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Wave of Muslim American candidates embracing left-wing politics

Many Arab and Muslim candidates are seeking office with left-wing talking points and populist energy
Democratic socialist firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been campaigning with Michigan governor candidate Abdul El-Sayed (MEE/Ali Harb)

DETROIT, United States - Abdul El-Sayed is the "only progressive candidate" for governor in Michigan, rising democratic socialist star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Saturday, calling the Egyptian American doctor the "foam at the tip" of a wave for social, economic and environmental justice.

El-Sayed may become the first Muslim governor in the country. He has been featured by various media outlets across the world for that. But at home, he has built a base of support by pushing for policies that address economic disparities in the state.

Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old progressive firebrand who defeated a senior Democratic congressman in New York to win the party's nomination last month, is touring Michigan with El-Sayed to mobilise the left-wing base.

"We did it in the Bronx," she said of her unlikely victory. "And we're going to do it in Michigan."

El-Sayed advocates for a $15 minimum wage, tighter environmental protections and a tax-funded healthcare system that cover all residents. He also wants to make Michigan a "sanctuary state" for undocumented immigrants.

He is one of many Arab and Muslim candidates seeking office with left-wing talking points and populist energy. His platform echoes the spirit of Bernie Sanders's left-of-the-establishment presidential campaign.

"They're telling us that some of us are not as American as others, except that they've forgotten the fact of the matter that America has been about all of us coming together," El-Sayed told hundreds of supporters in Detroit through thunderous cheers on Saturday.

At 33, his youth and relative inexperience have made him a target of criticism, but most decisive have been the attacks falsely linking him to the Muslim Brotherhood because of his faith and Egyptian roots.

'Too Muslim'

At the rally in Detroit, El-Sayed repeated Abraham Lincoln's famous words on the need for a government "for the people by the people" no fewer than five times. His point was that corporations are gaining too much power in the government.

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Sanders endorsed El-Sayed for governor last week. And Ocasio-Cortez is using her newly acquired fame to help get him elected.

"The future of this party is working people," Ocasio-Cortez said of Democrats at the Detroit event on Saturday. "The future of this party is the marginalised - it is women... it is people of colour; it is intersectional; it is allyship."

Across Michigan and the US, Arab and Muslim candidates are finding themselves in the anti-establishment camp, just as Arab and Muslim voters backed Sanders's 2016 campaign.

El-Sayed told Middle East Eye that it is natural for Arabs and Muslim Americans to be drawn to progressive politics.

"It's an agenda that articulates a future where all of us can belong to the fabric of America; and the notion that it can include anybody," he said.

"If you look at both Alexandria and I, we don't look like usual candidates. We're both too young, too brown, and I'm too Muslim."

Muslim women for Congress

Dawud Walid, the Michigan executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said Muslim Americans have been moving leftward on the political spectrum.

"The blatant racism of the Republican Party, as well as the failure of the mainstream Democratic establishment, have pushed many people of colour more to the left, including many of our Muslim politicians," Walid told MEE.

In the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, the Arab and Muslim community overwhelmingly supported Sanders in the primaries in 2016 and Hillary Clinton later in the general election, partly because of Trump's anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The right evangelical Christians are the ones who are trying to bring their own form of religious law, not us. We are actually on the opposite end of that

- Linda Sarsour, Muslim American activist

Two Arab-American women who are Muslim are running for US Congress in separate districts in Michigan. Both want to increase the minimum wage and work for universal healthcare.

Fayrouz Saad, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, who had served as the head of immigrant affairs in Detroit, is running in a district currently occupied by a Republican congressman. Former state representative Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American environmental advocate, is vying for the top spot in a crowded primary for a safe Democratic seat.

Palestinian American environmental advocate Rashida Tlaib is looking to become first Muslim woman in Congress (MEE/Ali Harb)
On Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez appeared to back the two women at a rally in Dearborn to encourage Muslims to vote.

"I can't do it alone, just one seat out of 435 isn't what's going to get us there," she told a crowd of supporters. "I need you to send Fayrouz with me. I need you to send Rashida with me. I need you to knock those doors and send us all, so that 2018 isn't the year that we elect our first Muslim woman to Congress, it's that we get our first class of Muslim women to Congress."

In Minnesota, Somali American state representative Ilhan Omar, is looking to fill the seat of Muslim American Congressman Keith Ellison, who is looking to become the state's attorney general.

Ellison was among the few US lawmakers to endorse Sanders in 2016. Omar is also running on a left-wing platform.

'The right issues'

Prominent Muslim activist Linda Sarsour, who was a national surrogate for Sanders's campaign in 2016, said the ideals of universal health care, immigrant rights and fair wages transcend political labels. She called them human values.

"I don't consider myself a progressive or a leftist," she told MEE. "I'm a Muslim activist who believes everybody should be able to thrive in our country. That's why people like Abdul and Rashida are resonating with people who are outside our community. They're talking to everybody."

Michigan state representative Abdullah Hammoud, who is the only member of the state legislature to endorse El-Sayed, echoed Sarsour's comments.

"I don't brand it as being left-wing. I think it's advocating for the right issues," he told MEE.

'I'm a Muslim activist who believes everybody should be able to thrive in our country,' Linda Sarsour said (MEE/Ali Harb)
For all the energy and publicity on the ground, El-Sayed has been lagging in public opinion polls, but he has dismissed the surveys as faulty because they do not account for the overwhelming majority of his base of young people who do not use home phones.

El-Sayed is the former director of the Detroit health department. His campaign credits him for drastically improving the department that was in disarray before his appointment in 2015.

In the primaries, El-Sayed is facing off against an ex-leader in the state Senate who enjoys the backing of the top brass of the Democratic Party and a businessman who was reportedly debating running as a Republican. If El-Sayed wins on 7 August, he would face one of three Republicans running in the opposite primaries, including the Trump-backed Michigan attorney general.

Religion and politics

Right-wing groups have made unfounded accusations that Muslim candidates may not be fit to serve in public office because they would favour "Sharia law" over the US constitution.

Critics of that rationale argue that most Muslim candidates are running on a socially liberal agenda that promotes LGBT rights and women's reproductive rights. For example, El-Sayed has endorsed the legalisation of recreational marijuana in Michigan.

"In fact, the Muslim candidates are the ones who are centring the constitution as the foundation of what they're running on, and dignity and respect for all people," Sarsour, who has been campaigning for Muslim candidates in Michigan, told MEE.

"The right evangelical Christians are the ones who are trying to bring their own form of religious law, not us. We are actually on the opposite end of that."

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Still, the Muslim-American community remains largely socially conservative.

Palestinian American comedian and activist Amer Zahr said the inclusiveness of left-wing politics leaves space for people to express themselves without agreeing on every single ideology.

"The progressive movement, for instance, doesn't say we're in favour of abortion; it says we're in favour of abortion rights," Zahr told MEE.

Tlaib, removed from a Trump rally in 2016 after loudly asking a question during his speech, relished the thought of shocking the US president, who she said would not be able to comprehend that there is a Muslim woman in Congress.

"Oh my God, when he sees in November when I walk into the House floor," she told supporters on Sunday.

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