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Michigan’s Arabs and Muslims push to defeat Biden in critical state

DEARBORN, Mich. — Mohammad Enayah relied on a cousin in Gaza for regular updates on his extended family living under Israel’s bombardment. He heard about the daily challenges his family faced in trying to survive: no access to running water, regular bombings and fleeing from one stranger’s home to another seeking safety.

Then, in November, he received the news he had been dreading: 30 members of his extended family had been killed by an Israeli airstrike on a refugee camp. He began to look at the list of names of those killed but couldn’t make it past the first one.

“The first name was so familiar,” Enayah said, his voice breaking as tears streamed down his face. “I just put it aside and I said, ‘I don’t want to read it.’ But to honor them, I had to. It took me a week just to go through the names.”

It is for that reason that Enayah, like many Arab American and Muslim voters in Dearborn are resolved not only to withhold their votes from President Biden, but also to actively campaign against him. Some Michigan Arabs and Muslims have launched an “Abandon Biden” campaign — part of a broader national movement still getting off the ground — to ensure that their community shows up to cast their votes, but not for Biden.

The campaign’s organizers, who also oppose Donald Trump, have not yet coalesced around a strategy for the general election. They are still debating whether to encourage voters to support a third-party candidate or to skip the presidential contest altogether while still voting for other offices. Either way, the organizers are telling Muslim and Arab voters that they should show up and vote, rather than stay home, so it is clear that Biden specifically has lost their votes.

A visit to this community makes it clear that even many voters who have not heard of the formal Abandon Biden campaign plan to deny Biden their vote. They are furious that a president they saw as an ally has unwaveringly backed Israel in a military campaign that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians and, in their view, shown scant empathy for the dead, wounded and displaced.

Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza has consumed Dearborn since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants rampaged through Israel’s border fence with Gaza, killing about 1,200 Israelis and taking 253 hostages, according to the latest count from the Israeli government. Israel launched a punishing retaliatory military campaign that has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians and relied on tactics widely condemned by human rights groups — including cutting off access to food, water, electricity and other basic necessities, which has put the tiny enclave’s more than 2 million residents at risk of starvation and disease.

Biden plans to visit Michigan on Thursday, a reflection of its importance to his electoral prospects. The state has one of the nation’s largest Arab American and Muslim populations, with about 300,000 people who claim ancestry from the Middle East or North Africa. Biden won Michigan by 154,000 votes in 2020 and is expected to face another tightly contested election this year against Trump.

Michigan’s Arab and Muslim community overwhelmingly supported Biden in 2020, and the loss of their support in significant numbers could complicate his chances of reelection. Biden has few, if any, paths to a second term without winning the state.

In Dearborn, which is majority Arab American, about three-quarters of voters supported Biden in 2020. As a result, he secured more than 30,000 votes from Dearborn alone, not including nearby cities that are also Arab American strongholds. State Rep. Alabas Farhat, a Democrat whose district includes most of Dearborn, said about 80 percent of Michigan’s Arab and Muslim population is Democratic.

Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud said the Israel-Gaza war is issue “number one, two and three” among his constituents. Residents have organized a steady stream of protests, fundraisers and other events for Palestinians in the enclave over the past four months.

The escalation of the war in recent weeks has meant that even more Dearborn residents, many of whom are of Lebanese and Yemeni descent, are directly affected. Several Yemeni Americans expressed dismay at the U.S. decision to launch near-daily strikes on the Houthis — a powerful faction in Yemen’s long-running civil war — in response to repeated attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea, which the Houthis say they have launched in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Many of Dearborn’s Lebanese residents have roots in the south of Lebanon, where Israel and the Hezbollah militant group have exchanged rocket fire since October, and said their families’ villages have been bombed.

Hammoud, Farhat and other Arab American elected officials refused to meet with Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez when she visited Michigan last week. Farhat and Hammoud said there is no point in talking to administration officials until Biden calls for a cease-fire.

“If this was a normal year, I would have taken that meeting. But this is not a normal year,” Farhat said in an interview. “If the president wants to start that process, it’s only feasible through a cease-fire. That’s the only way you can even restart the conversation.”

Chavez Rodriguez did meet with a number of other leaders from Michigan, according to a person familiar with her schedule, including local elected officials, leaders of the Arab American and Palestinian communities, and members of the Black and Hispanic communities.

Biden has tightly embraced Israel since the Hamas attack and provided unwavering support, even as a growing number of Democrats have urged the administration to call for a cease-fire. White House officials have said they do not support a cease-fire as long as Hamas is still able to rule Gaza. Biden and his top aides have urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to scale back the war, but Netanyahu has rejected these appeals in an increasingly defiant tone.

In interviews with more than two dozen Arab and Muslim voters across Dearborn, many of whom have lost loved ones during the war, common themes emerged in what angered them about Biden’s response. Nearly every voter cited Biden stating that Hamas had beheaded babies, a claim for which there has been no evidence; the president’s dismissal of the Palestinian casualty figures provided by the Gaza Health Ministry; his decision to circumvent Congress on two occasions to send Israel weapons; and what they describe as dehumanizing language about Palestinian suffering.

