Standing outside a precinct in the south end of Dearborn that’s more than 90% Arab-American Muslim, Shiab Mussad handed out slips of paper in English and Arabic urging voters to support Bernie Sanders.
“He’s for people like us, people like me,” Mussad, 22, explained Tuesday as voters ambled toward Salina School, which sits close to the Ford Rouge plant. “I got thousands of dollars of college debt, and he talks about making college affordable, giving me a fair shot. That resonates a lot with me, with young voters.”
Mussad was motivated by Sanders’ message to print out bilingual pieces of paper that he hoped would persuade Arab Americans to vote for the senator from Vermont. While young voters at the polls Tuesday afternoon at Salina said they were for Sanders, Mussad had a tougher sell with older Arab Americans at the precinct, some of whom said they supported Hillary Clinton.
Mussad’s efforts are one way in which Arab Americans, Chaldeans, and Muslims across Michigan have mobilized or been closely watching the political process unfold over the past year. Some have been anxious hearing the rhetoric from candidates like Donald Trump, while others have hope their voices will be heard at a time when they’re under the spotlight.
On Monday afternoon, Sanders spoke to a packed theater that included many Arab-American Muslims, including several women wearing hijab, the Islamic headscarf, who sat behind him as he addressed the crowd. He was introduced by Detroit native U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress. Sanders met before the speech with the publisher of the Arab-American News, which endorsed him last week.
The narrative of Arab-American Muslims in Dearborn supporting a Jewish candidate was one that struck many on social media as a symbol of unity at a time of division on the campaign trail. On Tuesday, Sanders won Dearborn 63% to 37% over Clinton.
The Chaldean (Iraqi Catholic) community in metro Detroit has also been active, more so with the Republican candidates. Ohio Gov. John Kasich met on Monday in Troy with several Chaldean-American leaders, who expressed to him their concern about the persecution of minority Christians in Iraq. The Chaldean community has also worked with Senator Marco Rubio of Florida on the issue of Christians in Iraq, said Martin Manna, head of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce. And during the town hall on Fox News on Monday, a Chaldean-American man expressed to Sanders his concern about the plight of Christians in Iraq.
“Many in the community are concerned about the future of Christians in the Middle East,” Manna said. “They’re upset with the current administration for their handling of ISIS and lack of support for minorities in the Middle East, similar to the anger we witnessed when George W. Bush was president.”
The views of metro Detroit’s diverse Middle Eastern and Muslim communities greatly vary and there is no monolithic opinion or one candidate they’re all supporting. In Dearborn, the Arab-American Muslim community was strongly courted by Sanders over the past week. This week, Sanders released an Arabic-language radio ad aimed at Dearborn’s media market.
Speaking in Arabic, the narrator talks about attacks on Islam by Republican candidates, and then features Sanders saying in English, “we have got to stand together to end all forms of racism.”
Clinton disappointed some Muslim leaders by not reaching out more to the community. But she did defend Islam at a rally in Detroit, according to a CNN producer. And one of Clinton’s closest advisers, Huma Abedin, is a Michigan native who is Muslim and of South Asian descent.
Elderly Arab-Americans who voted at Salina in Dearborn for Clinton said they liked her experience.
“She has faith and she talks sense,” said Ahmad Musaad, 76, of Dearborn, who immigrated from Yemen to the U.S. in 1963. “She tells everything. No hiding.”
Mohammad Said, 66, of Dearborn agreed, saying that under her husband, Bill Clinton, and other Democrats, America prospered.
Younger Arab-Americans at Salina, though, said they were concerned that Clinton was a hawk who supported the invasion of Iraq and also is supporting war in Yemen. Many in the south end of Dearborn, where the Salina precinct is located, are of Yemeni descent.
Mussad, the 22-year-old who stood outside Salina School urging support for Sanders, said he’s in debt after earning his degree in biology at Wayne State University and trusts Sanders more to help people like him.
“He’s not beholden to the financial industry” like Clinton is, he said.
“I’m a millennial, so the obvious choice would be Bernie Sanders,” said Zayd Sufyan, 26, of Dearborn, a third-generation Arab-American Muslim. “He’s for the minority, he’s noticing the youth, wants them to be able to go to school without paying too much for it.”
As for Sanders being Jewish, Sufyan and Mussad said that was not a factor at all.
On social media, some “will see…my Arabic name and they’ll be like: Why are you supporting him? He’s Jewish,” Mussad said.
But “I support him because of his policies, not because of…his personal religion.”
“He has a good foreign policy record.”
The results from the Salina district weren’t available late Tuesday. In 2012, Republican candidate Ron Paul — who spoke in 2012 at the same theater that Sanders did on Monday — got 62% of the vote there among GOP candidates. In 2000, several Arab-American and Muslims leaders in metro Detroit had endorsed George W. Bush over Al Gore, as many in the community voted Republican.
But now, Arab-American Muslim voters expressed concern about Republican candidates such as Trump. Last week in a sermon in Detroit, Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini compared Trump with Hitler, and said U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rubio were also bigots.
“It alarms me to see that ignorance and discord have been given a platform,” said Suehaila Amen, 36, an Arab-American advocate in Dearborn Heights. “Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are greatly affected by the way political campaign rhetoric within the GOP has created a climate of fear, dissonance, and has allowed for fascist, racist, and bigoted comments to become the social norm, especially through social media outlets.”
At the same time, some said they weren’t too worried about the rhetoric on the campaign trail. Said said of Trump: “I hope he’s going to be Muslim. If he knew our religion, he might become a Muslim. He knows Islam the wrong way. Islam never tells you to be a terrorist.”
“I love America. The Muslim community, we love America.”
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