Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Bernie Sanders’ rally at Dearborn, Michigan with a crowd that included Arab-Americans, on stage and off, was a frontal attack on one of the last permissible prejudices in America. Media personalities have been fired (and rightly so) for bigoted public statements about African-Americans and other minorities. But Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans can still be smeared at will.
Nevertheless, Arab-Americans (about half of whom are Christian) and Muslim-Americans (many of whom are not Arab) are potential swing votes in Michigan, Ohia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida. These are states that could go either Democrat or Republican in a national election, and where these populations can be the swing vote. Bernie Sanders is widely popular among them. Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, who represents neighboring Dearborn Heights, supports Sanders.
The crowd was warmed up by Palestinian-American comedian Amer Zahr, who highlighted health care concerns but also the Yemen War (which Sanders opposes) and Palestinian rights (which Sanders supports). He called Sanders `Amu Bernie or “Uncle Bernie” and “Habibi” or “my dear friend.”
Sarah Rahal at the Detroit News reports that Sanders said,
- “”Every person in this room, it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever you may be, you have the same dreams and aspirations,” Sanders said. “Last I heard, everyone needs health care as a human right. Last I heard, everyone wants their kids to get a quality education. Last I heard everyone who turns on the water faucet wants to make sure it’s clean, not toxic. … “
Sanders went on to condemn the Islamophobia and xenophobia promoted by Trump.
There was also debka dancing on stage. One of my major failures as a Middle East specialist is that I have never quite reliably mastered that dip on the half-beat.
does your candidate do rallies like these? bernie does. (warning, probably very loud so turn down your volume!) pic.twitter.com/CihcWKy8kx
— Mohammad (@WongKarWax) March 7, 2020
In 1984, the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale ostentatiously returned a check sent in by an Arab-American group. The sad reality is that anti-Arab prejudice has often deliberately been promoted by Jewish Americans strongly tied to the Israel lobbies. They were aiming to deny Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans a voice in American politics, lest public criticism of Israeli policy become legitimized. (It is still controversial in such circles whether Israel can ever be legitimately criticized, although apparently all the other 194 countries in the world can be brutally criticized, especially Palestine).
Even the Obama campaign in 2008 was so nervous about their candidate being tagged as a Muslim that they shooed Muslim women in headscarfs in the benches away from the cameras (his father was Muslim, but Barack was brought up Kansas Christian). And Obama met with some Dearborn Muslim leaders only in the absence of a camera.
Bernie’s campaign is different!
As noted above, the Arab-American and Muslim-American votes are important well beyond their numbers. There are about 3.5 million Muslim-Americans. Arab-Americans are in the millions but hard to count because Christian Lebanese-Americans, for instance, often don’t identify as “Arab,” and Lebanese are the most numerous population from the Arab League countries in the United States. About half of Arab-Americans are Muslim. But Muslim-Americans are often not Arab, coming instead from Pakistan, India, Africa and Southeast Asia.
In Michigan politics, which is fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, Arab-Americans are sometimes a key swing vote. In the 1990s, Arab-American politician and attorney Spencer Abraham was credited with swinging Dearborn to the GOP and helping John M. Engler win two terms as governor. Abraham himself served in the Senate and as Bush’s Energy secretary.
Bush’s demonization of Muslims during his “War on Terror” and his wars on Muslim countries drove almost all Muslim-Americans and Arab-Americans into the Democratic Party, a process helped along by Trump’s bigoted treatment of them.
If Sanders can put together union members, small town Michiganders worried about their health care, and the Arab-Americans, he has a shot at winning Michigan again, as he did in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. My guess is that Biden will win Detroit and the conservative west of the state.
In any case, Sanders has ushered the Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans onto the campaign stage, and the days of candidates snarkily returning their checks to please AIPAC are likely over with.