Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Candidates like Abdul El-Sayed, who’s running for governor of Michigan and has drawn comparisons to Barack Obama, are unafraid of any Trump effect.
When Abdul El-Sayed addresses a town hall of Democratic stalwarts in a conservative pocket of southeast Michigan, he lets out out a battle cry. "Who believes that we have to put people ahead of profits?" he roars. "Who believes in democracy over dynasty?"
The former University of Michigan varsity lacrosse player has the air of a coach confident he’s on pace for a championship win. His athletic and academic success earned him a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and his degrees in medicine and public health led Detroit mayor Mike Duggan to tap him to restore municipal control over the city’s health department after bankruptcy proceedings in 2015. Now, at 32, El-Sayed is running to be Michigan’s next governor. If elected, he’ll be the first Muslim in American history to hold that position, a fact that he doesn’t shy away from despite a national climate rather hostile to people like him.
Although Islamophobic acts appear to be on the rise and immigration policies designed exclusively to target Muslims have been imposed by President Donald Trump, more Muslim Americans seem to be vying for political office than ever before. While some members of Trump’s cabinet have, in the past, claimed that Islam is fundamentally at odds with the Constitution, echoing longtime right-wing paranoia about Sharia Law, many of these nascent politicians say the things that put them on blast—their faith and immigrant roots —are what inspired their candidacies and desire to serve.
"My dad, he immigrated from Egypt, and he was looking for an America that was big enough for him too," El-Sayed tells the hundreds gathered in a banquet hall of overstated chandeliers and dizzying carpeting on a recent Tuesday evening. "He chose to come here because he knew he could raise their children to practice [their faith] as they wanted and be just as American as anyone else."
But his story is more nuanced than one might expect: El-Sayed’s parents split up and his father married Jacqueline Johnson, a white woman from central Michigan. In the middle of his stump speech, the candidate asks his stepmother’s parents—Judy and Jan—to stand before painting a picture of Thanksgiving in their household.
"I’ve got my dad, Mohamed, who’s a part-time imam and leads prayer at the mosque, and I’ve got my Grandma Judy and she’s a deacon in her Presbyterian Church. And then we’ve got the wildcard, my uncle Piotr, who immigrated from what is now Poland, who’s a devout atheist." El-Sayed says. "And we sit together and we eat our turkey and we have conversations about God and country and we don’t always agree. But I’ll tell you we always respect each other."
The Democrat’s fate rests on a resurgence of that kind of mutual respect after the state narrowly—and surprisingly —voted in favor of Donald Trump for president. The pitch seems to play well, albeit to a friendly audience: the crowd is dotted with pink pussy hats and jackets emblazoned with union logos. Nearly the entire group rises to its feet and cheers when El-Sayed wraps up his speech with an explicit appeal for support.
The man’s cadence and energy remind Gary Fougni, a retired 63-year-old in attendance, of another candidate with a diverse background and Midwestern roots: Barack Obama. Fougnie appreciates how forthcoming El-Sayed is about his background. He knows a bit about the challenge El-Sayed faces, having worked in the defense industry alongside many who swapped their Middle-Eastern names for ones more familiar to those in the American Midwest.
"I was very pleased that he puts himself out there [with his faith]," Fougni says. Still, he doubts that sentiment will be shared very widely across the Great Lakes State. "It’s gunna be an uphill situation for him, because unfortunately there’s not a lot of open-mindedness… He’ll give a good speech but all they’ll think about is where he came from."
This is exactly what many people with immigrant backgrounds fear when entering the fray of public life, according to Sayu Bhojwani, who heads up the New American Leaders Project (NALP). A majority of applicants to the organization’s political trainings "cite some marker of their identity as an obstacle: name, religion, appearance, skin color, and or immigration status," she explains. "They talk about how each of those things could be perceived as a barrier."
Despite those fears, NALP has seen double the normal number of applicants —and double the number of Muslim American applicants—over the last year.
When I drop in to one of the trainings for potential candidates from New York, Colorado, and Michigan at the Arab-American Museum in Dearborn, Bhojwani offers simple but essential advice. "Because of who you are, how you look, what your name is, you will be asked questions that perhaps a white candidate might not be asked," she says in a room tucked away from where other aspiring politicians are practicing their speeches.
Instead of getting defensive as opponents and voters whittle them down to a series of negative stereotypes, Bhojwani says, would-be candidates should take a sip of water, count to ten, and then "pivot back to the message and the reason that you’re running."
Check out the recent VICE News Tonight segment on the ongoing crisis of displaced migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.
Derogatory comments and false accusations come with the territory, according to Nadeem Mazen, an MIT-educated engineer who serves in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Council. Breitbart, the alt-right site formerly run by Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon, called Mazen an "aggressive anti-police activist" with "Islamist sympathies" just after he secured another term in November 2015.
Mazen was expecting such a blow. After all, he says, every single Muslim American he knows who’s made an attempt at a career in politics "has been targeted in a smear campaign without exception."
But when I broach the prospect of facing off against angry Trump supporters with the potential candidates at the training in Michigan, few seem particularly worried.
"People might come at me with some xenophobic and discriminatory comments, but I think calling it out as it is is really important," says 28-year-old Ghida Dagher, who was the campaign manaager for Abdullah Hammoud, a state representative in the Dearborn area. Still, she notes, it’s important not to let prejudice dictate the terms of debate. "The more you feed into that rhetoric, the more that you get stuck in it."
Abdul El-Sayed has already taken his own share of abuse and factually dubious skepticism. Earlier this month, a right-wing blog accused him of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which he denies. Driving in what he calls his "trusty Ford Explorer" from a campaign stop in Northern Michigan into the potholed expanse of highways surrounding Detroit, El-Sayed says his faith is his North Star, but not really relevant to running the state of Michigan.
"I’m proud of my faith and I’m proud of who I am, I’m not leaning away from it at all," he tells me over the phone. "I didn’t change my name. I didn’t shave my beard. My wife wears a hijab. But it’s not what’s going to build an economy. It’s not what’s going to rebuild our schools or address our public health challenges."
Part of why he’s entering politics is to prove that politicians don’t have to fit the old white man mould.
"For me," El-Sayed says, "There is a responsibility to stand up and say, ‘Look, whichever color I am and however I pray, I think I’ve got a skill set that my state needs right now.’"
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