Skip to main content

‘Staying out of the ring is not an option’: Palestinian woman runs for Congress

Former Michigan legislator Rashida Tlaib says she wants to impeach Donald Trump and focus on local issues
'Staying out of the ring is not an option,' Tlaib says (MEE/Ali Harb)

When candidate Donald Trump visited Detroit in 2016, former Michigan legislator Rashida Tlaib stood up during his speech and urged him to read the US Constitution. "Our children deserve better," she said, before being escorted out by security.

Now she hopes to be a member of the "jury" that will move him out of the White House. Tlaib is running for Congress to be the first Muslim woman on Capitol Hill. Among her goals, she says, is impeaching the president and helping the people of Michigan's 13th Congressional district.

"This is about electing the jury that's going to impeach him, and I make a heck of a juror," Tlaib told Middle East Eye.

"I'm not going to let go of the fact that he has committed a number of crimes that will come to light when we start the impeachment hearings."

For me being a woman of Muslim faith, being Arab American, all of that factors into a slap in the face to those who think we don't belong here in this country

- Rashida Tlaib

Besides his campaign's alleged collusion with Russia, Tlaib said, Trump is implicated in corruption and some of his policies are driven by financial self-interest.

Tlaib, a mother of two, is the oldest of 14 children in a Palestinian American family. In 2008, she became the first Muslim woman to be elected as a state representative. She is looking to fill the seat of Congressman John Conyers who retired last year after 52 years in Congress following sexual harassment accusations against him.

"Staying out of the ring is not an option," she said.

A proud Palestinian

While more people of ethnic and religious minorities have been seeking office since Trump got elected, Tlaib says she has a track record in policy that goes beyond identity politics.

In 2016, New York Magazine named her one of 10 activists who may become the future of the Democratic party as the "new Obama".  

Tlaib would not be the first Palestinian member of Congress. In 2008, Justin Amash, a Palestinian-American Republican from Western Michigan, was elected to the US House of Representatives. However, unlike Amash, Tlaib has not shied away from criticising Israel.

Successive US administrations of both major parties have taken Israel's side in Middle East conflicts, but Trump has been especially hostile to Palestinians.

Tlaib says she sees the Israeli Palestinian conflict through a 'human rights lens' (MEE/Ali Harb)
US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blocked the appointment of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad as UN envoy to Libya last year solely because of his nationality.

Tlaib said growing up in Detroit, she saw parallels between the civil rights movement in the US and Palestinians' struggle for justice.

The former state legislator added that she hopes to bring a "unique perspective" by advocating equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis. She is not afraid to stand up to "right-wing extremists" who attack anyone critical of Israel's policies.

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

The race

About a dozen candidates are running for Conyers' vacant seat, including the former congressman's son and nephew, Detroit's city council president and the mayor of a suburban community west of the city.

It's a safe Democratic seat, meaning victory in the August primaries would almost guarantee the winner a seat in Congress.

Tlaib's campaign and political work are locally oriented. She is running as a proven advocate of her constituents, not simply as a Muslim woman, she said.

In her six years in the state legislature, she earned praise in progressive circles as an "environmental warrior" who has taken on local tycoons and big industries.

Tlaib is campaigning on the ground, knocking on doors and introducing herself to residents. She said she wants to earn voters' trust by listening to them, not through flyers and endorsements.

Asked why voters should choose her, Tlaib responded: "I'm a person who works extremely hard, and I would always put them first."

Tlaib said her priorities in Congress would be to increase home ownership among her constituents, push for fairer insurance policies, strengthen public education, improve public health and fight for environmental justice in the face of deregulations.

Rachid Elabed, the candidate's brother, lauded Tlaib's passion for equality, which he said has earned her respect from people of all races and ideologies.

Elabed, a community organiser, said Tlaib taught him that change starts at the local level.

"She told me that as Arab Americans, we have to organise and work on domestic issues before we work on international issues," he said. "That's something that stuck with me."

Still, Tlaib acknowledged that her religion and ethnicity are "relevant" to her candidacy because of the rise of racism and Islamophobia.

"For me being a woman of Muslim faith, being Arab American, all of that factors into a slap in the face to those who think we don't belong here in this country… But at home, people just want somebody who works hard for them," she said.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

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.