“One of us in this race led the opposition to the war in Iraq. You’re looking at him. Another candidate voted for the war in Iraq.” ~Senator Bernie Sanders, Democratic Presidential Candidate
Note: A related article by Mehr Qayyum, aka PITAPOLICY, focusing on Bernie Sanders’ appeal to Muslim American voters appeared on Altmuslimah.
Bernie Sanders’ multiple primary wins reflect primary issues drawing in Muslim Americans who are tired of both parties tokenizing them. In fact, Bernie’s interview with Hassan Minhaj on Netflix’s Patriot Act addresses how Islamophobia marginalizes Muslim Americans at home, and translates into a failing, hawkish foreign policy.
Taking stock of where Donald has led us since 2016 does not fare well for Muslim Americans. Remember how Trump enacted the Muslim Ban within the first 100 days of taking office? Muslim Americans remember queuing in airpot security lines to reunite with families—and which politicians reacted with an understanding of rising Islamophobia underpinned by a spike of Anti-Muslim hate-crimes. Although Sanders did not earn the 2016 Democratic nomination, he persists in calling out Islamophobia and racism in his role as a U.S. Senator, which reverts to progressivism when Muslims are “othered”.
For example, in July 2019, Trump magnified racist, Islamophobic, and misogynistic attacks against four congresswomen of color to “go back to their countries” (Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley). Yet, Sanders took one step beyond his Democratic presidential contenders to condemn Trump’s actions by immediately fundraising for Omar’s re-election.
As a Muslim woman of color, I remember encountering Islamophobia and being called a “sand n****r” as a local candidate shortly after Donald’s inauguration. So it was encouraging to witness Sanders forming a fundraising alliance with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar after Trump vilified her.
Witnessing alliances builds momentum. Sanders has encouraged Muslim American candidates to participate. At the same time, we see Muslim American candidates running locally and statewide. For example, Abdul El-Sayed received Bernie’s endorsement for his Michigan gubernatorial primary in 2018. In 2016, Abdelnassir Rashid served the Sanders’ campaign as Deputy State Director for Illinois. Now, Rashid is running for Cook County Commissioner and is encouraged by Bernie’s persistence:
“Bernie has built a movement that supports him because he truly cares about ordinary people. His compassion is genuine and goes back decades, and as President I know he’ll fight for working and middle class families and not be influenced by the special interests that have run amok in Washington.”
Rashid cites “momentum” to explain Muslim Americans’ interest in Bernie’s message. A Muslim American, Faiz Shakir, serves as Bernie’s campaign manager because he mirrors Sanders’ progressive values after serving as the National Political Director of the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU).
Recognizing shifting demographics is forward-thinking, if not revolutionary, when both political parties appear immobile and a general tone of anti-establishment emerges in both camps. At the same time, recognizing intersectionality as a shifting identity among people of color draws in diverse engagement and innovation.
It is unwise to view Muslim Americans as a monolithic bloc— especially when shifting demographics occur in swing-states that will determine presidential elections. For example, an estimated 25 percent of those living in swing-state Michigan are people of color; specifically: 14 percent of those are African-American. According to Pew’s 2019 study: one-fifth of Muslim Americans are of African American descent; of the the remaining four-fifths, most represent immigrants to the US after 1970–most of whom are not Arab, but if viewed as Middle Eastern or North African, the number increases. As such, somewhere in the middle of these more recent ethnic groups, identity politics is re-emerging in what to check off in the census and how that will translate into votes.
Bernie recognized this confluence of demographic interests in Illinois and Michigan, which is now a key swing state for 2020 and where he has campaigned before the other Democratic presidential candidates. It is in Michigan where Bernie’s campaign recognizes the socio-economic diversity across Muslim Americans, which cuts across a variety of ethnicities and socio-economic classes. Moreover, the Sanders’ campaign hired, Sami Scheetz, a Syrian American as his Constituency Director in Iowa. Given Bernie’s outreach to people of color who are not Muslim, this is consistent with Bernie’s broader political messaging.
Volunteers like Deliah Odeh, one of the 500,000 Muslims living in of Chicago, can still “feel the Bern” because she hears Sanders’ platform discussing social justice at home AND abroad: from accessing affordable medical care and college education to human rights for all as a Palestinian American woman.
Yet, even when segmenting the Muslim American audience, Bernie’s campaign message highlights engaging communities of color and authenticity that addresses long-ignored controversies, like profiling and foreign policy.
Authentic on Foreign Policy
Both parties appear immobile on foreign policies that hurt the subset of Muslim Americans whose parents hail from countries that the U.S. has bombed, sanctioned, turned a blind eye to human rights, or drone attacked. Muslim Americans note how Sanders does not shy away from debating such controversies. Authentic on foreign policy is refreshing for Muslim Americans. Furthermore, Sanders does not shy away from proposing legislation that speak to the meta-narrative of social justice in other countries that are populated with Muslims. Firstly, in 2004, Bernie was amongst the first to protest invading Iraq.
Secondly and thirdly, Bernie questioned why the US overlooked Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and interference in Yemen but did not work towards diplomacy with Iran at a time when Trump broke the P5+1 peace deal with Iran over its nuclear capabilities. Sanders collaborated in a bipartisan resolution to clarify that U.S. forces are still authorized to attack Al Qaeda members in Yemen, but requires the U.S. to withdraw its support for the Saudi-led intervention.
Fourthly, Bernie has not cleaved the American value for human rights and dignity from Palestine —a historically, hot button topic around my dinner table beyond first, second, third generation Muslims in US. Although Muslims in America are wary of both parties promoting inconsistent foreign policy, the Democratic Party has tended to shy away from Palestine as a social justice cause whereas Bernie consistency calls for ceasing illegal settlements, and thereby reuniting a social justice cause with a progressive value.
Also, Muslim Americans of the immigrant generation have often fled countries with dictators and repressing freedom of expression. So when Bernie calls out Saudi Arabia for murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi, those who are disillusioned with both parties note that Bernie is taking a stand against institutional and party alliances with Saudi Arabia.
Political participation lessons to promote listening are slowly being learned by newer minority groups. For example, in the December debate, upon hearing a Muslim American journalist correctly pronounce ‘Afghanistan’ (predominantly Muslim country) candidate Biden did a double-take—and “corrected” her with his Anglicized pronunciation.
Similarly, a double-take happened at the macro-level. Back in 2006, when the U.S. invaded Iraq on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction, a GAO report examined the root causes of anti-American sentiment among overseas Muslims. Focus groups in Egypt and Pakistan explained that increased anti-American sentiment is because “U.S. foreign policy seems unfair or imbalanced”. That was not as surprising as the follow up response, “We wish there was more (raw) listening when it comes to engaging on policy” rather than being preached to via public diplomacy programming.
Again, this reality check is consistently echoed by my family and friends living overseas, like “Mo” who pings me every time Trump tweets something racist or Islamophobic. (Every Muslim American knows a “Mo”.) So whether one speaks English or Arabic, Bernie’s campaign message is literally inviting. For now, the Sanders campaign has implemented this practice of “raw listening” even before Donald Trump became the candidate to defeat.