During a Friday prayer at the Islamic Center of Detroit last week, Imam and prominent civil rights activist Omar Suleiman lambasted the president’s repeated assertion that Hamas beheaded babies, arguing that it has put Palestinians in danger. He noted that a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in Chicago was fatally stabbed to death last year.

“And then your president wants to come to your community and make sure that you’re still going to vote with him and vote for him in November,” Suleiman said during a religious sermon. “I hope you’ve sent him the right message.”

After the sermon and prayer, Abandon Biden co-chairs Khalid Turaani and Samraa Luqman made an announcement about the effort, urging congregants to show up and vote in a way that ensures Biden does not retain the presidency. Turaani told those gathered they had no right to complain if they did not make their voices heard.

Arab and Muslim voters said they see a rare opportunity to demonstrate their power as a voting bloc and force politicians to more actively court their support. They said that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Muslim and Arab Americans have been afraid to speak out, but the war in Gaza — and the calls for a cease-fire outside of their community — has helped change that dynamic.

“For decades, we’ve squandered the power that we have here because [Democrats] were stringing us along, saying, ‘Vote for me, we’re not the other guy,’” said Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Lansing resident and an assistant professor at Michigan State University. “This is such a dangerous time that we’re finally willing to use that card, and [Biden] thinks we’re bluffing.”

Al-Adeimi noted the hundreds of thousands of people who have marched in support of a cease-fire, many of whom are not Arab or Muslim. “That gives us power to say we don’t have to be afraid anymore to express our views and our ideas about this,” she added.

Biden officials and allies say Israel must be allowed to eradicate Hamas, and that a cease-fire would simply allow the militant group time to regroup and rebuild.

They reject the idea that the president has been insensitive to the plight of the Palestinians, saying Biden has lamented the innocent lives lost. He has also said a two-state solution must follow the end of the war in Gaza, though Netanyahu has forcefully rejected the creation of a Palestinian state. In December, Biden said Israel was losing global support because of its “indiscriminate bombing.”

“President Biden knows the importance of earning the trust of every community, of upholding the sacred dignity and rights of all Americans,” Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “President Biden is working closely and proudly with leaders in the Muslim, Arab American and Palestinian communities in America, to listen to them about a wide range of issues, stand up for them, and fight back against hate. President Biden has also expressed deep concern about the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. He has urged Israel to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. He has also successfully pressed for humanitarian aid to be delivered in Gaza.”

Leaders of the Abandon Biden movement say these are weak gestures, but its critics question why Arab American and Muslim voters would be willing to risk another Trump presidency, given his record of deriding their communities. Trump, they say, would be far more supportive of Israel than Biden is. Trump has pledged not to allow any Palestinian refugees to come to the United States, they add, and he has used dehumanizing rhetoric about Palestinians and Muslims.

The president and his team are betting heavily that in a head-to-head contest between Biden and Trump, Arab American and Muslim voters could not ignore the myriad reasons they find Trump deeply unpalatable. Asked earlier this month about his falling support among Arab American and Muslim voters, Biden said: “The former president wants to put a ban on Arabs coming into the country. We understand who cares about the Arab population.”

But many Arab American and Muslim voters said the argument that Trump wants to ban Muslims does not move them when their loved ones are dying under Israel’s assault with U.S. backing.

Supporters of Israel also cite the bloodiness of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, when elderly people and children were killed or taken hostage and, according to some reports, some women were sexually assaulted. Hamas has built extensive tunnels under Gaza and embedded its militants in civilian areas, they say, adding that there is no way for Israel to prevent another attack without destroying these areas.

But human rights groups reject the notion that this many civilian deaths can be justified. Some prominent Arab Americans, including James Zogby, co-founder and president of the Arab American Institute, have warned Democratic leaders that the widespread dissatisfaction with Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war is putting his reelection at risk.

Zogby conducted a poll in October that showed that support for Biden among Arab Americans had plummeted to 17 percent, down from 59 percent in 2020. Zogby’s poll also found that two-thirds of Arab Americans have a negative view of Biden’s response to the violence in Israel and Gaza.

“There’s very deep hurt, and 25,000 or 30,000 lives aren’t going to come back,” Zogby said. “There is no way to recoup what’s been lost. There is the possibility of creating the opening for a conversation, but there has to be a rather dramatic change on some levels of policy.”

For Sami Baraka, the horrors his family in Gaza has had to endure have made it impossible to vote for Biden. His 103-year-old mother is blind and has been moved from one home to another seeking safety. He has lost more than 50 members of his extended family. Internet blackouts mean he has not received an update on his family in three weeks. He has a vacant home in Gaza where he has let strangers fleeing Israel’s bombardment stay.

He said he voted for the president in 2020 because he was “the lesser of two evils,” but he no longer feels that way.

Turaani, the co-chair of the Abandon Biden movement in Michigan, who had a Biden-Harris sign in his front yard in 2020, said that if Arab American and Muslim voters can help decide the election against Biden, it would send a clear message to future candidates.

“In America, we can just say, ‘We went against this guy because he went against our people, and we made him lose,’” Turaani said. “And I think that is just the way we market our campaign by saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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