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Bernie Sanders won Arab Americans in Michigan. The media is wrong about why.

Michigan's Democratic primary was not supposed to have been one of the more thrilling Tuesdays in this long and bruising presidential primary. It had been declared a foregone conclusion well before the polls opened. Michigan was so surely an impending Clinton victory that one couldn't even call it her contest to lose — that would imply that Sen. Sanders had hope. Preliminary polls within the state found Clinton as much as 20 points up over Sanders. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver put her odds of winning at a supremely confident "greater than 99 percent."

And then Clinton lost. For a brief moment, the most shocking thing happening in Michigan wasn't that Rick Snyder remained comfortably ensconced in the governor's mansion, somehow not yet dragged by his bulldog jowls down to the banks of the Flint River and handed a bendy straw. In the parlance of professional sports analysis: This is why they play the games.

The Sanders victory has become the one-point margin that roared. Keep in mind that by the most generous delegate calculus — one that considers Clinton's pledged superdelegates still up for grabs — Sanders remains the second-place runner in a two-person race. However, the upset in Michigan had handed both camps and all media outlets an unforeseen narrative to manage. Sanders supporters hailed it as a campaign milestone and the pivotal moment their candidate would use to at last overtake Clinton; Clinton's people spun the loss as a minor setback on her otherwise steady course to the Democratic nomination. During the Democratic debate in Miami the night after, the upset remained so firmly central within the storyline that Clinton was asked about it directly. ("I won one of the contests and lost the other," she replied, touting her victory in Mississippi while otherwise choosing to remain placid.)

Within the scramble to explain how the conventional wisdom had been proven so wrong, the trusted electoral augurs so disappointingly human, several members of the commentariat class latched on to a singular shiny object: the statistic that Sanders had defeated Clinton within the city of Dearborn, population just shy of 100,000 with more than 40 percent of that population of Arab ancestry. Sanders won Dearborn by 20 points. Statewide, his support from those who identified as Muslim voters was proportionally the same level or better. WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer referred to it as his "stat of the night," and other pundits were soon to vocally register their wonderment as well.

Surprise of surprises, the story became. The Muslims have supported a Jew.


A bit about me: I arrived in the United States from Karachi, Pakistan, when I was less than a year old and was raised in a relatively quiet, middle-class suburb of Chicago. It's a biography that grants me the technical if not practical status of a "first-generation" immigrant.

My mother and father hail from Pakistan and India, respectively; both are lifelong, practicing Muslims. Chicago and its surrounding suburbs maintain a tight-knit community of Muslims from the countries of both the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. This community includes several families shaped like my own. with adult children now in their late 20s to early 40s who have never resided in any country but America.

My experience is not unique in and of itself. I endured many of the same pressures to succeed academically as my ethnic peers, the same conflicts about what media and popular culture it was appropriate for me to consume. I enjoyed much of the same discriminatory abuse as anybody else unfortunate enough to reside in the United States with the same skin tones and bone structures as ayatollahs, Baathist strongmen, and airline bombers.

That said, I cannot and will not personally declare myself qualified to speak for Muslims, including the communities of Dearborn or other regions of Michigan. Although born and raised within a Muslim family and community, my connection to that faith and culture remains prone to waxing and waning, much like the celestial body that serves as the foundation for its calendar.

Still, I can't ignore how completely the media has misunderstood and misinterpreted Sanders's win in Dearborn.


The Muslims have supported a Jew.

The analysis that Sanders' 70-30 margin in Dearborn Definitely Means Something, that this is an Omen of Primaries to Come, unravels by pulling at only a few straying strands of it.

Consider Dearborn itself. The Arab American Institute estimates that approximately 94 percent of all Arab Americans live in larger metropolitan areas, and in some cases the number of Arab Americans in these urban regions may be nearly equal to the total population of Dearborn itself. However, Dearborn's unique character comes not from its volume but its density of Arab-American residents. For the statistically minded, it seems to offer a rich opportunity to know the mind of the national Muslim electorate.

arab center

The Islamic Center of America mosque, in Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Except: "Arab American" is not synonymous with "Muslim." Dearborn's Arab-American population is in fact significantly Muslim — illustrated by America's largest mosque, the Islamic Center of America, having been a fixture of Dearborn for more than 50 years — but it is hardly monolithic, and not necessarily representative of larger populations.

