How Bernie Sanders inspired a new generation of Muslim and Arab politicians: Part I

ilhan omar bernie sanders
8 min read
Washington, DC
30 June, 2021

The formula in American presidential campaigns has been tried and tested. The candidate comes from a rural state, solicits large-scale donations, and seeks endorsements from party leaders while shunning Arab and Muslim support.

But Bernie Sanders took a different approach. In March last year, he opened a rally in south Dearborn, Michigan with a Palestinian comedian, a Dabka dance, and young Arab activists. It might not have won over party leaders, but it did speak to a young generation of Arabs and Muslims who felt seen and heard.

This growing sense of inclusion has been demonstrated recently as people have taken to the streets and social media across the world to protest the expulsions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and airstrikes on Gaza

Young Palestinians have been featured on major news networks, an unprecedented 28 senators signed a letter calling for a cease-fire, and according to recent polls Americans are increasingly supportive of Palestinians.

On 9 June, Sanders endorsed Manhattan DA candidate Tahanie Aboushi, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, for last week's election. Though she came in third place, after two more high-profile contenders, the endorsement continued Sanders' commitment to progressive candidates.

Building new, authentic relationships

"When the veil is lifted on what oppression really is, then social justice advocates show up. That will range from the highest levels of government to grassroots advocates. He is not losing momentum. If anything, he's gaining momentum," Iman Jodeh, a member of the Colorado House of Representatives endorsed by Sanders for her 2020 campaign, tells The New Arab

Jodeh, herself Palestinian-American, says she has been inspired by his support and advocacy for social justice. Referring to the growing number of Arabs and Muslims running for office, she says, "When people see themselves represented, they know they can do it, too."

As the US emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, after more than a year of marches for Black Lives Matter and more recently for Palestinians, political campaigns for progressives, including those of Palestinian-Americans, are in full swing.

"The last thing I went to before Covid-19 hit was a Bernie rally. It was the first week of March. It was the last thing I experienced before the world shut down. When he dropped out, I felt like hope died a little," says Yasmeen Kadouh, a Dearborn-based podcaster.  

"The fact that he is unapologetically who he is in a country where we can't be who we are is why Arabs love him."

"Authentic" is a word Sanders' supporters consistently use to describe him as a person, as a politician, and the way he has stood by others.  

"The fact that he is unapologetically who he is in a country where we can't be who we are is why Arabs love him"

Linda Sarsour, Sanders' first Muslim surrogate, recalls his eagerness to visit mosques during campaigns, his treatment of everyday people as his equals, and his solidarity with politicians and activists, such as herself, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, when facing criticism for pro-Palestinian remarks.

"He's just a regular guy who sincerely wants to know how your life can be better. No one [else] at this level of power could sit with you and say you matter. Our community was so moved by him," says Sarsour. 

"Bernie built a beautiful relationship. People were fascinated that Arabs and Muslims could love an old Jewish guy from Brooklyn."

Clearing a path for other progressives 

Sanders has taken an unconventional approach his entire career, even more so since he entered the national stage around five years ago when he ran in the 2016 Democratic primary. Since then, he has helped bring to the forefront consistently progressive policies, such as Medicare for All, a $15 per hour minimum wage, a Green New Deal, and the federal legalisation of marijuana. 

Where he has really broken ranks from the political establishment, including most fellow progressives, has been in his sympathy for the Palestinian people.  

At his rallies, Sanders has repeatedly called for Palestinians to be treated with dignity, he has described the humanitarian situation in Gaza as unsustainable, and he has called former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a racist.

Though these views might appear to be a strategic gesture to his constituents, he has, in fact, broken a long-held taboo. Arabs and Muslims across the country knew it, and they responded with exuberant political engagement.

Social media fan groups quickly emerged; rallygoers donned Bernie T-shirts in Arabic and some affectionately called him "Amo" Bernie. 

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His popularity among these constituents only grew with the 2020 race, which saw an increased focus on social justice. When Sanders suffered a heart attack in October, Muslim college students started a WhatsApp group to pray for his recovery. This organic growth was coupled with small-donor fundraising, meaning more involvement for youths and the working class.  

A historic precedent 

All of this enthusiasm might feel unprecedented, but before Sanders, there was Jesse Jackson, whose 1984 and 1988 Democratic primary runs helped pave the way for progressive policies that are now edging their way into the mainstream.

Like Sanders, Jackson visited a mosque while campaigning. Both have openly spoken up for Palestinian rights. Both made significant headway in the rustbelt, which, even 35 years ago, was suffering a decline in US manufacturing jobs. They've both endorsed one another's presidential bids.

"I don't think there's any question that Bernie replicated, for a generation of Arab Americans, what Jesse Jackson did in the eighties," says James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. 

"Look, I love Bernie, I supported him. But the foundation had been laid in '88. This was simply a new shot in the arm." 

Zogby was involved in Jackson's presidential bid, whose 1988 presidential platform, like his less successful 1984 attempt, called for reversing Reagan's tax cuts for the richest Americans, helping family farms through New Deal-inspired programmes, creating single-payer universal healthcare, increasing funding for public education, and supporting the formation of a Palestinian state. In the end, he won 11 primary contests, no small feat for such a platform at the time. 

"The foundation had been laid in '88. This was simply a new shot in the arm"

"I came to Washington in the '70s. We are in a very different place today because of the work we have done over the last three decades," he says. "We still have big problems to deal with, but don't disrespect the work that has been done in the past."

He notes that, over the past 25 years, Arab Americans have been winning elections across the country based on their merits.

"To me, as Martin Luther King Jr had said, the goal is when people are judged by their character, not by their colour," says Zogby. "A candidate can be Palestinian and still win - and win because people are judging candidates by their experience and qualifications."   

Now, he says, history is again being made.

A new level of engagement

After Jackson broke long-held taboos on Middle East policy, Sanders was able to go further, as he built on platforms and appealed to new voters. 

Starting with his 2016 campaign, Sanders was able to help break a longtime cycle of politicians disregarding low-propensity voters, who in turn would not vote because they were not courted, thus continuing the cycle.

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Mohamed Gula, who now works as the national organising director at the Muslim civic organisation Emgage Action (which endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2020), first noticed this disconnect in 2012 when he attended a rally for Barack Obama, where he saw no other Muslims.   

"That's when I realised maybe the reason we weren't heard was because maybe we didn't understand the system to make sure Muslims were included to be part of the narrative," he recalls.  

Then, in 2015, when he was door-knocking and phone banking for Sanders' campaign, he noticed there were no Muslim names on the door or phone lists.  

"The reason we weren't making the lists is because we weren't voting," he says.  

At that point, the voter turnout for Muslims was abysmally low. It went down to single digits in the primaries. This changed when Rashida Tlaib ran for congress, moving turnout from single digits to more than 30%.  

The "blue wave" of 2018, in which Democrats took back Congress with a 41-seat net gain in the House of Representatives, including two female Muslim members of the "Squad", marked a milestone for progressives. 

The recent 2020 election saw further gains for progressives, particularly at the state and local levels.  

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Communications Director Chris Kutalik Cauthern, notes that membership has increased exponentially since 2016. The group's demographics have also shifted substantially. Since 2013, the average age of a DSA member has gone from 68 to under 30, while it has also become more diverse. Young Arabs and Muslims have been a part of this shift.  

"It's a coalition of people that has been excluded from politics, or at least marginalised," he says. "There are younger, working-class people who have been - especially since 9/11 - marginalised and even demonised."

This is Part I. Read Part II here.

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews