Sunday, February 7, 2021

#The Midwessay: Ron Riekki, The Midwest is the Middle East

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. 

The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

الغرب الأوسط 

I always preferred the term ‘the Great Lakes region’ to the ‘Midwest.’ 

Great. Yup. 

Lakes. Yup. (I know Minnesota has at least a couple.) 

Mid. Well, uhh, . . . 

West. Umm, well . . . 

But come to think of it . . . 

From Mucahit Bilici’s “Muslim Ethnic Comedy: Inversions of Islamophobia”: “the most prominent Muslim comedian in the United States: Azhar Usman” (197). From Chicago. 

Azhar Usman, paraphrasing: “I got pulled over by a cop. True story. He’s like, ‘Where you from?’ I was like, ‘Chicago.’ ‘No, but where you from?’ Same answer, ‘Chicago.’ ‘No, where are you really from?’ ‘Skokie, it’s a northern suburb of Chicago.’” Usman tells this while wearing a Malcolm Little Detroit Red / Malcolm X / El T-shirt. 

Where’s Malcolm X from? 

Born in Omaha. 

Lived in Milwaukee. Lansing and Mason, Michigan. Malcolm, nicknamed Detroit Red. 

Visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. Named assistant minister in Detroit. 

Malcolm X’s famous house-negro/field-negro speech given at MSU, Lansing. 

From the foreword to Muslims in the West, “Increasingly, many will come to realize that the major Muslim communities and cities of the world of Islam include not only Cairo, Damascus, Islamabad, Kuala Lumpur, and Khartoum but also London, Bradford, Paris, Marseilles, New York, Detroit” (Esposito viii). 

Edward E. Curtis is at IUPUI. Curtis’s American Muslim history timeline is almost exclusively a Great Lakes Muslim history—that’s how much Islam is tied to the region, as a matter of fact, with the exception of Bilali Mahomet of Sapelo Island, Georgia, in 1812, all of the timeline entries from the 1800s all the way to 1993 are solely Great Lakes cities/states (in order, as per mentions): New York, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland. 

Islamic Society of North American, headquartered in Indiana. 

Jane Smith, Muslim Faith and Practice, Columbia University Press: “Most Americans, however, remain only vaguely aware of the size and significance of the Muslim community in America” (x). And “perhaps 40 percent of the Muslim community is African American. That number includes followers of Imam W. D. Mohammed [born Hamtramck, Michigan], members of other Sunni organizations, and those who belong to heterodox groups that adhere to some interpretation of Islam, such as Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam [founded by W. D. Mohammed in Detroit]” (xiii). “[A]ffirming the United States as a Christian, Jewish, and Muslim country” (8). 

Examining the figures for Jewish population in North America, one quickly sees that the Midwest/Great Lakes States are the heart of that community outside of Israel. Of the top ten states with the largest Jewish population, four of them are Great Lakes States, three Midwestern. New York has 1.757 million Jews (6.2% of the U.S. population, the most of any state in the U.S.), Illinois is fifth with 298,000 Jews (4% of the U.S. population), Pennsylvania is sixth with 293,000 Jews (3.98% of the U.S. population), and Ohio is tenth with 151,000 Jews (3.6% of the U.S. population). About three million Jews live in the Great Lakes States region (roughly 2,922,800). More than half of the Jews living in the U.S. are in the Great Lakes region of only eight states, so 16% of the states have more than 50% of the Jews. Even more significantly, this means that if we treat Minnesota as a country, it would be tenth in the world for the largest Jewish population, along with Hungary. (Another important factor to consider is that 71.4% of the entire Jewish population of Canada lives in not just two provinces, but within just two cities—Toronto and Montréal.) The importance of the Jews to this region is critical to understand, as is the importance of this region to the Jews. 

The same intensity of population occurs with Muslims in the Great Lakes. One might make an argument about Detroit’s lack of ethno-racial diversity, as does Richie Bernardo in his “2015’s Most & Least Ethno-Racially Diverse Cities” (Bernardo), but where Michigan makes up for this issue, especially in its southeast regions, is in its interreligious diversity. The wealth of Jews in the Great Lakes region is expanded even further when examining Muslim presence with more than a million in the region (1,032,576 according to the Pew report). The Muslim demographic of the U.S. and Canada combined reveal that 51.15% of all of both countries Muslims live in the eight Great Lakes States and two Canadian provinces. Keeping in mind that the Great Lakes States only hold 25% of the countries’ populations, this doubling of the percentages that would be expected shows the strong Jewish and Muslim diversity to the area. A city like Dearborn, formerly the hub of Henry Ford’s antisemitic publications, has now become a symbol of religious diversity, as epitomized in the Huffington Post article “What If America Looked Like Dearborn, Michigan?” which points out that “Arab Americans make up 44% of Dearborn residents” (Stone). 

Like the Muslims of Michigan, the roots of the Jewish presence in the state are strong, rhizomatic, deep. 

The Midwest is the Middle East. 



Ron Riekki’s books include My Ancestors are Reindeer Herders and I Am Melting in Extinction (Apprentice House Press), Posttraumatic (Hoot ‘n’ Waddle), and U.P. (Ghost Road Press). Riekki co-edited Undocumented (Michigan State University Press) and The Many Lives of The Evil Dead (McFarland), and edited The Many Lives of It (McFarland), And Here (MSU Press), Here (MSU Press, Independent Publisher Book Award), and The Way North (Wayne State University Press, Michigan Notable Book). Riekki wrote the short films Thank You for Your Teeth! (2020 Dracula Film Festival Vladutz Trophy) and America (2019 Red Rock Film Festival Audience Award; 2019 Très Court International Film Festival Audience Award and Grand Prix). 

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