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

U.S. Senator of Democrats Bernie Sanders (R) gives a speech as Imam of the Masjid Muhammad Talib Shareef (L) is listening to him during an inter-religious gathering
7 min read
Washington, DC
30 June, 2021

This is Part II. Read Part I here.

Addressing identity 

It is perhaps Sanders' own position as an anti-establishment candidate that has made him appealing to others who have felt like outsiders in the political system.

An Independent who was in the minority to vote against the US invasion of Iraq, in 2016 refused to concede until Obama listened to his list of demands that included pressuring Israel to pull back its settlements, and more recently gave the democratic establishment a run for its money when he was nearly the upset winner against party favourite Joe Biden, Sanders has had an undeniable effect.  

He has had to face scrutiny about his own identity and that of his movement. In April 2019, the New York Times took the unusual approach of writing out Sanders' quotes in his Brooklyn accent. Some observers saw it as anti-Semitic, while others saw it as classist (Sanders grew up in public housing in a largely Jewish neighbourhood).

In his 2020 campaign, Sanders did address some of the concerns from the public that had dogged him since his 2016 campaign. His supporters, as well as those who wanted to get to know him better, wanted him to open up about his Jewish identity. Though he had mentioned it in the past, it was usually in the context of being raised by immigrants, likely a way to connect with a wider audience.

"His campaign responded to an accusation of chauvinism by building a more multiracial coalition, bolstered by the endorsements of Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez"

It was at a CNN town hall in January 2020 where he was asked how his Jewish identity influenced him personally and politically.

"It impacts me very profoundly," he responded, describing his upbringing in a struggling working-class Jewish family during World War II, and seeing in his neighbourhood as a young boy the tattooed numbers on the arms of concentration camp survivors. He invoked the Holocaust as a reason for wanting to stand up to bigotry in America. 

"At a very early age, before my political thoughts were developed, I was aware of the horrible things that human beings can do to other people," he said.  

In addition, when he ran for a second time in 2020, his campaign responded to an accusation of chauvinism by building a more multiracial coalition, bolstered by the endorsements of Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, women whose communities were important for his strong 2020 campaign.  

infographic - States with highest Arab population v2

Though he was able to build a young diverse coalition, he was never able to capture the senior citizen bloc. This was compounded by a lack of support by the party establishment, which he had not courted during his run.

It was a move that was consistent with his grassroots outreach, but inconsistent with the traditional steps required to win the presidency. When he dropped out, many lamented that his strategy had been unsuccessful. 

It may have been ineffective at the national level, but at the local and state levels, it was only getting started.

Building a movement of progressive upstarts

All the while, the progressive movement was growing. Young candidates were signing up to run for local races, many of them having never before held public office, supported by a growing network of volunteers.

One volunteer was Abraham Aiyash, the son of Yemeni immigrants who had worked as a community organiser prior to entering politics. He and Sanders endorsed one another in their 2020 races.

 "The revolution was not about one person, but a long-term movement"

"I've always told folks I was not a Bernie Bro. I wasn't hyper passionate about a certain individual. I left that behind with Obama. For me, I voted for him back in 2016 simply because I liked what he was presenting and putting forward," says Aiyash, a Michigan state representative, whose 2020 race was his second attempt at elected office. 

"It wasn't until after 2016, seeing what he was presenting as political alternatives, that I felt his messages of social, economic and environmental justice resonating," he says. 

"After 2016, I saw there was something fundamentally flawed with the political system. That's when I fell for the revolution."

For him, the revolution was not about one person, but a long-term movement. 

"Bernie Sanders acknowledges the value in building a movement in politics that transcends election cycles," says Aiyash. "The working class realise they have a stake in this. That's what's important." 

He notes, "The tagline for 2020 was: 'not me, us'. Our politics is rooted in centring people in the movement rather than personalities."

It is perhaps for this reason that 2020 saw major progressive wins at the state and local levels.

So-called progressive wins also included ballot issues, such as the legalisation of marijuana and increasing minimum wage - even in states that voted for Trump, a sign that voters can be receptive to progressive issues, even if they prefer more conservative candidates. This is why many progressive politicians favour pragmatic issues-based campaigns, particularly in swing states. 

"Bernie has taught us to debate policy on its merits. I never want to get caught up in a label, people can become purists to some degree," says Abdullah Hammoud, a Michigan state senator.

"The reason we rallied around a 78 year-old white Jewish man is he represents our values"

Omar Fateh, a Minnesota state senator, whose 2020 bid ousted a more moderate incumbent, says his approach has been to focus on the needs of the working class.

"I didn't put forth a Muslim or an east African agenda. I put forth a working-class agenda. That's the message that attracts and resonates with the most people," says Fateh. "We like to vote for someone who represents us and looks like us. That's how we got Ilhan Omar. The reason we rallied around a 78-year-old white Jewish man is he represents our values. It's not just about voting for yourself, but about voting for your neighbours as well." 

For Hammoud, it is also about new generations finding their own authentic voices. "I don't think anyone should enter politics in the hopes of being the next Bernie, He shouldn't be replicated. We're looking for the next generation to get the policies across the finish line. Bernie took us so far, and it's up to others to take us across the finish line."

"Even though Bernie didn't win, we won as a community. Now people have to work for the Arab vote"

A new administration 

Though Biden's victory in the primary left many Sanders supporters disappointed, it also left little doubt that he needed their votes. 

Biden committed himself to building on the courtship Sanders had developed with Arab and Muslim communities, including creating specific sections on his website, and making campaign stops in Arab communities in Michigan. 

Meanwhile, the presence of progressive candidates on the ballot helped bring out the youth and minority voters, who also voted for Biden. It was perhaps this commitment and implicit pressure that led the Biden administration to reverse Trump's unusually low cap on refugee admissions two months ago after it was announced he would keep the previous year's number.

"The other campaigns started Muslim outreach programmes," says Sarsour. "Even though Bernie didn't win, we won as a community. Now people have to work for our vote." 

It became an all-out team effort for both wings of the Democratic party, who generally viewed Trump as a dangerous man who needed to be stopped to preserve American democracy. For many, the 6 January violent invasion of the Capitol only confirmed their fears over the fragility of the country's democracy.

 "He understood there was a bigger cause. At that moment, defeating Trump was the greater mission. He knew this wasn't the moment. We had the cloud of fascism that needed to be defeated," says Sarsour.  

For now, Sanders continues his work in the senate, with an important role as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, overseeing big budget bills, such as the successfully passed stimulus package.  

"He went from being a marginal voice to now being the chairman of one of the most powerful committees," says Sarsour. "We're talking about Biden producing the first stimulus package, and now he's talking about cancelling student debt. We also have the potential for Medicare for All. That never would have happened were it not for Bernie."

Kadouh, the podcaster from Dearborn, also feels hopeful, while not underestimating the work that lies ahead amid America's tensions and divisions.  

"People talk about this American dream, but we've yet to see this American dream come to life," she says. "That's where the hope comes in. Bernie is our shining beacon of hope. That's how I feel when I think about the future of this country."    

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

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews