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Rashida Tlaib's Real Victory is that She Ran her Campaign as a Muslim Palestinian Woman – and Won

posted on: Aug 12, 2018

Perversely, Trump’s vitriol might have helped her win the Michigan primary by opening the door to opposing narratives, writes Hussein Ibish



The victory of Rashida Tlaib in the Democratic Party primary for Michigan’s 13th congressional district is being widely hailed as historic. But its real significance is largely misunderstood.

In November, Ms Tlaib will not face a Republican opponent because her district is so heavily Democratic that the GOP hasn’t bothered to put up a candidate. That means she is almost certain to become the first Muslim American woman member of Congress.

That’s very important. But the bigger breakthrough is more complex and, in many ways, much more unlikely.

Ms Tlaib won’t be the first Arab-American in the House of Representatives. At least a score of Arab-Americans, many of them women, preceded her.

She won’t be the first Palestinian-American either. Justin Amash already represents a conservative Michigan district. There have even been at least two Palestinian Americans in the Senate: John Sununu and his son, also called John Sununu, both represented New Hampshire in the Senate.

She’s not going to be the first Muslim American in the House either. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana are already serving.

She will indeed be the first Muslim woman in Congress but that’s not really the central point either.

The historic significance of Ms Tlaib’s extraordinary victory is that she will be the Arab-American member of Congress fully produced by and completely representing her community.

For all her predecessors in Congress, whether they are Arab-American or Muslim, these identities were, at most, incidental to their political identity and success. Some played them down. Others embraced them quietly. But none have highlighted and even campaigned on their identity, as Ms Tlaib has so proudly done.

Rashida Tlaib's Real Victory is that She Ran her Campaign as a Muslim Palestinian Woman – and Won
Rashida Tlaib campaigning in 2012. Charles Tines / AP

The same applies to Mr Ellison and Mr Carson, the Muslim lawmakers. Both are African-American converts to Islam. Neither have particularly Islamic names and it’s very likely that they are largely regarded by their constituents as trustworthy politicians who, probably incidentally, happen to be Muslims. Neither shied away from their religious affiliation but they didn’t campaign on it either.

Ms Tlaib is truly a product of not merely the Arab-American community. Far more significantly, the lawyer, the eldest of 14 children born to Palestinian immigrants, is the first fully fledged member of the Arab-American activist cadre to break so deeply into the political mainstream.

She has worked with a number of significant Arab-American organisations in Michigan and nationally.

Rashida Tlaib's Real Victory is that She Ran her Campaign as a Muslim Palestinian Woman – and Won
Fadwa Tlaib, an aunt of Rashida Tlaib, points to a young Rashida in a 1987 picture with her mother Fatima and brother Nader, at the family house, in the West Bank village of Beit Ur al-Foqa. Nasser Nasser / AP 

Ms Tlaib takes over from 89-year-old John Conyers, who held the seat for more than five decades before stepping down in December after a spate of sexual harassment allegations from several female staffers, which he denied.

She fought her own battle against sexual harassment in 2012 when she accused Imad Hamad, the Michigan director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, of hounding her 13 years earlier. In an open letter to ADC’s headquarters in Washington, Ms Tlaib came out publicly as a victim of Mr Hamad. Despite not getting the support of the board of directors, more women came forward and Mr Hamad retired the same year.

Until now all the Arab-Americans in Congress have been Christians, which is significant. All the Muslim Americans previously have been African-Americans, which is also telling.

Those of us who have followed the political fortunes of the Arab-American community have understood that it was no accident that while there were Arabs and Muslims in Congress, there weren’t any Muslim Arab-Americans.

That’s partly because the Arab-American community used to be much more heavily Christian and Christian parts of the community were more assimilated and well-established. Much the same applies to African-American Muslims.

But it’s also partly because in the post-9/11 environment, one could more or less get away with being an Arab or a Muslim, but not both.

That’s the real glass ceiling Ms Tlaib has shattered. Of course it’s significant that she’s going to be the first Muslim woman in Congress. But that’s not the biggest breakthrough.

Indeed, Ms Tlaib ran, openly and proudly, on a trifecta of politically stigmatised and marginalised identities: Arab, Palestinian and Muslim. That she did so as a woman and won is all the more remarkable.

Obviously it’s no accident she’s been elected in Michigan, home of the largest Arab-American community in the United States and that, by taking Mr Conyers’ seat, she will be representing much of Detroit.

But it’s also perversely predictable that she has been elected in the Donald Trump era. American politics tends to swing wildly between polar opposites. The cool, aloof and cerebral African-American law professor Barack Obama has given way to the raging, white nationalist, reality TV star Mr Trump.

Mr Trump’s domination of American politics is counter-intuitively opening the door for many advances that might otherwise be impossible, including Ms Tlaib’s stunning victory. His vitriol is mainstreaming certain ideas and identities in an equal and opposite reaction.

It’s very American that with the travel ban in place affecting Muslim-majority countries, a Palestinian-American Muslim woman will have a seat in the next Congress.

She represents everything the current president opposes: she’s a democratic socialist in favour of universal healthcare, a Palestinian, a Muslim and the daughter of immigrants from a place very unlike Norway.

Indeed, Ms Tlaib’s campaign for Congress essentially began when she was arrested for heckling Mr Trump in 2016. No wonder she won.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and previously worked at ADC’s national headquarters from 1998 to 2004