Muslim Americans bid farewell to Bernie Sanders, their first ever president

Muslim Americans bid farewell to Bernie Sanders, their first ever president
Comment: While the country fell short of propelling him to the presidency, Muslim Americans elected Bernie Sanders as president, and one of their own, writes Khaled Beydoun.
7 min read
09 Apr, 2020
Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign to be the Democratic nominee on 8 April [Getty]
The streets of East Dearborn were buzzing with energy. Groups of Muslim millennials wearing white shirts with "Bernie" emblazoned across their chest marched alongside hijab-clad elders voting for the first time in their lives.

This was the heart of the most concentrated Arab community in the United States, and one of the symbolic capitals of Muslim America, a place where mosque minarets are more abundant than McDonald's. A section of the Midwest, not the Mideast, where local zeal for Bernie Sanders - cast as a long shot to win the Michigan primary - would help him do just that hours later.

On 8 March, 2016, in the heart of a Muslim enclave that helped deliver him the "Michigan Miracle," Bernie Sanders' teetering presidential campaign exploded into a fully fledged movement. An undeniable cultural phenomenon that not only nearly took the 2016 democratic nomination, but swelled into an even more formidable movement four years later.

At the centre of it all, were Muslim Americans. A voting bloc who had not only been ignored and maligned by presidential candidates from both parties, but who were now facing a moment of proliferating Islamophobia and accompanying hate violence.

Republican candidates, 
spearheaded by Donald Trump, demonised Muslims as prospective terrorists and national security threats. Democratic contenders only discussed Muslims in relation to the "War on Terror." 

And then, there was Bernie Sanders.

Bernie confronted stereotypes levelled against Muslims, positioning himself as a shield for a community facing a rising onslaught of hate. He condemned the explicit Islamophobia peddled by Donald Trump and the Right, and rejected the trite and damaging "good versus bad Muslim" binaries uttered by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Muslims, for Sanders, were neither terror threats nor outsiders, informants on the 'front lines', nor anti-terror assets - but everyday Americans

Muslims, for Sanders, were neither terror threats nor outsiders. They weren't informants on the "front lines", or anti-terror assets, but everyday Americans - real people, whose concerns and dreams were not unlike Americans of any and every other faith group. He articulated this in campaign speeches and debate forums, but more importantly, expressed it most profoundly through action.

Bernie visited mosques, translated his campaign material into Arabic, partnered with key Muslim organisations, and appointed Muslims to serve as leaders in his campaign.  Muslim millennials affectionately referred to Sanders as "Amo" or "Uncle Bernie", and elders openly proclaimed "Insh'allah, Bernie" - a ritual saying in Muslim communities across the country that took off as a hashtag.

No presidential campaign appointed as many Muslims into visible leadership roles. Faiz Shakir, a progressive Muslim American politico, led Bernie's 2020 campaign. And notable figures including civil rights activist Linda Sarsour, former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul Sayed, and Palestinian American activist, Amer Zahr all played key roles in the campaign.

"The outreach from his campaign to the Arab and Muslim American communities, unlike any other candidate before, translated into a surge in turnout, activism and unity," shared Zahr, a national surrogate for the campaign. "In that respect, the Sanders campaign was transformative for Arabs and Muslims."

Read more:  Bernie Sanders slams Israel's Netanyahu as 'reactionary racist' in heated Democratic debate

This intimate relationship between candidate and community was not instant, but a romance that budded gradually, and beautifully, over four years' time.

In the beginning stages of his campaign, Bernie was green to the specific concerns of Muslim Americans. His platform centered largely on socioeconomic issues, and as many have observed, Bernie had a significant blind spot with regard to race and religion. However, he learned from community leadership, kept his ear open to criticism, and evolved alongside the community that would gradually give in to his sincerity and willingness to grow.

