My friend Rashida: Far more than the First Muslim American Congresswoman
Tlaib’s commitment to social justice and grassroots organizing is what fueled her to knock down the ultimate door, and make history
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN
BY: KHALED A BEYDOUN
I walked into Rashida Tlaib’s election watch party shortly after midnight. Making the fifteen minute drive from downtown Detroit, where Abdul El-Sayed, the Muslim physician hopeful for the Michigan governorship held his party, to the gritty Old Redford neighborhood on the city’s northwest side, where Rashida set up her headquarters.
Hip-hop, salsa, Detroit house and Arabic music thumped from the speakers. The cafe walls, where the party was being held, were adorned with the work of local artists. There were no suits or gowns, just the squeak of sneakers and blue campaign T-shirts filling the room. Tlaib’s party felt like a real party, where millennials of all races mingled naturally with middle-aged and elderly supporters that were celebrating as the results rolled in. The mood was the opposite of El-Sayed’s party, who conceded to his opponent roughly two hours earlier, in a neighborhood far from the gentrifying sections of Detroit and even farther from the cameras touting the once-bankrupt city’s “comeback”.
But this is precisely who the candidate, – widely known by her first name alone – is. And exactly where the seasoned community organizer and south-west Detroit-bred politician, celebrated as “the first Muslim American congresswoman”, is supposed to be.
Nearly twelve years earlier, I walked into Rashida’s office at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (Access) looking for support against a ballot proposal that sought to abolish affirmative action in Michigan – also my home state.
After scores of Arab and Muslim American community leaders slammed their doors shut on standing for racial equity in Michigan, the lot of them branding affirmative action “a black issue that doesn’t concern us,” Rashida took no convincing, instantly lending her individual support and the entire weight of her organization. For more than a year, Rashida emerged as one of the strongest voices in our effort, fiercely holding that “racial and economic inequality in black and Latino neighborhoods” mandates upholding affirmative action, and that Arab Americans too were the beneficiaries of race-conscious college and employment programs.
Her message was intersectional long before “intersectionality” was catapulted into the prevailing social justice lexicon. Fighting American Islamophobia was her mandate before the phenomenon became a catchy buzzword. She tenaciously challenged anti-black racism years before the Black Lives Matter movement mainstreamed it into popular consciousness. Rashida defiantly stepped up against the state, and land-seizing billionaires, to defend the rights of vulnerable elements in her community, south-west Detroit, which was predominantly Latinx.
As Detroiters, growing up outside the boundaries of Dearborn – the Arab and Muslim American hub and symbolic capitol – Rashida and I were raised in liminal spaces where disparate communities overlapped and coexisted. Spaces where hardened nationalisms blurred, and opened the door for bridge building across racial and religious lines. Being Detroiters meant just as much as being Arab or Muslim, namely because the former connected us to black and Latino, poor and white neighbors that endured many of the same hardships we did.
I was two years out of law school, and it was two years before Rashida would be elected as the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan legislature. Together, Rashida and I held workshops seeking to undo the deception of poor and of color voters around affirmative action, organized racial literacy packets with her (then) toddler Adam at her side, and placed lawn signs and knocked on doors throughout Dearborn and Detroit in defense of racial justice in Michigan.
Twelve years later, this commitment to social justice and grassroots organizing is what fueled Rashida to knock down the ultimate door, and make history as America’s first Palestinian and Muslim congresswomen. And indeed, that was the very spirit represented by the brilliantly diverse sea of people that celebrated until Rashida was ready to declare victory, at 2.46am on Wednesday morning.
Flanked by her son, Adam, her younger brother Rachid, and her campaign staff, Rashida, in tears, shouted: “I love this campaign and what it represents. It inspired people around the country to know that you do not need to sell out, you do not need to change who you are, to run for office. Be who you are – it’s what our country needs right now.”
Everybody in the room, black and White, Muslim and Jew, young and old, citizen and undocumented hung on to her every word. Her tears met with the joyful tears of so many more in the old office space converted into campaign headquarters. And people in the room celebrated Tlaib’s landmark moment as if they were headed to Washington DC to serve in Congress. Her message was broader than her proud identity as a Palestinian and Muslim American woman, and her mission went beyond serving specific ethnic or religious communities.
Everything was homegrown at Rashida’s party – from the place, to the people, and most vividly, the politics. A bona fide progressive, who sowed her commitment to fighting for immigrants and the poor as a community organizer in south-west Detroit, and against the meddling arms of corporate millionaires as a state congresswomen. This is the same woman who told Matty Maroun, a Michigan billionaire seeking to build a bridge in her congressional district in 2013, “to get out of my backyard,” and exposed the pattern of sexual abuse and harassment by a (once) respected head of an Arab civil rights organization.
That fearlessness, and the fight behind it, is what defined Rashida when I first met her and what continues to defines her when she made history on 8 August. Stepping up for the most vulnerable, and speaking unfiltered truth directly to power, the essence of leadership that Michigan and I have known for a long time, and that Washington DC and Donald Trump will come to know very well in January 2019.