'We’re calling for a ceasefire... Are you a Michigan voter?'

volunteers work at a phone bank in Michigan
Volunteers working at a phone bank in Dearborn, Michigan [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]
Volunteers working at a phone bank in Dearborn, Michigan. [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

Dearborn, Michigan - Beaming like a lottery winner, Abdualrahman Hamad extended his arm for a selfie with a group of nearly 20 organisers who had volunteered four hours of a recent Saturday afternoon to staff a phone bank.

In the conference room of a Michigan restaurant chain, he shared the photo with his relatives living in Gaza, then sat down in front of his laptop to begin making calls.

“Hi, this is Abdualrahman from the Michigan uncommitted campaign. We’re calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Are you a Michigan voter?”

Hamad is a 38-year-old ophthalmologist from the nearby city of Troy. Four months ago, he began volunteering for multiple local efforts to demand an end to Israel’s indiscriminate bombing and blockade of Gaza.

Local organisers across Dearborn and the larger Metro Detroit area have for years worked to increase voter turnout in Arab and Muslim communities, but this presidential election season is different.

Abdualrahman Hamad, 38,
Abdualrahman Hamad, 38, participates in a phone-banking event urging Michigan voters to vote 'uncommitted' [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

As the Palestinian death toll approaches 30,000, many Arab-American voters feel a renewed sense of urgency to louden their demands for the administration of United States President Joe Biden to stop Israel’s siege of Gaza. And nowhere is that truer than here, in this suburb on Detroit’s western border, which is home to the largest per capita Muslim population in the US.

Of all the casualties that can be attributed to the events of October 7 – when Hamas launched an attack on southern Israel killing an estimated 1,139 people – and Israel's subsequent invasion of Gaza, at least one birth can be added to the list: that of the twin nascent grassroots political movements Abandon Biden and Listen to Michigan. They are calling on voters in this critical swing state to refrain from casting a ballot in Tuesday's primary for an incumbent Democratic administration that has so far ignored calls for a ceasefire.

On the penultimate weekend before the Michigan primary, nearly 1,000 voters pledged to vote “uncommitted”, Mona Mawari, a local pharmacist and community organiser, told Al Jazeera. Mawari trains the phone bank volunteers for Listen to Michigan.

“An uncommitted vote is our strongest tool at the moment to achieve a permanent ceasefire,” Mawari told Al Jazeera. “Michigan is the first swing state to have a primary and if we deliver a sizeable uncommitted vote. It's a powerful statement to Biden that says we're not considering voting for you until you call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire.”

Listen to Michigan cannot deny the nomination to Biden who is running virtually unopposed for the party’s endorsement. But a strong showing on Tuesday could signal a wave of abstentions by liberal and left-leaning Democratic voters in November's general election, not because they favour the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump – who polls show will likely challenge Biden in November – but because they simply cannot accept the White House’s inertia while Israel slaughters Palestinian civilians by the tens of thousands.

Listen to Michigan hopes at least 10,000 residents vote 'uncommitted' in the primary [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

Appearing on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday, Representative Debbie Dingell said she was concerned about voter turnout and indifference heading into what is shaping up to be a difficult reelection campaign for Biden.

“I’ve lived in Dearborn for many years with my husband and there are two campaigns," she said. "One is an abandon Biden campaign, but the other, the major campaign that has made over a hundred thousand calls, we’ll see how many people vote on Tuesday, are trying to make sure the president hears them."

Acknowledging Biden’s failure to meet with the Arab-American community on a recent visit to Michigan, Dingell said:

"This community is pretty angry right now."

‘Absolute red line’

Hamad, the ophthalmologist, said he voted early and has already filled in the uncommitted option on his Democratic ballot. He has relatives who have been displaced and killed in Gaza, and others who are still there.

He said he has felt hopeless so many times in the last few months but busies himself with activities like phone banking, urging the Troy City Council to pass a ceasefire resolution and joining the Abandon Biden campaign to help stop Israeli attacks against Palestinians in Gaza.

“When a president or an elected official in America or anywhere else in the world supports genocide, that is an absolute red line,” Hamad said. “If Biden can't see the humanity and the children of Gaza that are being killed, he really doesn't have the morality or the compass to make any moral decisions for any of us here.”

He spoke to Al Jazeera as more than 1.5 million Palestinians – many of them already displaced – braced for an Israeli ground operation in the southernmost city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.

The looming attack has prompted the harshest rebuke yet from some Western countries and even Biden has warned Netanyahu not to proceed, according to the White House. Nevertheless, US officials have remained mum on whether the operation would constitute an elusive “red line” for Washington which has remained resolute in its support for Israel.

Last week, the US again vetoed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling for an immediate - and enduring - ceasefire.

On February 17, House Representative Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian and represents Dearborn in Congress, became the most prominent voice to join the “uncommitted” movement, saying it was “important to create a voting bloc, something that is a bullhorn, to say, ‘Enough is enough'.”

Many volunteers at the Listen to Michigan phone banking event are Arab or Dearborn natives but several are from outside Dearborn and Dearborn Heights and represent leftist political groups like the Democratic Socialists of America.

Julia Koumbassa, 45, is an early childhood professional who lives in Ypsilanti and has been involved with the Listen to Michigan campaign since it started earlier this month. She said she supported Palestinian rights but it was not until October that she joined efforts to advocate for their lives.

“I've been a Democrat forever, I knew they were problematic in many ways, but it's so apparent now,” said Koumbassa. “People who we thought were for justice, are really just funded by Israel.”

Koumbassa, who is white, said she worries about the safety of her African-American Muslim husband and children.

She pointed out the irony of Israel training law enforcement officers from the US and the increasing brutalisation of African Americans by police across the country as well as how hate crimes against Muslims in the US have increased in the last few months.

“Anybody with a brain and an ounce of humanity can see that what's happening is wrong,” she said.

Legacy of local advocacy and global cause

protest michigan
Lexis Zeidan protests Israel's attacks in Gaza in Dearborn, Michigan [Carlos Osorio/AP]
Lexis Zeidan yells chants to about three dozen people protesting Israel's attacks in Gaza, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 in Dearborn, Mich. The protesters gathered hoping to be heard by members of the Biden White House who were scheduled to meet in suburban Detroit with Muslim and Arab American leaders. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Some residents of Michigan see the current moment as less of an opportunity and more of a responsibility to leverage their local advocacy to stop the bloodshed abroad.

For 20 years, Samra'a Luqman, 41, has sought accountability for the abysmal air quality in Dearborn, a product of the auto industry, which ultimately brought millions of diverse workers to southeastern Michigan and shaped its modern demographics.

After “fighting for things like city investments or against racism or investment in the schools", Luqman told Al Jazeera that a pivot came in the wake of October 7.

She identified with Muslim leaders in nearby Minnesota who had demanded the Biden administration appeal for a ceasefire by October 31. Beyond that date, they said, the damage was done and they could not support Biden politically.

“Through community organising and strategising, I'm trying to support all the [political action committees] and the local leaders in order to get the turnout so that people still vote,” she said.

Samra'a Luqman hands out fliers outside of the American Moslem Society Mosque [Jeff Kowalsky/AFP]

Luqman sees the national Abandon Biden movement as an umbrella that includes campaigns like Listen to Michigan. However, Abandon Biden seeks to cast a wider net, supporting voting of all kinds – including for Republicans – as long as the ballot is not cast for Biden. That goes for both the primary and the general election.

In contrast, Listen to Michigan supporters have focused primarily on the Democratic primary. What comes next remains a matter of internal debate.

“This has really taken on a grassroots, community-centric approach. I'm talking to people in the mosque, in the school or people who go to or organise rallies, to really get the turnout,” Luqman told Al Jazeera.

Like Luqman, Listen to Michigan’s Mawari has deep experience with local advocacy, organising better Yemeni-American representation at the city level and advocating for the community after Trump effectively banned Yemenis and citizens from six other predominantly Muslim countries from travelling to the US.

In many ways, the pro-Palestinian movements that have emerged since October 7 underscore a long tradition of protest politics in Michigan, culminating in Jesse Jackson winning the state’s Democratic presidential primary in 1984.

Across the country, Arab-American and Muslim students began to find their voice following the 1967 war in which Israel’s military soundly defeated its Arab neighbours and went on to occupy Gaza, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.

Aligning with the “Third World Liberation” rhetoric adopted by white antiwar activists in groups such as the radical Weather Underground, and African-American dissidents in organisations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers, the Arab-American movement was further energised by the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, according to Pamela Pennock, the author of The Rise of the Arab American Left.

Groups like the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG)  and the Organization of Arab Students, with a critical mass in Michigan, sought "to demonstrate the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause by linking it to other global leftist, anti-imperialist causes", Pennock said.

‘Street’ level activism

Syrians began settling in the Detroit area more than a century ago, according to Sally Howell, the director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan. When Congress liberalised immigration policies in 1965, Muslim immigrants from Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine began to arrive in droves.

In the 1970s, a coalition of community activists successfully blocked a 25-year government effort to seize, through eminent domain, entire neighbourhoods – inhabited predominantly by Arab-American Muslims – in Dearborn's Southend area.

The event represented one of many struggles that "allowed Dearborn to persist and grow as the epicenter of both a large, diverse, and politically empowered Arab American community and an equally large and similarly empowered Muslim-American community," Howell wrote in a 2015 paper.

Amin, a volunteer, calls Michigan voters and urges them to vote 'uncommitted' [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

As an example of the institutions that grew out of the era, Pennock pointed to the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), a Dearborn-based community organisation that formed in the early 1970s and remains active today.

The group, which was more overtly political than it is today, linked together “Arab world issues [of] Arab justice to Arab immigrant issues in America…both local and transnational in scope”.

“And it greatly bothered the [predominantly white] power structure in Dearborn," she said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Nabeel Abraham, who was involved in student activism at Wayne State University in the 1970s, pointed to another prominent merger between local and transnational politics in Michigan: Arab-Americans' 50-year-effort to pressure the United Auto Workers to disinvest from Israeli bonds.

Growing electoral might: ‘We have the power’

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders listen to him speak during a campaign rally in Dearborn, Michigan in March 2020 [Paul Sancya/AP]
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders listen to him speak during a campaign rally in Dearborn, Michigan in March 2020 [Paul Sancya/AP]

In the US, the presidential contest is decided not by a national popular vote but by the electoral college.

Under the system, a state is allocated a certain proportion of 538 “electors”. Most states, including Michigan, award all of their electors to the candidate who wins the most votes in the state in the general election. The candidate who wins the most electors overall becomes the president.

Organisers in Michigan, like Nada Al-Hanooti, a senior consultant at the Emgage Action voter mobilisation group, are acutely aware of Michigan’s outsized role as a so-called “battleground state" - one that has traditionally swung between Republican and Democratic nominees.

“In 2020, we had about 145,000 Michigan Muslims go out to vote and Biden won by 150,000 votes,” she told Al Jazeera. “We have the power to sway Michigan and to sway this entire election cycle.”

In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state by roughly 10,000 votes, with several prominent groups in eastern Michigan refusing to endorse either candidate.

Yusra Nasser submits her ballot at Henry Ford School in Dearborn Michigan in 2010 [Paul Sancya/AP]

But the story of how the community has reached this point - where Arab and Muslim Americans are increasingly flexing their electoral might - is one of political exclusion, shifting demographics, persecution and the resulting response from a besieged community.

Exclusionary practices have long isolated Arab and Muslim Americans from mainstream US politics. Across the country, about 70 percent of Arab Americans are Muslim, depending on how the term is defined, and Arabs make up about 20 percent of US Muslims, according to Abdulkader Sinno, a professor of political science and Middle Eastern studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Both groups have been historically subject to "baiting", or instances where they have been isolated by politicians in attempts to shore up their pro-Israel or "national security" bonafides, he explained.

For decades, rejecting campaign donations from Arab and Muslim Americans was a relatively common practice for a wide array of Congress members who cited concerns about “terrorism". Accordingly, both political parties viewed Arab-American candidates for elected office as "untouchable", according to a 1986 report by the Arab American Institute's James Zogby and Helen Hatb Samhan.

