'He's one of us': How 'Amo' Bernie Sanders won the hearts and minds of Arab-Americans

'He's one of us': How 'Amo' Bernie Sanders won the hearts and minds of Arab-Americans
In-depth: From Amo to Habibi, Bernie Sanders has become the first presidential candidate in US history to embrace the Arab community, and they're feeling the Bern like never before.
9 min read
02 March, 2020
Arab-Americans are endorsing Bernie as he runs an inclusive campaign [Bernie Sanders Campaign 2016/Twitter]

"Amo Bernie is what I like to call him," Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib says in her endorsement video for Bernie Sanders.

Amo, meaning "uncle", conveys both respect for Sanders among Arab Americans, but also the familiarity and adoration the 78-year-old has cultivated within the community.

#AmoBernie posts have peppered Tlaib's feed in recent weeks in celebration of Sanders' victories in the first round of Democratic primaries, where he won the popular vote in Iowa, and won the official primaries in New Hampshire and Nevada.

His campaign has now set their sights on March 3's "Super Tuesday'', where 11 states will nominate their Democratic candidate for president.

Echoing the Hispanic campaigns for "Tio Bernie", the popularisation of Amo Bernie by Congress' first female Palestinian-American representative reflects the fervent support for the Vermont senator among the Arab American community.

Bernie, in turn, has embraced it, working closely with Tlaib as well as representative Ilhan Omar (Somali-American) and key groups such as the Arab-American Institute.

The term Amo is given to someone who is perceived to play a fatherly role in the Arab community, someone that you highly respect

The avuncular socialist

The term Amo "is given to someone who is perceived to play a fatherly role in the Arab community, someone that you highly respect, and you also fondly love and admire, and seek protection from, all at the same time," says Sahar Khamis, an Egyptian-American Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland.

Indeed, his links with the community date back to the previous round of primaries, which has helped layer the familiarity and camaraderie Arab Americans feel with Sanders.

"Bernie began to develop relationships with the community in 2016 and has maintained them until now," James Zogby, director of the Arab-American Institute told The New Arab, adding that the institute is working with the Sanders campaign to create a vetted Arab Americans for Bernie committee, with co-chairs including Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

This kind of outreach and relationship building with minority communities has been singular among the field, largely thanks to Sanders' campaign manager Faiz Shaker, the first Muslim-American to manage a major presidential campaign.

Sanders' choice of management means that "by default his campaign understands what life for minorities and Arabs is like," says Dalia*, a Palestinian-American volunteering on the campaign.

"Faiz has done a brilliant job in organising working people, and working people of colour," she adds, citing the key campaigning sites as picket lines and unions rather than corporate fundraisers.

@BernieInArabic, a volunteer-run Twitter account, translates all of Sanders' tweets to Arabic, while phone bank campaigns have been run in Arabic and Spanish.

Other volunteers have written Arabic-language subtitles for the campaign's videos explaining Medicare for All, Bernie's flagship policy to bring universal healthcare to the US. The campaign even has a Muslim and Arab-American organiser for each region.

Reema Hijazi, a Palestinian-American working full-time for the Sanders campaign, credits the agency given to volunteers, not just campaign staff, that has allowed such creative, innovative and effective projects to blossom.

Hijazi herself has started her own creative endeavour – endearingly named Habibi Bernie (my dear Bernie) – to gather momentum in the run-up to Michigan's primary on March 10.

Bernie's campaign understands what life for minorities and Arabs is like

As well as organising door-knocking campaigns, Habibibernie.com sells t-shirts and canvas bags emblazoned with its eponymous slogan in cool graphics that will appeal to hipster Bernie bros and Arab 'amos' alike.

"The inspiration behind Habibi Bernie is first, Bernie's support for Palestinian rights, and second, that Arab Americans have the same political priorities as other Americans, and they will support the candidate that listens to them and addresses those priorities," says Hijazi.

From right to left: Finding a political home

But the natural affinity between Arab-Americans and the Left hasn't always been so. As recently as the 1980s, Democratic presidential candidates rejected political endorsements from Arab-Americans and returned their campaign donations.

Eyeing up a new support base in 2000, George W. Bush did concerted campaigning in Michigan, targeting the Detroit suburb of Dearborn where a third of residents identify as Arab. There, Bush won as many as 72 percent of Arab-American votes.

This all changed after 9/11. Arab-Americans, referred to by right-wing commentators as a fifth column during the War on Terror, were caught up in the wide net of American Islamophobia despite the majority of them being Christian.

The Sanders campaign has picked up support from these communities not only because of further blows from Trump's xenophobic and far-right-empowering administration, but also because of the economic implications of free markets on metropolitan centres such as Detroit, which are home to high concentrations of Arabs.

"I think the Arab-American community leans to the left more than ever before," says Khamis, citing the "very tough challenges" of the Trump presidency, including a further rise in Islamophobia, and the first and second Muslim travel bans.

