Friday October 16, 2020
Dearborn is home to the global headquarters of automaker Ford as well as the largest mosque in the US, the Islamic Center of America. © Yona Helaoua, France 24
In Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit where one-third of residents identify as Arab-American or are of Arab descent, Muslim voters lean decidedly towards the Democrats. And while Joe Biden wasn’t the first choice for many here, widespread opposition to President Donald Trump is bringing voters into his camp.
The last time Nada Al-Hanooti came to the Starbucks in the bustling downtown of Dearborn, Michigan, it was to meet another reporter. The activist, who serves as executive director for Michigan of the Muslim political action group Emgage, has spent most of her days working from home since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. And it’s been keeping her on her toes.
Al-Hanooti’s chief goal now is to mobilise Michigan voters for the presidential election.
“2020 is literally the most important election year for all of us as Americans, and all people of colour,” she told FRANCE 24.
Dearborn, which borders the city of Detroit, is known as the birthplace of industrialist Henry Ford, and to this day it hosts the automaker’s global headquarters. The city also has the largest US Muslim population in the United States per capita. Restaurants and businesses display signs in English and Arabic; on Ford Road, opposite Henry Ford College and the University of Michigan, sits the largest US mosque, the Islamic Center of America.
Along with Detroit, Dearborn is part of Michigan’s heavily gerrymandered
Wayne County and, specifically, sits on the edge of the district that in 2018 sent Democrat Rashida Tlaib to Congress. Tlaib is one of the four members of the congressional group dubbed the “Squad” that is seen as pushing Democrats to the left and which stokes outrage among Republicans.
Dearborn was also one of the few bright spots for Bernie Sanders this year in a state that otherwise tipped decisively towards Joe Biden, after going to the democratic socialist in 2016. Sanders won the March Democratic primary in Dearborn with 62 percent of the vote, nearly double Biden’s tally.
“Dearborn loves Bernie. It’s ironic that a bunch of Muslims adore a Jewish man, breaking all Western stereotypes,” said Al-Hanooti, who is of Palestinian origin. “My Palestinian community (adores him), because he was the first person that validated the right to exist for Palestinians, which is so simple, but no politician has ever been brave enough to say so.”
A drop in enthusiasm after Sanders bowed out
Today, Al-Hanooti and her team are doing their best to convince fellow Muslims to show up for Biden, whom many see as “another establishment white man”. She said it’s been a struggle.
“We knew that there was going to be a lot of work to do,” she said. “Minority communities … feel so much distrust with the Democratic establishment, as they should, because the Democratic establishment has not served us, and a lot of times it has been racist towards our communities.”
“With Michigan being a battleground state, the Muslim community has a huge opportunity to swing this election,” says Nada Al-Hanooti, executive director for Michigan of the Muslim political action group Emgage. © Yona Helaoua, France 24
With her favorite candidate out, Al-Hanooti adjusted her pitch to voters who are on the fence: “The real work comes when he’s elected, and that’s when we're going to lobby and make sure we hold him accountable.” Whatever her reservations, she said, “the opposition is way, way worse”.
“Biden’s not so hot on Palestine, but Trump literally made Jerusalem the capital of Israel,” she said. “No establishment Dem would ever do that.”
On July 20, Biden addressed US Muslims in a virtual summit organised by Emgage, and Al-Hanooti was pleasantly surprised by what she heard.
“He said, ‘I’m going to repeal the Muslim ban on day one,’ and … he actually quoted the Prophet!” she said. “I think Bernie actually pushed Biden to do better.”
No room for error
Like so many Americans, Dearborn residents were hit hard by Covid-19, and the local economy is still recovering.
“A lot of people lost their jobs, including my own mother,” who worked in a mosque, Al-Hanooti said.
The pandemic has also complicated her work, ruling out door-to-door canvassing, which Al-Hanooti calls “the best way to get to people”. Instead, Emgage has been focusing on phone and social media outreach. Altogether this year, she said her team has sent out 1.3 million text messages and made 240,000 calls, including tens of thousands in the last month alone.
Al-Hanooti, who is 29, is leading a team of 19 people this election season, most of them younger. The outcome of this election, she said, is in the hands of her 16- to 25-year-old organisers – and “they’re killing it”.
As of October 14, polling compiled by Real Clear Politics puts Biden roughly 7 points ahead of Trump in Michigan. But Democrats know that’s no sure bet. Hillary Clinton was also leading the state in mid-October 2016, and ended up losing it by fewer than 11,000 votes. For Al-Hanooti, the key to not repeating the past can be summed up in one word: turnout.
“In Michigan right now, we have 270,000 registered Muslims. In Wayne County alone we have 125,000 registered Muslims,” she said. “With Michigan being a battleground state, the Muslim community has a huge opportunity to swing this election.”
Muslim turnout increased 19 points in 2018 relative to two years before, and Al-Hanooti is counting on that trend continuing. She cites election reforms passed in 2018 that made it easier to vote early and absentee in the state.
“If you give minority groups easy access to voting, they will go vote,” she said. She also expects Biden to do significantly better than Clinton among local Muslims, many of whom were wary of the Democrats’ 2016 candidate, in part because of her positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
‘There is no doubt anymore’
Imam Hassan Qazwini is on the same page. The imam, who immigrated to the US from Iraq in 1992, is the founder of the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights. While he can’t encourage his congregants to vote one way or the other, he is urging them to show up to the polls in large numbers. Personally, he supported Sanders in the primaries, but he has since rallied behind Biden.
“Hillary was not liked by Americans to begin with, including the Muslim community,” he said. “She did not project the image of a sincere candidate ... With Biden, it’s a little bit different.”
“Knowing the stakes... I think most Muslims are fully aware of the consequences of not voting,” says Imam Hassan Qazwini, founder of the Islamic Institute of America in Dearborn Heights. © Yona Helaoua, France 24
Qazwini said Trump’s record has been bad enough that Muslims are “probably more motivated to go vote this time than any other previous election”.
“Knowing the stakes, knowing the impact that their vote can make, I think most Muslims are fully aware of the consequences of not voting,” he said.
For Qazwini, that means that even if Biden isn’t a “perfect choice”, he’s likely to win among Arab-Americans.
“Those who had a little doubt four years ago – who said, ‘Give him a chance’ – now they have no doubt that the man is a disaster, and if he continues to be president for another four years, God knows where he will be taking us to,” he said.
Among the imam’s acquaintances, a small sliver voted for the Republican in 2016. Qazwini is confident it won’t happen again.
“There is no doubt anymore,” the imam reiterated, after Trump “marginalised Muslims” and “supported white supremacy” as leader of “the most powerful country on earth”.
“He cost our economy a big deal, he cost our health,” Qazwini said, citing the more than 200,000 coronavirus deaths in the US. That was before Trump himself tested positive for the virus in early October.
Qazwini, who is Shiite, closely follows Washington’s policies towards Iran.
“The Iranian people – 85 million people – are suffering because of the unjustifiable sanctions the US is imposing on them,” he said. Trump “doesn’t care about human rights. He supports dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East.”
Qazwini is eager for his adopted country to turn the page.
“I am not proud to be American under the presidency of a man like Donald Trump.”