During a close 2000 race for an open US Senate seat in New York, Hillary Clinton returned $50,000 in donations raised at an event hosted by the California-based American Muslim Alliance.

This arms-length relationship has had a chilling effect on voter turnout rates among Arab and Muslim Americans, increasing a broader feeling that the communities did not have a place in either party, Sinno said.

In fact, in past elections, Muslim Americans skewed towards the Republican Party.

Nationally, Muslims voted for George W Bush in the 2000 presidential election, according to Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) who has studied the Muslim vote.

That changed dramatically in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, which ushered in an unprecedented level of Muslim and Arab surveillance, rights abuses and Islamophobia.

That galvanised Arab communities, Walid said, but left voters with nowhere to go. They were stuck between a Republican Party viewed as “anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim” and a Democratic Party that continued to support wars in the Middle East and legislation that corroded Arab Americans’ civil rights, such as the 2001 Patriot Act.

‘We had a clear plan to promote Biden’

Then came progressive icon Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 bid for the Democratic nomination.

Sanders became the most mainstream candidate to engage with Muslim and Arab Americans in US history, continuing a tradition spearheaded by Jesse Jackson’s 1984 “Rainbow Coalition”, which sought to bridge the US's racial divide.

Jesse Jackson
Jesse Jackson speaks at the Islamic Center of America in Detroit in 1988 [Richard Sheinwald/AP]

“Sanders really spoke to Muslim Americans, who saw Secretary Clinton and Mr Biden as establishment people who voted in favour of wars that killed Muslims and voted in favour of certain policies - such as the Patriot Act - that did a lot of harm to our community,” Walid said.

Muslim and Arab Americans were seen as key to Sanders's 2016 primary upset against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in Michigan. In 2020, Sanders again performed well in Arab- and Muslim-dominated areas, including Dearborn, but was defeated by Biden, who at that point in the race already had a commanding delegate lead.

Emgage's Al-Hanooti recalled how efforts shifted – hesitantly – to turn out the vote for Biden following the 2020 primary as the threat of a second Trump term loomed.

Discord in the community was largely defined by concerns that Biden’s outreach during that election cycle was fundamentally shallow and that his myopic support for Israel would leave Arab Americans’ political needs neglected.

Nevertheless, “Before October 7, we had a clear plan to promote Biden. We didn't want another Trump presidency”, said Al-Hanooti, who was one of the community members who met with the Biden administration earlier this month to share their community’s demands and concerns.

“Now I feel like the community feels very betrayed - as they should be - [by] the president,” she said.

Coalition building and 'basic human dignity'

Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, speaks at an event to call for a ceasefire in Washington, DC [J Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press]
Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American in Congress, speaks at an event to call for a ceasefire in Washington, DC [J Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press]

“Palestine is a generational cause that has been passed down to us and one that we will pass on to our children," Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud wrote in a February 12 post on social media, alongside a photo of his late grandfather, Mohammed Hammoud, marching in a pro-Palestine rally in Detroit in 1989.

"We will continue marching and protesting until our Palestinian sisters and brothers get justice," he wrote.

The mayor has become a standard-bearer of Arab Americans’ condemnation of the Biden administration’s policy. Elected as Dearborn's first Muslim and Arab mayor in 2022, Hammoud is also emblematic of increasing Arab and Muslim representation in US politics, which has helped to amplify the pro-Palestinian movement’s voice in this political moment.

Arab Americans have come into their own in local offices across southeastern Michigan, taking a majority of seats on Dearborn’s City Council in 2013. The neighbouring jurisdictions of Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck have also elected their first Arab-American mayors in recent years.

At the national level, Keith Ellison was elected as the first Muslim member of the US Congress in 2006, and Representative Andre Carson, a Democrat from Indiana, followed two years later. Somali-American Ilhan Omar replaced Ellison in 2019, and that same year, Tlaib became the fourth Muslim and first Palestinian American elected to Congress.

Simultaneously, the increasing representation in elected office combined with Sanders's “political opening” to expand Arab and Muslim Americans’ political imagination.

