Skip to main content

Bernie Sanders' 'revolution' appeals to young Arab Americans

Sanders' speech in Dearborn, Michigan - known as the capital of Arab America - attracted hundreds of young Arabs and Muslims
People listen to Democratic presidential candidate, US Sen. Bernie Sanders speak at a campaign rally at United Auto Workers Union Local 600 on 15 February 2016 in Dearborn, Michigan (AFP)

DEARBORN, United States - When Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came to Dearborn, a city with one of the largest concentration of Arabs outside the Middle East, he mostly reiterated his message about economic inequality, stressing the need for reform on Wall Street.

Although the senator from Vermont did not focus on issues specific to Middle Eastern Americans, it did not stop the hundreds of young Arabs in attendance from cheering enthusiastically for his statements. Sanders' message is registering well with Arab Americans, especially those under 30.

Dearborn, a Detroit suburb of 100,000, is known as the capital of Arab America for its large Middle Eastern community. Sanders spoke at a local branch of the United Auto Workers union here on Monday.

In Dearborn, Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, focused on domestic economic policies, blasting corrupt bankers and billionaires. He called for almost doubling the minimum wage. 

But he subtly criticised interventionist policies and reminded the crowd that he opposed the war in Iraq. 

"If we can rebuild villages in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can damn well rebuild Flint, Michigan," he said. 

Flint, a post-industrial city about 60 miles from where Sanders was speaking, is facing a health crisis because of high lead levels in its drinking water. The contamination was triggered by a state decision to switch the source of the water. 

Diversity

Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American activist and comedian, said he is excited about Sanders' campaign because the senator speaks about racial justice issues more honestly than other candidates.

Sanders has repeatedly rebuffed Donald Trump's anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. He has also spoken about police brutality and war on drugs, which he says disproportionately targets African Americans. Last week, he released a campaign ad featuring the daughter of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was killed after being put in a choke hold by police officers in New York City in 2014.

Zahr said the Arab-American community, including small business owners and college students, would benefit from Sanders' economic plans.

"Arab Americans are mostly people who are in the middle class, who can use the kind of solutions that Bernie is proposing," Zahr said. 

Sanders' populist liberal appeal is in some ways reminiscent of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

Arab Americans may be disappointed with some of Obama's policies, but Zahr thinks Sanders will not fall short of expectations.

"Bernie has been walking this path for 40 years, and by the time he gets to the White House, it's pretty clear that it will be his last political job ever," Zahr said.

"He's not going to go out and give 10 or 15 years of speeches when he's done being president. We're hoping that he changes the system, not the other way around."

Sanders speaks to supporters in Dearborn (MEE/Ali Harb)

Zahr acknowledged that Sanders is "not great" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from an Arab point of view.

The senator advocates for a two-state solution, reaffirming Israel's right to exist in peace and Palestinians' right to a homeland where they can control their political and economic future. Sanders, a Jewish American, has been critical of Israeli violence in the past. But that criticism is often accompanied with a traditional rationale in Washington that Israel has a right to defend itself.

"Bernie says on his website that he would treat Palestinians and Israelis equally; Hillary (Clinton) would never say something like that," Zahr said.

The comedian added that no major candidate has framed foreign policy agendas in a way that would satisfy Arab Americans.

"Anyone who studies the Israel-Palestine conflict, if you only vote based on that, then you're never going to vote," Zahr said. "And if that's your choice, great. I choose not to make that choice. I choose to get involved as much as I can."

Rasha Almulaiki, a Yemeni-American feminist activist, echoed Zahr's comments.

"It really does the Arab-American movement a disservice if we don't go out to vote because of that single issue," she said. 

Almulaiki said she admires Sanders' consistent record on equality.

She added that she finds it "endearing" that Sanders' political speeches are not as polished as some of his opponents'.

Sanders' Dearborn rally was attended by dozens of Muslim women who wear the hijab, or headscarf, including Almulaiki. 

"It goes to show the type of diverse demographic that Bernie speaks to. Also, we're in Yemeniville," Almulaiki said of south Dearborn, where the campaign event took place.

Part of the movement

Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington-based political advocacy organisation, said young Arab Americans are not different than the general electorate.

"Having seen Sanders' campaign and the direction it took, and seeing the way it has been mobilising people across the country, with a particular focus on young people, it is not surprising to me that Arab-American college students will be a part of that movement," she said.

She sees young Arab Americans' support for Sanders in the context of his broad appeal for the youth. Politically involved Arab Americans have often rated candidates according to their domestic policies, not views on conflicts in the Middle East, Berry said.

"If the candidates aren't particularly different or better in regards to foreign policy, then it doesn't make sense for me to focus it on that," she said. "I am going to look more at who has an education policy that works for me and my family, who is better on healthcare, who is focused on jobs that would impact my state more."

Berry said as a lawmaker Sanders has been focused on economic issues that he feels are important to his constituents. "He has not had a much of a profile on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the Middle East for some time," she said.

However, Berry added that Sanders' position on the Iraq War showed an important level of foreign policy knowledge.

"As history has demonstrated, he had the right position on that," she said.

Sanders' ratings have surged in the polls over the past few months. Although he is still behind former secretary of state Clinton, he managed to close the popularity gap to 10 percentage points and win the New Hampshire primary.

The appeal

Sanders' promises to make public colleges tuition-free and reform student debt have earned him the support of younger voters. The senator's simple, down-to-earth demeanour is also registering well with young people.

"He is very humble. He is very good for minorities. He is more for the working class," Ingham Elqadhi, 20, said. 

Ilfat Maatouk, a 25-year-old engineer, said Sanders gives her hope that change is possible at the national level.

"He's a refreshing candidate, and he comes at a time when most young people have lost faith in our own political system," she said. "His integrity, his passion and energy revive our political interest. He is able to gather crowds of tens of thousands of people who are fed up with the hypocrisy and empty promises of Washington."

Maatouk added that Sanders may not be able to fulfil all the goals he set, but that it is great to see a politician taking on wealthy corporations and advocating for the people. 

Rawia Elmuflahi, 17, is not old enough to vote, but she came to the rally to show her support for Sanders. 

"He's real," she said. "He is upfront, and he says what he believes in."

Mahdi Shoukr, a Henry Ford College student, said he supports Sanders for his education platform. Asked if he thinks the candidate can deliver on his plans to eliminate tuition, Shoukr said: "I hope so, for my debt's sake."

Everyone attending the campaign rally in Dearborn had to undergo a security check. Supporters stood in front of the building for hours before the doors opened.

"Three hours in line to see #BernieSanders. I haven't waited this long to see a Jewish guy since the last time I was at Tel Aviv airport," Zahr, the comedian, tweeted.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.