Between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism: Bernie Sanders and the ‘Muslim Vote’

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Dearborn, Michigan, March 7. Many analysts have seen Sanders’ Michigan win as a springboard to the Democratic nomination. REUTERS/Jim Young

Khaled A. Beydoun

It was dubbed a historic upset.  Prominent pollsters predicted that “Hillary Clinton had a greater than 99 percent chance of winning Michigan.”  Yet, the energy and zeal for Bernie Sanders on the ground in Dearborn, MI—my hometown, and home to the most concentrated Arab and Muslim American population in the United States—rendered a different forecast.

The sight of young women in headscarves donning Bernie Sanders shirts and the sound of community elders affectionately mangling the Vermont Senator’s name seemed ubiquitous on and before election day.  Anybody who stepped inside of Dearborn during the last several months, particularly the city’s Arab heavy east and south sides, knew that it was Bernie country.

Sanders and his campaign knew it.  He issued Arabic print and radio ads leading up to the Michigan primary.  He then met with community leaders and youth, and addressed the Arab American community in the heart of the community.  Through several mediums, and finally on the ground, Sanders tailored his message to Arab and Muslim Americans.  Intimately, genuinely, and directly. Which superseded the religious identity of the messenger and his audience.

It was this campaign strategy in the heart of Arab and Muslim America that netted Sanders 67 percent of the community’s vote.  A tally which pushed Sanders past Clinton in a race thought to be unwinnable for Sanders, and revitalized his campaign moving forward.

Everybody was surprised.  Except the Sanders campaign, and Arab and Muslim American voters on the ground in Michigan.

The Morning After

Trite headlines including, “Jewish Candidate, Baffles Pundits By Getting Muslims to Vote For Him” to “Top Arab American City Backs Jewish Socialist,” filled the media sphere after Sanders won Michigan.  The very notion that a Jewish American candidate would carry a predominantly Arab and Muslim American community surprised pollsters, and shocked pundits.  Aside from exposing the lack of familiarity with Arab and Muslim American enclaves, this shock and surprise also illustrates another dimension of the media and political stereotyping of residents of these communities.

Although not explicit, media surprise that Arab or Muslim Americans would vote for a Jewish candidate effectively brand these communities as anti-Semitic. In short, perpetuating the stereotype that a deep hostility for Jews would preempt their ability to vote for a Jewish candidate.  Even a non-observant (or agnostic) Jewish candidate like Sanders.

Branding Arab and Muslim Americans as anti-Semitic is a core tenet of both Orientalism and Islamophobia—systems that perpetuate fear and ignorance of Muslims, and those perceived to be Muslim.  On the morning after the Michigan primary, Ismat Sarah Mangla wrote:

“The assumption implicit in such commentary, of course, is that Muslims are biased against Jews — and that when they do cast a vote for Jewish candidates, it’s because they’ve somehow managed to overcome their own inherent anti-Semitism. But this fascination with Dearborn’s support of Sanders actually demonstrates the media industry’s own all-too-prevalent prejudice — and reveals how much reporting on American Muslims is still rooted in an unsophisticated naiveté about what motivates them.”

While Islamophobia in the 2016 presidential campaign has overwhelmingly focused on the hateful bombast coming from Donald Trump and other candidates from the right, the framing of Arab and Muslim American voters as presumptively anti-Semitic exposes another salient dimension of it.  This time, emanating from the left, right and center.

The resounding support for Sanders, from the heart of Arab America and the hub of Muslim America, erodes yet another arcane yet ingrained myth about Arab and Muslim Americans.  They not only voted for a Jewish candidate, but did so with an unprecedented enthusiasm and by a wide margin.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Pundits fixated on the religious dissonance between Sanders and Michigan’s Arab and Muslim American overlooked real conditions on the ground.  Dearborn is the home of Ford Motor Company, and the blue-collar Metro-Detroit area one of the hardest economically hit areas in the country.  Arab and Muslim Detroiters, not unlike black, white and Latino communities, face high rates of unemployment and under-employment, and rely heavily on the government’s social welfare programming.

Sanders’ economic policies, tax policies, and message of job creation converged strongly with the priorities of Arab and Muslim Americans in Metro-Detroit.  Sanders simply had to deliver and spread that message, and make it accessible to segments of the community limited by language and confined by poverty. The Arab American News, headed by Osama Siblani, extended Sanders’ message into these and other segments of the community, with a vital endorsement of the candidate four days before the primary.

To bolster his economic message, and speak directly to the lived experience of Arab and Muslim Americans in the country’s most spied on community, Sanders explicitly condemned Islamophobia and “promised to end bigotry.”  Although he did not utter the word “intersectional,” Sanders’ talking points addressed how dire economic conditions coupled with rising state and societal animus made Arab and Muslim Americans in Detroit more vulnerable.  Flanked by Muslim American congressman Keith Ellison, who endorsed him and introduced him at a community rally in Dearborn, the Sanders campaign understood the importance of direct community outreach.

“He took the time to repackage his message in a way that spoke to Muslim Americans,” said Dua’a Hachem, an 18-year old freshman at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who attended the community rally.  This intersectional message, tailored specifically for Arab and Muslim Americans in Michigan, pushed young and old to the voting both in droves.

 A New Race?

While fairly critiqued for his less than radical treatment of race and racism in America, the Sanders effort in Metro-Detroit’s Arab and Muslim American communities is a timely aberration and a critical counterpoint.  He got this one right, and deserves credit.

Sanders got this one right because he looked beyond the ignorant and Islamophobic framing of Arab and Muslim American voters as presumptively anti-Semitic.  If he subscribed to the very stereotypes that gripped pollsters and pundits before and beyond the primary, he would’ve never stepped foot inside of Dearborn and would not of dedicated considerable resources to winning this neglected and misunderstood electorate. But he took the time to learn, listen, and strategically deliver a winning message.

If Sanders would have followed the course of pollsters, pundits, and indeed, the Clinton campaign, he would not have won the Arab and Muslim American vote.  And as numbers clearly illustrate, would not have pulled off the historic upset in Michigan.

Indeed, the Arab and Muslim electorate helped a Jewish presidential hopeful win a pivotal state.  And religion had nothing to do with it.

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