This growth over the last four years, was lucid. Bernie openly condemned Islamophobia in 2016, but years later, came to fully understand its ominous nuances and dimensions. He regularly denounced surveillance and spying on Muslim communities, and did so from inside the very spaces - mosques and schools - where it most frequently took place. Spaces that other candidates, including former presidents, refused to step inside.

Mohamed Gula, National Organising Director for the Muslim civic organisation Emgage Action, shared, "Bernie uplifted my community against a system that automatically criminalises people that look like me, speak like me, and pray like me."

n addition to the home front, Bernie grew into a vocal supporter of international Muslim concerns. As the tentacles of Islamophobia unfurled and tightened their grip in India and China, Bernie stood apart from the Democratic pack by condemning the interment of Uighur Muslims and the Modi regime's violent affronts on Muslim life in India.

The Bernie campaign revealed that overwhelming Muslim support for a Jewish candidate was about aligned ideas, not religion

Bernie's platform was most trenchant, and courageous, in relation to Palestine. "It cannot just simply be that we're just pro-Israel and we ignore the needs of the Palestinian people," he declared in February of 2020, continuing, "Take a look at what's going on in Gaza right now. You got youth unemployment, 70 percent, you know people can't leave the area," referring to Gaza's status as an open-air prison.

In 2016, Bernie also stated - emphatically - that it was the United Nations' 
responsibility to "rebuild Gaza", blazing a new trail on the matter that summoned the support of millions.

Early news coverage was confused by the burgeoning love affair between Muslim Americans and a Jewish American candidate from Vermont. Trite headlines, fixating on bigoted tropes that oriented Jews and Muslims as rivals, were abundant. But these were the views of outsiders that were not privy to Bernie's expanding footprint within Muslim American communities.

The Bernie campaign revealed that overwhelming Muslim support for a Jewish candidate was about aligned ideas, not religion. Bernie undid the bigoted and vile stereotype that Muslims wouldn't vote for a Jewish candidate. In fact, he put that trope to rest in 2016, and again in 2020, as Muslim Americans emerged as one of his most reliable bloc of supporters. And this support was pervasive across geographic and generational lines within Muslim America.

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

Days before the 2016 Michigan primary, I asked my mother - a 68-year-old immigrant from Egypt - who she was voting for. Without hesitation, she responded, "Bernie Sander… the Jewish guy that shouts like an Arab."

Suddenly, it was clear that more was afoot than just another candidate stumping in Muslim communities for votes. Entire blocs of voters, like my mother, who had never voted were pushing their friends to register to vote, donating whatever resources they had, and colour-coordinating their headscarves with their blue-and-white Bernie t-shirts.

2016 marked the beginning of a real love affair with a candidate that embraced Muslim Americans. Dodged and dehumanised by presidential candidates election after election, the community embraced a Jewish candidate who became one of their own, and moving forward, a benchmark other candidates would be compared to.

Bernie suspended his campaign on 8 April. Four years and a month after his historic primary win in Michigan, presumptively concluding his bid for the 2020 presidency, and ending hopes that he would ever claim the presidency. 

Bernie has won the hearts of generations of Muslim Americans - young and old, working class and wealthy

But over the last four years, Bernie has won the hearts of generations of Muslim Americans - young and old, working class and wealthy - who will remember him as the first presidential hopeful that was proud to represent them, fully and unapologetically.

"I'm heartbroken that Bernie didn't win," reflected Rusha Latif, who supported Sanders during the earliest stages of his 2016 campaign, "But I'm grateful for what he's done for us Muslims - for giving us hope."

The famous Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani once wrote,

"Everything in this world can be robbed and stolen, except one thing; this one thing is the love that emanates from a human being towards a solid commitment to a conviction or cause."

Bernie Sanders lived those words, and his unyielding commitment to the humanity of Muslims - within and outside the United States - will preside in our collective memory for generations to come. 
While the country fell short of propelling him to the presidency, Muslim Americans elected Bernie Sanders as their president, and just as importantly, one of their own.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor and author.  He is a native of Detroit, and sits on the US Commission for Civil Rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.