Before falling asleep late Tuesday night, I read an exuberant text message from my best friend, born and raised in Dearborn, Michigan: “Bernie won Michigan!”
By late Wednesday morning, I had already lost count of how many perplexed (and decidedly not exuberant) tweets, status updates, and articles I had read about my home state. Each analyzed Sanders’ Democratic primary win in Michigan and puzzled over his particularly strong support in Dearborn, Michigan, a quiet suburb of Detroit home to an estimated 40,000 Arab Americans. Many Arab-American families have been in Dearborn for five generations, while others are recently arrived refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Beyond Dearborn, Michigan’s Muslim population is quite expansive, including very large African American and South Asian Muslim communities in cities like Detroit and Flint, as well as smaller communities of Bosnian, Turkish, and African Muslims. All of the Muslims in Michigan that I know—regardless of ethnic background, socioeconomic status or age—support Sanders.
The media focus, however, has been on the Arab Muslims in Dearborn. In part, this is because of Dearborn’s “Middle East in the Midwest” charm. It boasts street signs in Arabic, “halal” McNuggets at McDonalds, the first Muslim Miss USA (crowned by, ahem, Donald Trump), and even a short-lived reality TV show, All American Muslim. It’s also because so many people wrongly assume that Arab and Muslim are synonyms. And, apparently, many journalists were shocked that Arab Muslims would choose to vote for a Jewish candidate.
In fact, Arab and Muslim support for Bernie Sanders is only a surprise if you work under the false assumption that Arabs and/or Muslims are the natural enemies of Jews, or if you know next to nothing about the political priorities in Arab-American and Muslim-American communities. I expected this kind of backwards thinking from anti-Muslim bigots and bloggers, some of who refer to Dearborn by the ominous nickname “Dearbornistan.” Yet the stunned reaction to Arab and Muslim support for Sanders suggests that many other journalists, pundits, and analysts also have very inaccurate and misguided ideas about these communities.
Policy priorities in American Muslim communities include dismantling anti-Muslim racism (sometimes termed Islamophobia) specifically as well as structural racism generally. We also care strongly about surveillance and civil liberties, economic reform and social welfare, education reform, immigration, and US foreign policy.
Sanders has taken an interest in American Muslims as a constituency from the beginning, rather than treating Muslims as a wedge issue. In Michigan, this took the form of a radio ad in Arabic in which Sanders called on people to “Stand together in solidarity” and campaigned with African American Muslim congressman Keith Ellison. In contrast, a group of Muslim donors got a slap in the face from Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she unceremoniously announced that she would return their $50,000 donation to her campaign because she disagreed with their pro-Palestinian views.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an issue that American Muslims have historically been very invested in, with the general consensus supporting Palestinians. Sanders promises to make the US more even-handed in its dealings with Israel, more so I believe than Clinton or any of the Republicans, all of whom are openly biased in favor of Israel. And more importantly, Sanders appeals to many American Muslims because we believe he is simply less hawkish than Clinton.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is primarily a political conflict. Contrary to the claims of those who attempt to blacklist professors like me for supporting a peaceful Palestinian resistance movement, criticism of the Israeli government is not in and of itself evidence of anti-Semitism. On US college campuses, American Jews are second only to Arab Americans in the growing numbers of student activists advocating for Palestinian rights. American Muslims know a thing or two about being discriminated against for their religious identity, and they are also aware that American Jews are among the fiercest advocates for protecting Muslim rights in the current racial climate.
Simply put, Arabs and/or Muslims are not the natural enemies of Jews. Like political pundits, Zionist-friendly American Muslims who personally profit from the stereotype of anti-Semitic Muslims will now be forced to account for the empirical reality of American Muslims who #FeeltheBern.
Frankly, it is exhausting and demoralizing to successfully mobilize behind a candidate, only to have the mainstream media react with shock and stereotypes. But at least we haven’t all lost our sense of humor.
“Dear mainstream media, I share your shock and befuddlement but you’re missing the bigger picture,” a friend sarcastically wrote on Facebook. “Arab Muslims in Dearborn voted for the Jewish guy from Brooklyn because they couldn’t stand the idea of an independent woman running for a position of authority…and unveiled at that! Get your prejudices straight!”