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Historic first: Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib is elected to Congress

Tlaib, an environmental advocate and former state legislator, will be one of two Muslim women to sit in Congress
Rashida Tlaib edged out opponents in a crowded pool of Democratic candidates (MEE/Ali Harb)

DETROIT, United States - Palestinian American progressive activist Rashida Tlaib became one of the first two Muslim women to be elected to Congress on Tuesday.

Ilhan Omar, a Somali American state representative from Minnesota, also won her congressional race.

Tlaib, a former state legislator known for her environmental advocacy, edged out opponents in a crowded pool of Democratic candidates in the primaries in August.

Her district, which includes parts of Detroit and some working-class surrounding suburbs, is home to a safe Democratic seat.

On Tuesday, she fended off a last-minute write-in campaign from Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, whom Tlaib defeated in the primaries.

In an interview with Middle East Eye after her electoral victory, Tlaib expressed happiness about the outcome but cautioned that a lot more work needs to be done in Congress.

"It's like happy chaos. It's exciting. There's just so much more to do," Tlaib said. "I feel like I’m trying to celebrate and be in this moment and it’s pretty incredible but at the same time, I know that there’s so much more work to do."

Tlaib added that she is prepared to take on the "biggest bully," referring to President Donald Trump.

Her first priority as a Congresswoman, she said, is to introduce and expand civil rights legislation.

'It happened now, at a time where we just feel there's so much hate in our country'

- Rashida Tlaib, Congresswoman-elect 

Tlaib will succeed veteran civil rights Congressman John Conyers, who resigned from the House of Representatives last year after sexual harassment allegations, having served there for 52 years.

Delivering the results to supporters on Tuesday night, Tlaib, a mother of two, introduced herself with her newly earned title. "I am Congresswoman-elect Rashida Tlaib."

She stressed the importance of the timing of her victory during a presidency which has seen anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric increase.

"It happened now, at a time where we just feel there's so much hate in our country," she said.

Enthusiastic support

Rose Khalifa, a Tlaib supporter, said the Palestinian American activist’s victory proves that hard-working citizens can be elected to positions where they can help people.

"I have known Rashida for the last 15 years, and on a routine basis my encounters with her are always about serving the community, making the changes and fighting for those who do not have the resources to fight for themselves," Khalifa said.

"Being the voice for those who do not have [the] ability, or the knowledge with which to pursue the change that they need for their community."

Rashida Tlaib greets supporters with her mother at an election night rally (MEE/Ali Harb)

Fiana Arbab, a 23-year old supporter, similarly highlighted how much Tlaib's electoral victory meant to her and her parents, who immigrated to the US shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

"I'm just so grateful that she exists, and she is so powerful with her existence, paving the pathway for all of us, making sure that we're safe and we're equal in this country that really was meant to be all of ours collectively," Arbab said.

Rashad Elabed, one of Tlaib's brothers, told MEE that being the oldest of 14 siblings contributed to her leadership qualities.

"She's been the toughest out of all my siblings," he said. "We're all different personalities... It gave her a sense of people, you know?"

Tlaib's platform

Although Tlaib ran a campaign focused on local issues, including raising the minimum wage, increasing home-ownership and improving public education for her constituents, she has not avoided comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Late in August, she broke with Washington norms of backing the two-state solution, endorsing one state for Israel and the Palestinian territories with equal rights for all citizens.

"It has to be one state," Tlaib told In These Times magazine in an interview. "Separate but equal does not work. I’m only 42 years old, but my teachers were of that generation that marched with Martin Luther King. This whole idea of a two-state solution, it doesn’t work."

But her position cost her the endorsement of liberal Jewish American lobby J Street, which pulled its support.

Tlaib told MEE in March that, as a Detroiter, she sees parallels between Palestinians' struggle for justice and the civil rights movement in the United States.

She added that she would bring a "unique perspective" to Congress by advocating for equal rights for both Palestinians and Israelis.

"I have been very clear to everyone who has asked about this issue that I see everything through a human rights lens," Tlaib said.

Tlaib will be the second Palestinian American in Congress after Justin Amash, a Republican representing western Michigan who won re-election on Tuesday.