How Arab and Muslim voters could swing Michigan against Trump

How Arab and Muslim voters could swing Michigan against Trump
In-depth: The Arab American vote could play a crucial role in the battleground state of Michigan, with the community getting ready for close, and possibly contested, results.
7 min read
22 October, 2020
Democratic organisers are doing what they can to ensure high voter turn-out. [Getty]

America's Muslims and Arabs have long been sidelined, but this time their votes might determine the presidential election in the crucial swing state of Michigan. 

"Muslim and Arab voters could decide the election for the whole country," says Dearborn-based attorney Abed Hammoud, founder of the Arab-American Political Action Committee, which has endorsed democratic nominee Joe Biden

"We have 32,000 Arab-Americans in Dearborn alone, easily more than 25,000 Muslims. You can safely say, if the state is as close as it was in 2016, if half of them go to the polls, that's about 13,000 people, that could call the state for a candidate. If you call the state, Michigan could call the country. We can't take Michigan lightly." 

Indeed, as the presidential election approaches, with Michigan among the top battlegrounds, the state's democratic organisers, many of them Arab and Muslim, are doing what they can to ensure high voter turn-out for their party. 

They are hoping to avoid a repeat of 2016, when insurgent candidate Donald Trump narrowly won the state by 10,704 votes over Hillary Clinton, a 0.23 percent margin, playing an important role in his electoral win, a major blow to the democratic party that hadn't lost an election in the state since 1988.  

America's Muslims and Arabs have long been sidelined, but this time their votes might determine the presidential election in the crucial swing state of Michigan

In 2016, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, with his populist promises of healthcare and dismantling trade deals, won the democratic Michigan primary, in a political upset against party establishment favourite Clinton. It was largely seen as a rebuke of the status quo, in which Michigan's economy had deteriorated from years of neglect. Sanders was seen as a politician who listened to the working class. Moreover, he reached out to Arabs and Muslims.  

"We believe Bernie won because of his outreach to the Muslim community. When Clinton won, those people who voted for Bernie didn't translate to votes for Hilary," recalls Dawud Walid, executive director Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan. 

Read more: What a Biden presidency could mean for
the Middle East

This time around, he says, "Biden has made a lot more effort than the Trump campaign. There are people in our area working directly with the Biden campaign who have grassroots relationships."  

In light of these efforts, he says, "I think that Biden will get more support than Clinton did last election. That will probably be related to a number of statements and actions by Trump. Increased support for Biden is not because they're in love with him, but because of the disdain people have for Trump."  

Hammoud also predicts a Biden win because voters now know what to expect from Trump. He says, "A lot of Arabs and Muslims really liked Bernie because he's more liberal on Middle East issues. The country was willing to try out Trump. It's not the same this time. Now we know what we have to lose: our health, our lives. We can't play the game of 'lets give it a shot.' His policies are totally erratic. The guy's unhinged." 

The last four years have been a long road for organisers and everyday voters, who are not taking anything for granted this time – and are even bracing themselves for drawn-out or contested results.  

With Michigan among the top battleground states, Muslim and Arab voters could decide the election for the whole country

"It could be a long haul," says Sirene Abou-Chakra, who works as chief development officer for the city of Detroit, and also volunteers for Arab Americans for Biden. Her previous position at Google gave her insights into online campaigning, which she says Republicans have dominated since Obama left office, and like other strategies could make a difference in the days leading up to a tight race.  

"There will be an unprecedented amount of mail-in ballots. I don't know if every city is getting behind it as aggressively as we are. Hundreds of city employees will be volunteering, counting ballots," says Abou Chakra. 

In addition, voter suppression is a concern, and civil rights organizations in Michigan are ready for any irregularities on election day. "Our office numbers are set up as hotlines. If someone is turned away, they can call immediately," says Walid.  

Read more: Young Arab American voters aren't the monolithic bloc the US thinks they are

"At end of the day, none of us have control over the mail. We might not know definitively who won the state, because absentee ballots will be trickling in. As long as ballots are postmarked before election day, they might come in five days later. We might not know in any of these states. That's where the problem comes in. One party might say the election was stolen. We're in a very dangerous time for American democracy." 

It was only earlier this month that the FBI foiled a plot by at least 14 members of a far-right militia group to kidnap and kill Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. 

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, armed demonstrators on several occasions have converged on the state capitol to protest the governor's coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Trump had tweeted "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" in April. The news brought to the national spotlight Michigan's long and prolific history of right-wing militias. 

If you call the state, Michigan could call the country. We can't take Michigan lightly

According the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were more than 500 such groups operating in the United States in 2009, 47 of them in Michigan, making it second to Texas (with nearly three times the population), with 52 groups.  

"When there are individuals who are plotting to kidnap and kill the governor and it's not labelled terrorism, it rubs people the wrong way. It's a fearful thing to think this goes on right in our state," says Jenna, a lifelong resident of Dearborn, who like many in her community and around the country are perplexed that the term terrorism is not used for domestic plots. 

She was relieved, however, upon hearing that "open carry" (bringing arms) would not be allowed at the polls in Michigan this year.  

Read more: The long fight for MENA recognition in the
US census

Although Biden has maintained a consistent lead against Trump in Michigan, Jenna does not see this election as a done deal. As she drives through the streets of Dearborn, she sees more Trump signs than she did four years ago, which are also countered with more Biden signs. She sees it as an indication that people have gotten bolder, though also more engaged.  

"I do find people are much bolder with their signs. A few Trump signs on our street sparked people to put up Biden signs. Now people want to make it known where they stand. There's no shame," she says. 

"There are lots of Trump signs around the West Side [in Dearborn]. I've been on the West Side my entire life. It's always seemed like a tolerant community. But those signs are a testament to that hatred. There was a house three houses down, and they put up a Trump sign. We're pretty white passing. Most people probably don't know we're Arab," she says. 

"It's stressful, but also interesting to be in a swing state," says Jenna, noting that being in Michigan has given her the opportunity to meet people of different political persuasions, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

"A good friend in college had a different perspective. It was interesting to hear his perspective. I'm not able to change minds. I just listen," she says.  

Similarly, Abou-Chakra says, "Instead of writing people off, we need to listen more. We need to have more understanding of people in the middle of the country. There are kind people, and a lot of them are going through a hard time. That's what a lot of this is about. There are other variables pushing people to feel and act a certain way. I'm not talking about white supremacists, or rotten apples. I'm talking about everyday Americans. We need to do a better job of understanding that." 

Brooke Anderson is a freelance journalist covering international politics, business and culture

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews