In the end, the election—regardless of what Donald Trump says—was not close, at least not in Michigan. In 2016, he won the state by 10,000 votes. This year, he lost it by around 150,000.
A key part of Joe Biden’s win, Nada Al-Hanooti believes, is the Arab and Muslim vote. According to her estimates, around 80,000 Arabs and Muslims in Michigan voted via absentee ballot, most of them for Joe Biden.
Al-Hanooti, the daughter of Palestinian refugees, is the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of Emgage, an organization that seeks to empower Muslim Americans through political literacy and civic engagement. She was born in New Jersey and has lived in Dearborn for many years. In 2017, she unsuccessfully ran for Dearborn City Council.
I interviewed Al-Hanooti a few days after the election to get her take on the results.
How are you feeling about the election?
Honestly, I feel vindicated. This was a moment not only for the Muslim community, but also for all those have been targeted by this administration. We actually doubled our team and had 19 organizers in Michigan working on the election at all three levels, federal, state, and local. We are taking some time to absorb this win, but we are also getting back to work. We are working to get the Senate back (to Democrats) and keeping an eye on the lame duck cycle.
I read that as much as 17 percent or Muslims and Arabs supported Trump. What do you make of those numbers?
According to our numbers, we had 80,000 Muslims who voted in the election, the majority of them for Biden. Nationwide, we estimate that there might have been as many as one million Muslim votes, again most of them for Biden. That’s a significant number. I want to uplift the African American community. They make up around 28% of the American Muslim community. Arabs only make up around 14%. So, lots of love to the African American community for what they have done during this election.
A lot of voters I met in Dearborn said they were excited to vote because they wanted to get rid of Trump. How do you energize people now in a Democratic administration?
At first, Emgage was backing Bernie Sanders and as soon as Sanders lost, we endorsed Biden. And we backed Biden because another four years of Trump would disenfranchise us even more. We know who the Democratic party is. We know about their history of racism towards us. So we were voting for our Yemeni neighbors who have been affected by the Muslim ban. We were voting for Breonna Taylor. We were voting for those who are persecuted for wearing hijab. The Trump administration has been criminalizing our people and separating our people and our families. Our organizers dug deep. They did not treat this as a job. It was an act of service. On the day of the election, I was in Dearborn Heights, doing translation work at the polls since I speak Arabic. We all did this work and we engaged with this election on every front, from helping voters learn about how and where to vote, to endorsing candidates.
How can the Democratic party change?
Rashida and Ilhan broke down norms of white men in the party. The Democrats know now that they have to count on the Muslim vote and they sure as hell have to count on the African American community. I think having people like Bernie, the Squad, the Black Lives Matter movement—it shifts things for the Democratic party. And look, Biden is changing. At an event, he even quoted the Prophet Muhammad. That’s a big thing. In a country where it is criminalized to be a Muslim, where Islam is seen as evil. Obama did not go to a mosque until his second term. I get why he did that, because people thought he was Muslim, but we need to expect more from our leaders. So, we are still guarded now, and we plan to hold the Biden administration accountable. Biden said he would end the Muslim ban and if he doesn’t, he will hear from us.
Emgage has come under criticism for allegedly telling candidates to downplay their Muslim identity and for not talking about Palestine. How do you respond to that criticism?
I can’t speak for those people who are saying that. But for me, I’m Palestinian. And as a Palestinian, growing up you realize this injustice and I see the world through that lens. When I see the killing of African Americans in the US—that’s my struggle. I see that as a Palestinian struggle. At Emgage, we have been advocating for Palestine, for Kashmir. Our legislative director is a vocal supporter of BDS.
I know you ran for city council. What did you learn from the experience?
That was an eye-opening experience. I was waiting for the right time since I have wanted to run for office since I was 11 years old. But it was not easy. I was canvassing in Dearborn and this police office came up to me and said, “We have complaints from residents of a suspicious Middle Eastern girl walking around with a clipboard.”
I told the officer, first this is racist, and second, can you give them my pamphlets?
As someone who is white passing, I have privileges, but there are so many questions about my identity and about my name. But I ran proudly as a Muslim, as an Arab, as a Palestinian. I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be to run for office here for someone who is brown, or Black, or who wears hijab.
Call me naïve, but I always thought Dearborn was a chill place for Arabs and Muslims.
For sure, that’s true. But there are parts of Dearborn that I have never been to in my life because I don’t feel comfortable. There are parts that are quite racist. And remember, this city is not entirely Arab.
How has Dearborn changed politically during the time that you have been politically active?
It’s become very sophisticated. My dad founded the Arab American Political Action Committee like 30 years ago. My father opened the CAIR Michigan office. We had a lot of community members who were engaged. My generation started doing the grass roots organizing work. Politics is something we are taking on and we have succeeded at. Look at all the elected officials. Abdullah Hammoud, Rashida Tlaib, Abraham Aiyash. It’s an exciting time.