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Documentary highlights Arab American community a decade after 9/11

By Kacy Stoddard

Fordsonthemovie dotcom
Players convene on the field in this documentary about Fordson, Michigan. Photo courtesy of fordsonthemovie.com

As the title credits roll, a montage of anti-Muslim radio show conversations are paired with photos of Arab families. “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists have been Muslim” states one talk show host. The documentary “Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football” focuses on the high school football team of Fordson High in Dearborn, Michigan, a predominantly Arab suburb of Detroit. The film primarily highlights how Muslim citizens of Dearborn have dealt with their American-Arab identities post 9/11.

During Detroit’s booming industrial era, many immigrants moved to Detroit, aspiring to attain the American dream. Arab workers brought along their families, which in time created a large community of Arabs in the suburbs of Detroit. Dearborn is the largest Arab population  outside of the Middle East, with 98% of the town’s citizens being of Arab descent and one of its high schools comprised of a 95% Arab student body.

Residents of Dearborn have created a self-described “bubble”, where they are isolated from the diverse, multi-cultural, and often Islamophobic outside world. They feel comfortable within Dearborn because of the strong sense of community and faith and traditions.

Upon graduation, many students either live at home and attend nearby colleges, or return to live at home after college. The director follows many former students, who reflect on how much community and football have meant to them. Families in Dearborn are multi-generational.

After 9/11, much backlash was directed towards Dearborn and schools and businesses received heinous threats. The community was deeply disturbed that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack were Arab, and feared for the safety of their community. The citizens of Dearborn affirm the American dream, yet misconceptions regarding their faith resulted in a few instances of scrutiny for the community. It was personally shocking to hear the threats toward Dearborn. One of Dearborn’s citizens recalls praying that the perpetrators would not be Arab. I do not believe that the citizens of Dearborn are ashamed of their faith, rather they hope for acceptance among Americans.

The film follows  four Fordson High football players, their families and their coach. Many of the players of the Fordson team are third generation players, thus football is a large part of the fabric for the Dearborn community.  The tightness of the their football team is an extension of the importance of unity within Muslim families. This was evident during the month of Ramadan, where the football team was fasting between sunrise and sunset, all the while practicing. Unable to drink water or eat food, the football team would support each other on and off the field.

As Islam is the predominant religion of the students at Fordson High, they experience challenges of balancing church and state. Prior to games, the Fordson football team prays for security, safety and victory. By state education law, the coach must leave the team while they pray. During Islamic holidays, nearly 70% of the student body was absent. Thus, the principal decided to coordinate the academic calendar with Islamic holidays.

The school received harsh backlash from the greater Dearborn community because of this, however the school had not been paid by the Michigan school district since attendance was extremely low during the holidays. It is interesting to observe the challenges faced by religious groups other than Christians, where the United States public school system is most similarly scheduled around Christian religious holidays.

During the film, the director introduces us to one of the player’s brothers, who in 2006 was wrongly accused along with his friend of money laundering to aid terrorism. The two Dearborn men, who had played at Fordson, were in Ohio buying disposable phones to send to the Middle East for profit.  The Walmart employee who sold them the phones assumed that the men were aiding terrorists and alerted the authorities. The story, accusing the men of money laundering to aid terrorism, made national news.

All charges were dropped by the persecutors since they found no evidence. For the Dearborn Muslim community, it was a permanent shift in reality post 9/11 to be constantly  under scrutiny by those outside their community.

The film ends with footage of Fordson High playing their affluent crosstown rival, Dearborn High. The Fordson team was victorious, a feat accomplished after 30 days of Ramadan.

This film sheds light with those who are unfamiliar with Muslim or Arab-American culture. Their culture is not much different than many of our grandparents who immigrated to the United States to chase the American Dream. By watching this film, hopefully viewers will better understand Arab-American culture, and the importance of faith and family for Dearborn Muslims.  

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