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Muslims surge to electoral victories in largest Arab American city

In 'wake-up call' to Trump-led Republican Party, Democrats win in local and statewide races across US
Dearborn City Council President Susan Dabaja (C) with her family after Tuesday's election results were announced (MEE/Ali Harb)

DEARBORN, United States - Dearborn City Council President Susan Dabaja leaped with excitement when the final results of the local election came in on Tuesday night. She then kissed her husband and thanked her supporters for helping her retain her seat.

The 40-year-old Lebanese American mother-of-three placed first in a pool of 14 candidates. On the same evening, minority and Democratic candidates succeeded in local and state races across the US, in what was seen as the first electoral pushback against President Donald Trump.

“It’s a gratifying feeling,” Dabaja told Middle East Eye shortly after the results were announced. “I feel so privileged and so honoured. I know these words are used very often, but I mean them with every ounce of my heart.”

Dearborn, a Michigan city of about 100,000 and home to the highest concentration of Arabs in the US, has been the target of demonising campaigns by far-right activists who have made false claims that the city is under Islamic law and boasts Muslim “no-go zones” that are off-limits to police.

If we don’t mobilise and organise, then we have no room to complain.

-Abdullah Hammoud, Michigan lawmaker

Dabaja said she was able to appeal to voters across the city by sticking to her roots - “just being me, Susan”.

“People understand who I am. They know I’m genuine about my intentions for the city of Dearborn,” she said.

When Dabaja, a lawyer, won the council presidency four years ago, she made national headlines as the first woman, first Arab and first Muslim to be elected to the office.

But her reelection on Tuesday, in the age of Trump and divisive politics, is even more significant, her supporters say.

The top four spots of the seven-member Dearborn City Council went to Arab Americans (MEE/Ali Harb)
“I’m thrilled that Dearborn can come together,” 27-year-old resident Hassan Nasralah told MEE on Tuesday. “This amount of votes for an Arab American, Muslim woman two times in a row, I think that’s astronomical.”

Nasralah said election results reflect the city’s sense of equality and unity.

“Everyone wants to talk about sharia law and women being placed in the house,” he said. “We don’t have that in Dearborn. Our women can reach to the highest levels of office.”

Zeinab Moughnia, a history teacher, said Dabaja’s reelection proves that she has gained the trust of the community.

“This gives me a lot of encouragement and enthusiasm that more of the future generations of Arab-American, Muslim women can hold office,” she said.

Despite low Arab turnout in the local primaries in August, the top four spots of the seven-member Dearborn City Council went to Arab Americans, including two Muslims in Tuesday’s non-partisan election.

According to the 2010 Census, 42 percent of the city’s population is of Arab ethnicity, but the actual number may be even higher because Arab Americans are not counted directly.

Mike Sareini, an attorney whose mother, Suzanne Sareini, in 1990 became the first Arab American to be elected to Dearborn’s council, came in second and will serve as the local body’s pro tem.

Dabaja said Dearborn’s diversity and ability to unite is what makes it a unique city.

“Dearborn is one of the best places to live in the world… Our differences are things that make us unique, and those are the things that we should be celebrating,” she told MEE, holding back tears.

Elsewhere in the US, Democrats won in local and statewide races in Virginia, New York, Washington State, New Jersey and Georgia in what has been described as a “wake-up call” to the Trump-led Republican Party.

In Hoboken, New Jersey, Democratic Councilman Ravi Bhalla was elected to be one of the first Sikh mayors in the country. During the campaign, Bhalla faced racist attacks, including an incident in which leaflets were distributed anonymously to residents with his picture with the caption, "Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town."

Sikhs, who are wrongly perceived as Muslims, have suffered regularly from anti-Muslim hate crimes. In 2012, a white supremacist militant fatally shot six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. 

Abdullah Hammoud, a Michigan state representative from Dearborn, hailed Tuesday’s “remarkable” results, which came on the eve of the first anniversary of Trump's election. The 26-year-old lawmaker called for greater political participation and engagement from young voters and people of colour.

“Beyond Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, all minorities, all individuals who feel like their voices are silenced need to organise and mobilise - because without it, look at what we’re left with,” he told MEE, referring to Trump's victory a year ago.

“If we don’t mobilise and organise, then we have no room to complain.”

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