© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A 'Muslim Wave' Of Candidates In Michigan


This Tuesday voters in Michigan go to the polls for the state's primaries. And for Democrats, there's a new wave of candidates. Some are calling it a Muslim wave.


ABDUL EL-SAYED: That language of the impossible, it's there when they say to us, you're too young, too brown, too black, too female, too Muslim to lead.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's part of a campaign ad from progressive Democrat Abdul El-Sayed, who is running for governor. Other Muslim-Americans on the ballot for congressional seats are former state legislator Rashida Tlaib and former Obama administration official Fayrouz Saad.

Joining us now from Dearborn, Mich., is BuzzFeed's Hannah Allam to talk about the races. Hey there, Hannah.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's start with Abdul El-Sayed, the candidate for governor, whom you've interviewed. Tell us about him.

ALLAM: Abdul El-Sayed is a doctor, a Rhodes Scholar, a former director of the Detroit Health Department. And if his campaign is successful he'd be the first Muslim governor in the history of this country. So for that reason he's gotten a lot of hateful backlash for running. When I interviewed him first months ago, he had hired a bodyguard. He was keeping the location of his campaign headquarters secret out of security concerns.

But his campaign really tries to keep the focus more on his policies. He doesn't accept corporate money. He promotes single-payer health care, free college tuition for students whose family income is below $150,000 dollars, big promoter of a $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization and so on. So, you know, a lot of the focus has been on his background because of the milestone potential of this election. But, you know, he does try to I think steer it back to policy whenever he can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But as we heard there in his ad, he's not exactly baring his heritage.

ALLAM: Absolutely not. And it's clear it's something that he has a lot of pride and respect in - his roots. And I think that's kind of a generational shift from Arab-American and Muslim candidates who've maybe Anglicized their names or played down their backgrounds to run in the past. The message you get from El-Sayed's campaign is that this too is an American story - an Egyptian-American son of an immigrant and he's got this white Protestant contingent of his family, as well. And one of the stories he tells is how they learned to prepare halal venison so they could all eat together. And, you know, basically the message is, I don't have to change anything to appear more American because this is also American.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He was viewed as a longshot until recently when he got - until he got two really big endorsements, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

ALLAM: Yes, that's right. Yeah. He's definitely positioned himself as sort of the progressive pick against the establishment-Democrat opponents. He's earned the endorsement of Bernie Sanders. He'll campaign with him at two rallies this weekend - and of a rising star, yes - Ocasio-Cortez, who came out. She was here last week campaigning with him. And her win in New York six weeks ago was exactly the kind of upset that they are hoping to pull off here. And I will say that the same analysts and pollsters that months ago predicted that he was a longshot given his main opponents - you know, like the deep pockets, the establishment ties. They're now saying the gap has narrowed and that he should not be written off.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about the congressional primaries and the two female candidates there because, you know, he is not alone.

ALLAM: Definitely not. It's really been a record year for Muslims running for office across the nation. I would say Michigan, though, has been the showpiece. So in addition to Abdul El-Sayed, you have Rashida Tlaib, who for years was a state lawmaker - Fayrouz Saad running. And she was a former Obama administration official from Homeland Security. They're both running for U.S. Congressional seats. And these are also campaigns that have milestone potential because there's never been a Muslim woman in Congress. I've interviewed both of them over the past year. They've been hard at work fundraising, door-knocking, is supported by new Muslim-American PACs that have been very active on their behalf. And I would say that both women, like Abdul El-Sayed, have embraced their roots as Arab-Americans and Muslims. And I do remember one campaign ad for Fayrouz Saad where she starts off by joking about all the misspellings of her name on Starbucks coffee cups.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Muslim-American PACs - I guess that brings the other question. I mean, what has been the reaction there among the very large Muslim-American community in Michigan?

ALLAM: Well, I've been here a couple days now. And you definitely see the signs of it. You see in the local publications, local newspapers, and coffee shops and cafes. And, you know, Dearborn's famous for its Arabic food and sweets. And whenever you go into those places, you definitely see, you know, signs both in Arabic and English urging people to vote and to specifically vote for these candidates we're talking about. And, you know, I stopped by the Arab American Museum, and the woman at the front desk, we started talking about the election. Turns out she's been volunteering, handing out, you know, campaign literature and canvassing. And she was, like, 22 years old and had never done this kind of work before. So it's palpable. You definitely see a kind of energy here around these campaigns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Hannah Allam, reporter for BuzzFeed News. Thank you so much.

ALLAM: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.