His domestic policies, including being the most vociferous backer in the crowded Democratic field for free healthcare and education, naturally resonate across all minority groups, Khamis points out.

"Just like other Americans, Arab-Americans worry about the economy, the environment, and health care," says Hijazi.

"You cannot thrive when income and wealth inequality is back at the huge levels of the 1930s, or when there is an impending existential climate crisis, or when you are bankrupt because of hospital bills."

Immigration, too, is a topic of major concern for all diaspora communities, with Trump's unprecedented 'Muslim ban' now targeting Sudan along with Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iran and other Muslim-majority nations.

Foreign policy: More than Palestine

"The one thing that really makes him stand out when it comes to Arab-American voters is his position on the issue of Palestine," Khamis says.

"Being a Jewish candidate who is boldly outspoken in support of Palestinian rights and dignity, including their right to having their own state, as well as being openly critical of some of the negative Israeli policies and discriminatory practices against them is huge."

Because of Bernie, we have a presidential candidate that Palestinian and Arab Americans can embrace without hesitation

Sanders' bold positions on Israel, including leveraging US aid, boycotting the AIPAC conference and calling out the racism of Netanyahu's regime is unprecedented among presidential candidates, although many Palestinians feel Bernie's position doesn't go far enough.

"Because of Bernie, we have a presidential candidate that Palestinian and Arab-Americans can embrace," says Reema Hijazi.

Hijazi speaks of the difficulty for Palestinians and Arab-Americans in choosing political candidates when their foreign policy has always been dominated by fervent support for Israel.

"I thought I would never be compelled by a presidential candidate. I thought I would have to settle for whomever the democratic establishment put up. But now we have Bernie," she says.

Read more: A pro-Israel PAC tried to sabotage Bernie in Iowa. It didn't go well

"Bernie speaks out about the rights of Palestinians, and states that there should be consequences for Israel's brutality, when almost every other American politician is allergic to recognising Palestinians as humans," she adds. 

As Arab-American comedian and Sanders surrogate Amer Zaher has previously written: "Arab-Americans support Bernie Sanders, not in spite of his Jewishness, but because of it."

Indeed, Sanders increasingly cites his own family's suffering – including the murder of his father's entire family during the Holocaust – as a basis for his solidarity with the suffering of not only the Palestinian people, but for minorities and persecuted people worldwide.

This foreign policy approach goes beyond the issues of Palestine, and other stances such as diplomacy for the Iran nuclear deal and standing up to Gulf tyrants such as Mohammed bin Salman also carry large appeal for Arabs.

Sanders has spearheaded attempts to push through a bill ending US support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen

"His foreign policy is where the biggest distinction comes between Arabs and non-Arabs," says Dalia, pointing out not just the Yemenis but many of the more than three million Arab-Americans who have family in the region where much of US foreign policy is focused. 
He articulates a moral clarity in foreign policy around respecting people and treating them as humans, which Arabs for a very long time have not been

"He articulates a moral clarity in foreign policy around respecting people and treating them as humans, which Arabs for a very long time have not been,' she adds.

Embracing Amo Bernie 

What has truly set Sanders apart from other candidates for Arab-Americans, is that since 2016, he has genuinely welcomed their support, whereas other politicians, constantly curating their public image to the votes and demographics they prioritise, would shy away.

One of his Democratic competitors, Michael Bloomberg, by contrast takes pride in his record of spying on Muslims and unreserved support for Israel.

"Other candidates want the Arab vote and the Muslim vote, but they don't particularly want to be seen taking photos with it, because it hurts their white, liberal constituencies," says Dalia.

Inviting Palestinian and other Arab allies, such as Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour, and celebrating their support means his outreach message goes much further than promoting policies.

"It's saying: I'm proud to have people in your community be behind me publicly, and I will take that endorsement publicly. It's saying: I'll take a photo with you and I'm proud that you'll support me,' says Dalia.

Other candidates want the Arab vote and the Muslim vote, but they don't particularly want to be seen taking photos with it

The same goes for being called Amo Bernie, a term which according to Dalia, also means: "He's one of us".

"There's a candidate who's actually embracing being called an Arabic word," says Dalia. "He's saying 'I welcome your language, and you welcoming me in terms that make sense to you.'

"That's really big for the Arab-American community. You would certainly never hear 'Amo Biden' or 'Amo Mike [Bloomberg]' [...] nor would those guys welcome it."

Although the coming months look promising for Sanders, the real challenge of the November election must not fall out of focus. 

The Arab vote, mainly spread among the country's largest metropolitan centres, will help Sanders inch towards the nomination. But it will be a drop in the already blue sea of Democrat strongholds when it comes the November vote.

Still, the Sanders campaign is a lesson in engagement and humanity as much as a reaction to the traumatising previous administrations.

It shows the worth in forging a genuine connection with overlooked constituencies, not just to strike political bargains, and not just by taking the time to truly understand their concerns, but by celebrating them, their culture, and their precious support.

*Names have been changed to protect their identity

Florence Dixon is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @flo_dix