Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Muslim candidates band together in Michigan

July 30, 2018 at 7:31 PM

Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidates, from left, Shri Thanedar, Gretchen Whitmer and Abdul El-Sayed take part in their first debate, on June 20 in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Michael Buck/WOOD-TV8/AP)

DEARBORN, Mich. — The crowd at the first #MyMuslimVote rally was bigger than it looked, a few hundred people clustered on one side of a soccer pitch. The attendees had spent the afternoon getting henna tattoos, sampling from food vendors and registering to vote — often under the watchful eye of candidates who want their support.

It had a low-key feel, until speakers took the stage and began explaining the stakes of the 2018 midterm election. Linda Sarsour, a co-founder of the national Women’s March, reminded the crowd that two Muslim women are running in winnable congressional primaries, and a Muslim man has a shot at being elected governor.

“I don’t want you to think that you guys are just one state, one people,” Sarsour said, as several security guards looked on. “People across this country — immigrants, undocumented people, black people, people who feel intimidated and silenced, you have an opportunity to show those people that democracy still works in America.”

On Aug. 7, Michigan Democrats will vote in primaries that have become, simultaneously, tests of the party’s progressive insurgency and tests of whether Muslim candidates can win.

Former state legislator Rashida Tlaib and Obama administration official Fayrouz Saad are competing for a deep-blue seat in Detroit and a GOP-leaning seat in the suburbs. Abdul El-Sayed, 33, a gubernatorial candidate backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has leaned into identity to explain why the party’s establishment is afraid of him.

“They say: Abdul, you’re a little bit young. You’re a little bit brown. You’re a little bit Muslim,” El-Sayed says in his stump speech.

Each candidate, as well as some progressive challengers down the ballot, is working to mobilize an electorate that swung decisively toward Democrats after 2001, but has struggled for representation. Two states — Indiana and Minnesota — have sent Muslims to Congress. Michigan, with at least 115,000 Muslims registered as Democrats, has not.

“If we’re going to be real, we come from a legacy of oppression,” Mohamed Gula, the executive director of Emerge USA, said at a weekend conference of Muslims in Dearborn.

All of this year’s Muslim Democrats in Detroit are running to the left. Dearborn broke for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, as the senator won an upset victory. But in the general election, the overall vote in Wayne County fell by 35,417 compared with 2012 — more than three times as large as the overall margin by which Hillary Clinton lost the state.

Abraham Aiyash, a Democrat running for state Senate this year from Wayne County, said that he saw some of that falloff himself. It wasn’t just that some Muslim voters were skeptical of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state — it was that “they didn’t think Trump could win.” The cold splash of reality that came that year had galvanized Muslim voters, he said; his campaign had registered more than 1,500 voters alone.

On Saturday, Aiyash campaigned alongside El-Sayed, whose campaign has made his religion and his roots — he frequently talks of “my father’s native Egypt” — a selling point. Last year, when he began his long-shot bid, much of the attention that came his way focused on Michigan’s opportunity to elect a Muslim governor. El-Sayed was called “the man running to be US’s first Muslim governor” by Al Jazeera, while Politico asked whether the Midwest was “ready for a governor named Abdul.”

El-Sayed has also suggested his faith has kept Democrats away from his campaign — which promises statewide single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage and rural broadband. In an interview Monday night on HBO’s “Vice News Tonight,” El-Sayed makes some of the points he made in a recent conversation with The Washington Post, that party elites warned that his religion would make him unelectable.

“I literally had, I had, let’s just say, very powerful people who call a lot of shots in the party sit me down and say: We think you’re great,” El-Sayed told Vice. “You just, you know, it’s not that we’re racist. It’s just that we think people outside of Southeast Michigan are racist and so you can’t win.”

In the race’s final weeks, El-Sayed has received far more media attention than the longtime front-runner, Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senate leader who would be Michigan’s second female governor. On Saturday and Sunday, a large group of reporters, national and international, followed El-Sayed and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate in New York, to rallies and speeches across Michigan, where both made the argument that party elites had been wrong about who could and could not win.

This “isn’t the year that we get our first Muslim woman to Congress — it’s the year that we get our first class of Muslim women,” Ocasio-Cortez said in Dearborn.

But at one press scrum, in Detroit, a reporter tossed El-Sayed a question about U.S. policy in the Middle East, and he demurred. “I’m running for governor of Michigan,” he said. Saad and Tlaib, the candidates for Congress, have eagerly engaged on those questions — especially Tlaib, who would join Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) as the second Palestinian American in Congress. At a forum at a Detroit synagogue on Friday night, she told Jewish voters that she wants more integration between Jews and Muslims in Israel.

“We need to be much more honest about the fact that the walls are not working,” Tlaib said in an interview. “We need to be honest about the dehumanization on both sides, frankly. And more importantly, we need to be not choosing a side. What I bring to the table, growing up in a Palestinian American household, and coming to Detroit, is an understanding that there’s so much comparison between what happened there and what happened to African Americans here.”

Tlaib, who would be all but certain to join Congress if she won her primary — no Republican is competing for the Detroit-based seat — had the clearest path to victory of any of this year’s Muslim candidates in Michigan. All of the candidates were described, by their allies, as uniquely positioned to oppose the Trump administration.

“If you woke up this morning and you are breathing and you are Muslim, then you are political,” Sarsour said at one of Sunday’s gatherings in Dearborn. “You have no choice but to be political in a country that has politicized you and politicized your religion. We have to answer to Allah, and one day, God will ask: ‘Where were you when these injustices were being committed?’”


David Weigel is a national political correspondent covering Congress and grass-roots political movements. He is the author of "The Show That Never Ends," a history of progressive rock music.

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