Michigan Lawmaker Suggests Muslim Candidate Faces Hurdles Due To His Faith

ANN ARBOR, Mich. ― Rep. Debbie Dingell implied Saturday that Muslim Democrat Abdul El-Sayed, a fellow Democrat seeking the party’s gubernatorial nomination in Michigan, would face more obstacles because of his faith in the general election than the candidate she supports.

Dingell, like virtually all of the state’s Democratic establishment, is backing Gretchen Whitmer, the former Michigan Senate minority leader who leads in polls on the Aug. 7 primary.

After Dingell spoke at a rally held by the Michigan Nurses Association, a labor union locked in a contentious contract fight with the University of Michigan Health System, HuffPost asked Dingell why she was supporting Whitmer.

“We gotta win” the open governor’s seat, Dingell replied. “We hope Abdul stays very engaged in public policy. I think he’s one of the brightest people I know.

“But there’s too much at stake for working men and women in this election,” she continued. “And I think [Whitmer’s] the strongest candidate to win in the general.”

Dingell, who represents the Muslim hub of Dearborn, was then asked whether she believes Michigan is not ready to elect a Muslim as governor.

“I don’t want to say that because I think [El-Sayed’s] fabulous, and I represent one of the largest populations of Muslims in the country,” she said. “But there are people trying to divide us by fear and hatred, and [President Donald Trump] is one of them.”

Dingell’s comments reflect the unique challenges facing El-Sayed, a former director of the Detroit health deparment, and other Muslim Americans who run for office. They are frequently forced to answer not only for baseless accusations made by Islamophobes, but also to would-be allies concerned that other people’s biases toward Muslims make their candidacies politically unviable.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, one of four Republicans in the GOP gubernatorial primary, has already alleged ― without any evidence ― that El-Sayed is a Muslim Brotherhood agent bent on “civilizational jihad” against the United States. (Although he normally does not engage these allegations for fear of giving them credence, El-Sayed in an interview last year flatly denied any Muslim Brotherhood ties or that he was part of any conspiracy to impose Sharia law in the U.S.)

El-Sayed’s go-to answer for skeptics of his electability is to remind them of another man with a funny name who nobody thought could win: former President Barack Hussein Obama.

When asked about Dingell’s remarks, El-Sayed repeated to HuffPost a story he shared earlier on Saturday at a barbeque rally in Detroit’s East English Village neighborhood. As the valedictorian of his undergraduate class at the University of Michigan in 2007, El-Sayed delivered a speech to his fellow graduates. Former President Bill Clinton, the commencement ceremony’s keynote speaker, praised El-Sayed after his speech, suggesting he run for office instead of attending medical school.

El-Sayed initially laughed it off, reminding Clinton that his full name ― Abdulrahman ― is eleven letters long.

“I don’t know if that’s going to be possible for me,” El-Sayed remembered telling Clinton.

El-Sayed’s sense of what was possible changed radically after Obama’s election the following year, however. “It was the first time I ever saw myself in a politician,” El-Sayed told HuffPost.

“We will win because we have the honesty and humility to listen, learn from, and speak to all Michiganders,” he added. “That is what Michiganders are hungry for ― regardless of what my name is or how I pray.”

There were some signs at campaign stops on Saturday that the Obama analogy resonated with black voters.

After El-Sayed’s speech at a candidate meet-and-greet in a senior housing complex in Detroit, Mario Morrow, an alumnus of Kappa Alpha Psi, the historically black fraternity hosting the event, stepped up to the microphone to make some announcements. But before he got to official matters, Morrow, who has not endorsed in the race, had some kind words for El-Sayed.

“I remember a guy by the name of Barack Obama that they said couldn’t win either. So keep working hard,” Morrow said, unprompted. (El-Sayed had not used the Obama anecdote in his remarks at that stop.)

Eric Pate, the fraternity’s regional political and social action chairman, said that if people had “two cents’ worth of a brain,” they would listen to what El-Sayed had to say, rather than heed the conspiracy theories of Colbeck and others.

“He was speaking to where I come from,” Pate said. “He was talking about poor people. He was talking about things that help America be what it says it’s gonna be.”

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