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Bernie Sanders talks tough in well-received address to US Muslims

On subjects such as Uighurs and the Saudi war in Yemen, presidential candidate makes an impression at the Islamic Society of North America convention
US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with Debbie Almontaser, founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, at the Islamic Society of North America's Convention in Houston, Texas, on Saturday (Reuters)
By Azad Essa in Houston

Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the leading candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, received a rousing welcome at a special event at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention, where he was given a standing ovation and made his presidential pitch to Muslims of America.

Organisers said some 6,000 people attended the event on Saturday evening, which also saw fellow Democrat candidate Julian Castro address the close-to-capacity crowd at the George R Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas.

According to the organisers, some 30,000 people are expected to make their way through the doors of the convention for a series of religious, cultural and political events, activities and discussion scheduled for the three-day conference, which ends on Monday. 

'The divisiveness and bigotry that Trump has introduced in the country can only be counteracted by a person like Bernie Sanders'

- Moosa Khan, attendee

Sanders and Castro were the only two Democratic candidates to accept ISNA's invitation to attend the event for a community that has felt increasingly marginalised under the presidency of Donald Trump. Attendees made no bones as to who they had come to see.

"I feel strongly that the divisiveness and bigotry that Trump has introduced in the country can only be counteracted by a person like Bernie Sanders," said Moosa Khan, who stood up to applaud the Vermont senator a number of times during his address.

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"His drastic ideas for change will cleanse this country, and Muslims should support him," the 56-year-old Texan told Middle East Eye.

Muslims make up 1.1 percent of the US population.

Attendees at the venue told MEE that Sanders had hit all the right notes, saying he had moved seamlessly from promising to relieve student debt and provide affordable health care to how he would tackle the scourge of gun violence in the country.

Sanders also said he would end Trump's so-called Muslim ban that has devastated families. He called for hate crimes and violence targeted at the Muslim community to be called "domestic terrorism".

"I like the issues he raised. I feel the same way about a lot of them," 57-year-old Paul Isa from Houston told MEE. 

"He made an effort to come here and talk and listen. He is showing his support for our community and he definitely has my vote."

Scathing criticism for war on Yemen

In contrast to Castro, Sanders' address and policy talking points seemed to have been tailored to appeal to some of the pressing concerns of the American Muslim community.

He was particularly scathing about Saudi Arabia and Iran, describing the war in Yemen as "one of their theatres of conflict". 

"As you know, the United States has been backing the brutal government of Saudi Arabia, whose intervention in that civil war has led to this humanitarian crisis where millions are at risk of starvation in what could be the worst famine in modern history," Sanders said.

The senator has repeatedly raised concerns about the US involvement in the war in Yemen, where Washington materially backs a Saudi-led coalition that is fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

In April 2019, Trump vetoed a Sanders-sponsored resolution that looked to end US support for the Saudi-led war effort.

"I particularly liked that he raised the issue of Yemen. It is something that cuts me deeply," Isa said.

Members of the audience at the Islamic Society of North America's convention in Houston, Texas (MEE/Azad Essa)
Members of the audience at the Islamic Society of North America's convention in Houston, Texas (MEE/Azad Essa)

Sanders also said that, as US president, he would hold China to account for its persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province. He also described India's unilateral decision in August to revoke the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir and impose a communication blockade and military siege on the valley as "unacceptable".

He then chastised "political elites in both the Republican and Democratic parties" for pursuing "endless wars and interventions".

Sanders said that, unlike Trump, who has "an affection for authoritarian regimes around the world," he "would make democracy and human rights a priority for the United States of America".

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Rhoeda Adewmi, 18, from Houston, indicated doubt over Sanders' ability to deliver on his promises. "I hope he is true to his word," she told MEE.

But honesty is precisely what Huda Khalid, from Houston, is banking on from the Vermont senator.

Khalid told MEE that, though she may not agree with everything Sanders says, she feels he is "consistent and honest".

The 31-year-old was alluding to Sanders' comments during a Q&A session with the audience, in which he reiterated that he was not a supporter of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel into ending its occupation and abuses of Palestinians. 

"He didn't say what I wanted him to say about BDS. But at least he is against the criminalisation of the boycott campaign. Most of all, he was honest in front of a crowd of Muslims who obviously support Palestine. I appreciate that," Khalid said.

Earlier in the evening, Sanders said that the US had to play a leading role in brokering a lasting peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis. He added that the approach had to be "even-handed," advocating further that ending the Israeli occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state was the end-game.

But for others, such as Dharakshan Raja with the Justice for Muslims Collective, Sanders might have talked a good game during the session, but he should have been pushed during the Q&A. Raja said the audience missed an opportunity to ask Sanders about the Democratic Party's complicity in the war on terror and in consolidating Islamophobia in the US. 

The Washington, DC-based Raja told MEE that, in response to questions around addressing white supremacy and nationalism, both Sanders and Castro promoted the idea that investment into programmes and institutions like the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and Department of Justice could tackle the issues.

"However, these same institutions have a history of targeting Muslim communities ... will we just see an expansion of the institutions that harm us?" she asked.

"Overall I believe engaging with two visible presidential candidates was a good opportunity for Muslim communities to demand and ask difficult questions," she said.

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