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Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 443-462

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Cracking Down on Diaspora:
Arab Detroit and America's "War on Terror"

Sally Howell & Andrew Shryock
University of Michigan

[Note to Readers: This essay was submitted to Anthropological Quarterly on March 14, 2003. Since then, the U.S. has invaded Iraq, deposed Saddam Hussein, and commenced its military occupation of that country. We have decided not to update our arguments, largely because recent events support our original conclusions in ways we had not entirely anticipated. In a brief postscript, we will try to explain how.]


It is hard now to portray Arab Detroit outside the framework provided by the attacks of September 11, 2001. The idea, popular not so long ago, that the Arabs of metropolitan Detroit had finally entered the cultural mainstream, producing U.S. senators (Spencer Abraham) and union bosses (Steve Yokich, President of the UAW) and captains of industry (Jacques Nasser, CEO of Ford), is likely to be dismissed today as wishful thinking. Once hailed as "an immigrant success story," as "the capital of Arab America," the image of Arab Detroit changed within hours of the 9/11 attacks. Suddenly, it was a scene of threat, "divided loyalties," and potential backlash. In the suburb of Dearborn, home to 30,000 Arab Americans, people began, after 9/11, to describe their neighborhoods [End Page 443] as "ghettoes" and "enclaves," a terminology of Otherness that was popular in 19th century newspaper accounts of Detroit's newly arrived immigrants from Mt. Lebanon. Non-Arabs, for their part, began to use terms like "you people" when talking to Arab neighbors, relatives, and friends. In the language of polite society, "you people" is replaced by unctuous, incessant references to "the Muslim American community" or "the Arab American community," a double-edged jargon that effectively subordinates individual citizens to a logic of collective responsibility even as it protects them from accusations of collective guilt. "The 9/11 attacks," Arabs in Detroit tell us, "set us back a hundred years."

The collapse of history is a powerful motif. It captures much of what is happening in Detroit. The Arab community has played a critical role in the development of Detroit's economy and culture throughout the 20th century, and its influence on high politics and everyday life in the Arab homelands—which are linked to Detroit by an irregular flow of money, information, ideas, and people—is so pervasive, so taken-for-granted, that scholars of Arab immigration to the Americas are only now beginning to study it systematically (Khater 2000). As the Bush administration's "War on Terror" expands, however, Arab Detroit's rich history of domestic integration and transnational connection is being truncated, questioned, re-politicized, Americanized, and selectively erased. This radical transformation is rooted in anxiety about boundaries: Arabs and Muslims are clearly "in Detroit," with "us," but their hearts might still be "over there," with "them." The opposition is stark, and unrealistic, yet having it both ways, cultivating an identity that is both "here" and "there"—a sensible option that, in an era of multicultural tolerance, is still possible for many immigrant and ethnic Americans—is no longer a position Arabs in Detroit can easily embrace. The defense of boundaries, we will argue, only accentuates the centrality of the state in placing them; it also points to the moral dimension of boundary maintenance, to "being on the right side" of the line and the law. Rules, regulations, security protocols, and law enforcement technologies are never adequate to the task of moralizing national boundaries. Loyalty to the state (also known as "patriotism") is the affective medium in which proper identity placement is made and measured.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans have been compelled, time and again, to apologize for acts they did not commit, to condemn acts they never condoned, and to openly profess loyalties that, for most U.S. citizens, are merely assumed. Moreover, Arabs in Detroit have been forced to distance themselves from Arab political movements, ideologies, causes, religious organizations, and...


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