The majority of Dearborn Muslims are Shiite, for example — but Shiite Muslims are a minority worldwide, representing less than 15 percent of the global Muslim population. Nationwide, Arab Christians represent nearly half of all Arab Americans; in Dearborn this proportion is much less. Dearborn is also made of a specific set of national identities, primarily Lebanese with smaller groups of Iraqis, Yemenis, and Palestinians. Furthermore, those Arab Americans who identify as either Shiite or Sunni Muslim are not themselves monolithic — like any people of faith, depth and manner of belief will show variation from person to person.

Further still, observe that only one-third of Dearborn's 60,000 registered voters made a point to cast a ballot at all on Tuesday; of these, 60 percent voted in the Democratic primary and 40 percent in the Republican primary. It is unclear how many of these 20,000 voters identify as Arab-American, Muslim, both, or neither. Tobin Grant at Religion News Service points out that the media is guilty of an ecological fallacy here, using the final results as a clear indicator of individual actions. Knowing that 40 percent of Dearborn's population is Arab-American — including those who are not of voting age — doesn't automatically tell us how that 40 percent voted. And it won't tell us how Muslims in other states will vote, either.


The Muslims have supported a Jew.

The essential concern about this construction isn't the fact itself. It's the way it presents itself as improbable.

The American understanding of Jews and Muslims as a whole has a tendency to be examined through the microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with its generations of failed peace accords and infuriating, endless bloodshed. One might even assume that this is a fundamental animus — that it is inherent, that it is bred into the genetic code of those who practice the Islamic faith to mistrust and dislike the Jewish people. Since Sen. Sanders is Jewish, he must be a revelatory candidate, for is it not astonishing how Muslims have so dramatically managed to overcome their natural hatred?

Thus far, it has come as something of a relief to me that I haven't seen counterpoint analyses of the Michigan primary results suggesting Clinton's failure to connect with Muslim voters is rooted in misogyny. This notion would be rooted in another prevailing perception that all Muslims are patriarchal creatures who could never see themselves agreeing to be led by a woman. That it has not been widely circulated at this time does not mean the opinion doesn't exist. Nor does that opinion cease to exist when one points out that Benazir Bhutto held the position of prime minister in heavily Islamic Pakistan, nearly two decades prior to America tentatively preparing to congratulate itself for just maybe possibly this time electing a woman to the presidency.

All of it is deeply reductive thinking. In its own way it is as damaging to the perception of American Muslims as the overt prejudice espoused by the loudmouth, firecracker-flinging charlatan who currently and jaw-droppingly remains the prohibitive favorite to win the Republican Party's nomination.

The modern paranoid mode regarding Muslims in America, any Muslim in America, is that without warning one of them could activate as an agent of mayhem, or at the very least seek to poison the principles of the nation by pouring Islamic law into the constitutional reservoir. This mode is so stitched into our daily lives that some Americans can't even look at a starving, traumatized Syrian child without being fearful that this child will murder them.

The result of such a paradigm is that even in this data point about a single state's primary victory, Muslims continue to be defined as a group by what they are assumed to hate: women, Jews, the Western world in general.

It seems to take an extraordinary force of will on the part of media analysts to instead consider these Muslim voters as individuals with nuanced sets of political beliefs. Sanders is indeed a secular Jew, but he is also a firebrand preacher against economic inequality and racist systems still festering within the American social structure. Clinton is not Jewish, but she also has in her long political career voted to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq and had a heavy hand in a government drone program that has killed numerous innocent civilians in its pursuit of confirmed terrorist operatives — a program, it should be noted, that Sanders has said he would continue.


The Muslims have supported a Jew.

The Muslims have also, in the past, supported Christian after Christian, despite being told in no uncertain terms that certain Christians don't want any Muslims living here; despite long-past historical instances of Christian persecution of Muslims during the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. Muslim Americans support candidates of non-Muslim faiths in their bids for elected office because they are invested in the quality of life and of leadership in America. And they do this because very rarely are they given the option to vote for another Muslim American for any elected office at all.

Bilal Dardai is a playwright, performer, essayist, and official guy in your newsfeed who's always posting about either politics or science fiction. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife and son.


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