'Plenty of Misconceptions:' 3 Millennial Muslims in Dearborn Talk About Their Lives

July 18, 2017, 11:10 PM by  Jalal Abdallah

(L) Ali Abazeed, Bilal Baydoun (top right), Mohamed Ghaith

This two-part series on the image and thoughts of Arab Americans ends with comments from three millennial Muslims. Part 1 is a commentary about how Muslims here and nationally tire of defending their patriotism and Americaness.

By Jalal Abdallah

Millennial Muslims in Dearborn represent a new generation of thought. The problem is that the media and the public don't often recognize the diversity in the Arab American community.  

I recently sat down with three local twentysomething Muslims -- Mohamed Ghaith, Bilal Baydoun and Ali Abazeed -- who are a part of a new generation of Arab Americans in Dearborn.

They talk about how their professional careers have been influenced by their growing up as Muslims in this tumultuous era.

Ghaith, Baydoun and Abazeed speak with a level of authentic candidness that’s not considered the norm for young Arab-Muslims from Dearborn. Abazeed and Baydoun both started SAFE (Students Allied For Freedom and Equality) during their time in Ann Arbor --  a non-partisan human rights solidarity organization and was instrumental in both Abazeed and Baydoun’s activism.

Ghaith is a follower of the 1960s civil rights leaders, which led him to work for the Arab Civil Rights League.

Deadline Detroit: Tell me a little about yourselves, your education and your backgrounds.

Mohamed Ghaith: I’m a third year law student at Wayne State University Law School. I work at the Arab Civil Rights League. I was born and raised in Dearborn and have been here my entire life.

Bilal Baydoun: I recently graduated from the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. I want to work in the public sector as a public servant. My primary work and studies focus on how federal policies effect low income communities in the United States, specifically dealing with social mobility or lack of social mobility in these groups. My background has led me to get involved with educational outreach work with younger folks who come for immigrant ethnic backgrounds rooted in the Middle East.

Ali Abazeed: I recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a masters in public health and a masters in public policy. I will be joining the federal government soon as a Presidential Management Fellow, and will be working in the arena of social policy. I want to work specifically with non-white immigrant refugee populations, and the types of barriers they face with health care access, and how health care is a consequence of social policy as a whole within these communities.

DD: What would you would like to accomplish through your work?

Baydoun: What does it mean to have a fair shot at making it? Whatever “making it” means to you: getting into a top college, owning a home, supporting parents through old age, etc. People face incredible barriers as they try to live their best lives, and often those barriers are the result of circumstance rather than choice. I think about this question more than any other, and I’m interested in how we can create a society where your birthplace doesn’t predict your end place. Often, but not always, this will require serious policy intervention.

Abazeed: Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a physician because that’s how I could help people best. But I realize now what I truly wanted then: a life devoted to public service. And my pathway to this lifestyle is public health. In this field, I’ve found an interdisciplinary approach to tackling our most pressing challenges: health care access and quality, declining social mobility, improving educational attainment, and financial stability, all of which influence and are influenced by health directly.

Ghaith: Just to spread awareness about real systemic problems that are out there, social issues like women’s rights, voter discrimination, LGBT rights, health and socio-economic discrepancies in our society. I don’t think there is enough discourse in our community about those issues.

DD: Are there any misconceptions about Muslims that you would like to reverse?

Ghaith: We lost a great Arab-American earlier this week, Jack Shaheen, whose work helped to dispel a lot of stereotypes Arab and Muslim Americans are depicted by in Hollywood. This brings me to my point, there is still work to be done. There are still plenty of misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims in this country. We’re viewed through a particular lens in American popular culture. Our community is narratively connected to an aspect of popular culture that is dangerous and disingenuous, a very small representation that does not tell the true or full context of the story. Hopefully I can reverse this through my civil rights work.

Baydoun: Not really. Look, there a whole lot of misconceptions about Muslims that can have dire implications. But I’m in the world of public policy, where it’s not hyperbolic to say that people’s lives, most of whom you’ll never know, depend on your service. In other words, the stakes are too high and the responsibility too great to frame the terms of my work around people’s misconceptions.

Abazeed: Image matters. Even in subtle ways we think are inconsequential. With the hysteria in mass media, this is the identity that others are most interested in and I get that. But the hysteria is driven by misinformation and frankly, I don’t care to devote my life combating this misrepresentation head-on. I’m the best representation of myself and if I’m the first Muslim folks have met, then perhaps we need to work better to get to know the ‘other.’

Being Muslim is but one part of my identity. I derive a great many inspiration and comfort from my faith, but I believe my faith to be a deeply private practice. There is more that binds us together than how we choose to pray or believe or disbelieve. And if I’m driven solely by reversing misconceptions of my faith through my work, I would be doing my work as a public servant a great disservice.

DD: Are there social attitudes in particular that disturb you and you work to change?

Abazeed: Chief Justice [John] Roberts recently spoke at a commencement address and in unconventional form, wished the graduating class ‘bad luck.’ He said, “I say this so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.”

This pernicious narrative has disturbed me for a long time: That those who succeed do so because of the good decisions they made and those who fail do so because of the poor decisions they made. And I’ll expand a bit on Chief Justice Robert’s comments and remark on the role of privilege.

Whether that be white privilege, male privilege, socioeconomic privilege, heterosexual privilege, able-bodied privilege, and so forth. Privilege isn’t just an abstract made-for-liberal-campus-safe-space-conversational-starter. It operationalizes all parts of our lives, especially in health, and this is where I’d like to work to improve understanding in building a more equitable society.

Baydoun: Yes, the attitude that poor and working-class people are lazy freeloaders is something that has always bothered me. The truth is that increasingly one’s zip code will determine his or her educational attainment, life expectancy, and lifetime earnings, among other outcomes. That seems disturbing enough in an aspirational country like ours.

Ghaith: Right now there is this fascination with the justification of Muslims being Americans, “this is what the daily life of a Muslim is like!” and it is getting way over the top. Why do Muslims have to keep justifying their Americanism? These are important questions that need to be asked.

DD: Is there any new way of thinking that you have immersed yourself in? Does that give you encouragement for future generations?

Baydoun: Absolutely.  I see more Muslim-Americans in my generation dreaming beyond the white coat. We’re realizing the benefits of living in a complex society like the U.S., where a career in public health or public policy or urban planning can be equally or more rewarding than the traditional professions, like medicine. That excites me. Where I grew up, most kids were encouraged to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers. We’re expanding our reach and growing social capital, which means the next generation will have newer and more diverse dreams to chase.

Abazeed: I see more Muslims getting involved in diverse fields, which is really refreshing. For so long, Muslims have been encouraged to pursue ‘safe-and-secure’ fields such as medicine and law. Now, there are folks getting involved in the arts, humanities, and the social sciences, and not solely as a means to medical school, but rather as ends themselves. Empirically speaking, you find that it’s getting harder to move up the social ladder in America. The Muslim community bucks this trend and that’s what social mobility is all about: how we as a community move within and between social strata in society. What’s most important, however, is that we work to replicate what we’ve done well to improve opportunities for all, and not only those with whom we identify.

Ghaith: I love pop culture, so for me it would be movies and music. Specifically, to me they are avenues to tell stories of different situations and people. Martin Scorsese is a director who I think people from my community identify with very easily. His work is very transparent for young Muslims and Arabs in Dearborn because of the generational struggle between old world immigrant parents and new world American kids in terms of identity, religion and social status among your own ethnicity.

So popular culture helped me assimilate more growing up as the son of immigrant parents from Lebanon. Also that song “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones is a song that ushered me into social activism and awareness.

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