Quite a few people in Dearborn feel the same way. The Middle Eastern community here, as in the rest of the U.S., is a mosaic of nationalities and backgrounds. Many families came over generations ago. A good number are Christian. Their views are far from monolithic. Some deplored the attack on Gen. Soleimani. Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, condemned Mr. Trump’s "reckless and dangerous attempt to start a war.”
Others cheered it. More recent immigrants from places such as Syria and Yemen have reason to resent Iran, which helped prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who has been accused of arming Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
But inside the consulate, where he was waiting to see the consul, peace activist Dan Lombardo, 59, said killing the general would only lead to more death. “Murdering the government official of another country is pretty much an act of war,” he said. “Basically, we’re at war now.”
At The Globe’s next stop, the Islamic House of Wisdom, spiritual leader Mohammad Ali Elahi, who is from Iran, greeted visitors in his clerical robes and turban. He did not mince his words. As far as he knew, he said, “No one as crazy, as insane, as disrespectful, as arrogant and to a great extent as ignorant as Donald Trump” had ever served as president of the United States.
The President, he said, had brought shame on the country by threatening to hit Iranian cultural sites and by killing a high government official. “This act did not serve American interests. It did not serve American integrity. It did not serve the American image. In fact, it caused much more anti-Americanism in the region and this bothers us, because we love America.”
Dearborn’s Iranian community is fairly small: about 1,000 families, the imam said. He conceded that by no means all of them share his views. Many Iranian Americans left their homeland to escape the theocratic regime that has ruled since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The next day, The Globe visited the Arab American News, a community newspaper whose publisher, Osama Siblani, is often courted by U.S. politicians. He met his visitors at the door and settled into a leather sofa to hold forth.
“People are scared and intimidated,” he said. Many locals have seen war and conflict in the Middle East up close before seeking refuge in the United States. They know what can happen when confrontations get out of hand. Mr. Trump, he said, is not the right man to stop that from happening. He has no understanding of the Middle East, with its divisions between Saudis and Iranians, Sunnites and Shiites. “He has more experience running beauty pageants.”
Mr. Siblani said the President has brought U.S. credibility to the lowest point he can remember in 40 years of public life. “I’ve never seen anyone as crazy as this guy, except [Moammar] Gadhafi.”
He puts the Arab American population of southeastern Michigan at 350,000 to 400,000. In Dearborn, with its overall population of close to 100,000, 42 per cent of residents are Arab American. Dearborn voted for left-leaning firebrand Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. In the general election, voters favoured Ms. Clinton over Mr. Trump, giving her 63 per cent to his 30 per cent.
Mr. Siblani expects Michigan to be a crucial battleground this election year, and Arab Americans could decide the winner. But Washington’s Middle East policy may not be the determining factor. The veteran publisher said that many want nothing at all to do with U.S. foreign policy or the conflicts that bedevil the countries of their origin. The issues they care about are crime, jobs and education for their children.
As he shows his visitors out, Mr. Sibani suggests they visit a local hookah bar to solicit more opinions. Mango’s stands on Warren Avenue. The main thoroughfare of Arab Dearborn, it features an array of kebab joints, grocery stores, barbers and bakeries. Patrons of Mango’s sit in big booths, pulling on hookah pipes or eating from a wildly eclectic menu that includes not just Arab dishes but sushi, quesadillas and burgers.
Two young women in headscarves sit in a corner booth taking turns sampling the sweet melon and gum mint concoction in their pipe. Sociology student Sarah Thabet, 22, said she found the week’s events “tragic and unnecessary.” Mr. Trump, she said, only struck at Iran to save his political skin. “If there’s a war, Trump gets re-elected.”
Her friend Ciera Gellani, 23, who is studying radiology at a local college, said she first heard about the attack when her phone blew up with alerts about a Third World War that would last for three years. “What is Donald Trump going to do next?” she said. “He is President of the United States of frickin’ America. Why is he saying these things?”
Across the restaurant, Suha Naman, 54, a credit specialist at a local casino, admitted she was quietly cheering the death of the general. Iran, she said, was turning the country of her birth, Iraq, into its violent playground. “What Trump did, bless his heart,” she said. “Two thumbs up to him.”
In a nearby clothing store, Haitham Elallie had a completely opposing view. Of Lebanese background, he immigrated from Sierra Leone in 1984 as an 18-year-old. Now, he helps run Kravat “men’s boutique and tuxedo rentals.” He said that if Mr. Trump claims Gen. Soleimani was such a big threat, “prove it.”
He has seen no such proof so far. He thinks the U.S. has no business in the Middle East. “Whose war are we fighting? Why do we try to impose our views on other people. When is it going to end?”
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