Dylan Wegela, a Democrat who represents a predominantly white, working-class district in Michigan’s House of Representatives, has pledged to vote “uncommitted” in the primary.

“I wanted to sign on because I thought it was really important for [elected officials] that don’t represent Muslim-American and Arab-American majority communities,” he told Al Jazeera. “Because this is an issue that affects all human beings and all human life.”

Detroit City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, 32, also pledged to vote “uncommitted”, saying she was “tired of begging” the Democratic Party.

Still, the looming question of what will happen during the general election - and if card-carrying elected officials will continue to oppose their party’s candidate - persists.

Several prominent Democrats have warned against turning on Biden in the general election. It remains unclear how far the message has penetrated other key voting blocs in the state, particularly Black Democrats and white working-class voters.

Notably, the powerful United Auto Workers (UAW) union has called for a ceasefire but has also endorsed Biden.

“Any vote that is not cast, or is cast for a third party, or cast to send a message, makes it more likely that there is a Trump presidency,” Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has been leading the effort to turn out the state for Biden, told the New York Times last week.

For his part, Wegela said he had not received direct pushback from his Democratic colleagues but noted that only five members of his chamber have pledged to vote uncommitted. Still, he said he would “assess” how to proceed based on cues from the grassroots movement following the primary.

“Is getting to keep the White House the only consideration?” he asked. “Or do we have to start having a greater conversation about US foreign policy as well as just basic human dignity?"

'Government will not save us... Only community can'

A volunteer hands out a flyer at a grocery store in Dearborn, Michigan [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]
A volunteer hands out a flyer at a grocery store in Dearborn, Michigan [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

Back in the impromptu Listen to Michigan call centre, the smell of falafel and shawarma sandwiches lured volunteers to the kitchen for a lunch break after more than two hours of calls made from the conference rooms or stairwell, or while pacing back and forth down the hall.

“We just reached 20,000 calls!” organiser Mawari announced to the volunteers who met her with cheers and claps as they ate their lunch.

The building owner’s son popped in and congratulated the team for their efforts, asking if they needed anything from him.

One mother in a hijab came in with her daughter, telling the group they were glad they could do something - no matter how small - to help Gaza.

Michigan call
Volunteers urge Michigan voters to vote 'uncommitted' in the primary [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

Nearby, at the Dearborn Fresh Supermarket, Diana Kofaan, 26, took a flyer explaining the “uncommitted” vote and glanced briefly at it before putting it in her pocket.

"I can't, in good faith, vote for Biden ever again. And I cannot vote for Trump,” Kofaan told Al Jazeera.

Kofaan said she voted for Biden in 2020 to avoid another Trump presidency. She is aware of the “uncommitted” campaign but said she is tired of trying to convince politicians.

“I don't think my vote matters because I voted and here I am, struggling to get my government to admit that we need a ceasefire,” Kofaan said. “I've emailed and I've called and it's just like, I feel like they're ignoring me.”

Others like Nadeem Moselhi feel like they need to do anything possible to help Gaza. He was born in the US but lived in Egypt most of his life and was very aware of the constant attacks on Gaza over the past decade.

He moved back to the US about two years ago and now works at the Daily Fresh Supermarket. He is planning to vote for the first time this primary.

“Even if my vote ends up not mattering in the end, I’m still going to vote to at least feel better from the inside that I tried to make a difference,” Moselhi told Al Jazeera in Arabic.

“Gaza is always in our hearts and we have to try. Our voices are the least we can do.”

Mona Mawari
Mona Mawari cheers on volunteers in Dearborn, Michigan [Malak Silmi/Al Jazeera]

Lexis Zeidan, a co-manager of the Listen to Michigan campaign, sees the current movement as working towards something bigger, even if it is not felt for years.

“Most of the efforts now are less about the streets and protesting - which are still really important - but more about building bridges between key communities and then understanding the key moves that we can make that are going to influence special interest in a way to actually listen to what we're saying, because votes matter,” she said.

Regardless of what happens, the Michigan primary provides a valuable lesson on participatory democracy as opposed to passive democracy. Or, As Detroit City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero said, “Government will not save us - and I'm saying this as a politician - only community can.”

Source: Al Jazeera