Watching the watchdogs: Biden, US media and Arab-American political power

US media attacks on the Arab and Muslim American communities have only motivated them further to flex political muscle.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march during a visit by President Joe Biden in Warren, Mich., Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march during a February 1 visit by US President Joe Biden to Warren, Michigan, the United States [AP/Paul Sancya]

Arab- and Muslim-Americans and some 60 percent of all Americans have wanted for months for US President Joe Biden to pressure Israel into accepting an immediate ceasefire in the war on Gaza. The White House has all but ignored them.

So Arab- and Muslim-Americans decided to flex their political muscle by using their electoral power in critical swing states in this year’s presidential election. In December, community leaders from nine potential swing states met in Dearborn, Michigan under the slogan “Abandon Biden, ceasefire now”. They vowed not to vote for Biden in the November presidential polls unless he changes his policies that enable Israel’s genocidal attacks on Gaza, rob Palestinians of decent life conditions, and largely ignore the views of significant minority communities in the United States.

The campaign quickly attracted support in Michigan and other states with large Arab-American communities, along with criticism from Biden supporters who feared that the campaign to pressure the president might inadvertently guarantee a Donald Trump victory.

Arab- and Muslim-Americans intensified their campaign in February, when demeaning articles in the mainstream press helped mobilised even more community members.

On February 2, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an op-ed by Steven Stalinsky, titled Welcome to Dearborn, America’s Jihad Capital, which alleged “Imams and politicians in the Michigan city side with Hamas against Israel and Iran against the US.” The article tarred the entire community as dangerous extremists.

On the same day, a New York Times op-ed by Thomas Friedman metaphorically compared Middle Eastern countries and political actors to animals in the jungle, including trap-door spiders and wasps.

Whatever these – and other offensive articles and cartoons – aimed to achieve, they inadvertently propelled Arab-American engagements in high-stakes electoral politics. The city of Dearborn, Michigan, singled out by name and smeared in the WSJ article, became ground zero for this effort.

The Michigan community reached out to mobilise nationally with other marginalised communities that the White House has often ignored – notably African-Americans, Hispanics, progressive Jews, labourers, women, university students, and others. They joined hands because they share concerns about foreign policy as well as the White House’s domestic priorities and its opportunistic and self-serving citizen engagement.

The activists demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the implementation of existing legal restrictions on the unconditional aid and arms the US has provided Israel for decades. They are fed up with being ignored by a White House that takes their votes for granted, as well as by the Democratic Party they have helped boost through voter-registration drives since the mid-1980s. They are also incredibly frustrated with mainstream, often racist, media that misrepresent, demean, and ignore them.

I asked Dearborn Mayor Abdullah Hammoud this week why his town joins hands with other disgruntled American communities to impact national politics and foreign policy at the highest level. He said: “This is all about trust and respect between officials and citizens. We must end the discrepancy we see today between elected officials and the values of citizens. There are no possible justifications or qualifiers for genocide or killing babies and civilians on such a large scale. None at all.”

In our conversation and his public statements, Hammoud spelled out how US foreign policy and media coverage directly impact ordinary citizens.

“It’s personal for us, as some of our families have experienced Israeli occupation or wars, or volunteered in refugee camps,” he said. “When foreign policy decisions directly impact the wellbeing of Dearborn residents, it is irresponsible to walk away from difficult policy conversations that can lead to saving the lives of innocent men, women, and children.”

Hammoud was clear on his community’s demands: “We want action, not words”.

But so far, Arab- and Muslim-Americans have received mostly words. Worried about the “Abandon Biden” campaign, the president’s campaign staff approached local leaders to meet, but they refused. They insisted they wanted to talk with policymakers at the White House. And it worked.

Biden quickly sent to Michigan several of his staffers, including Jon Finer, principal deputy national security adviser; Tom Perez, senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; and Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

But after the meetings, nothing changed yet again. The Arab- and Muslim-American community received more nice words, and no action.

So as Biden maintained the flow of arms and money for Israel’s assault on Gaza, community leaders, including US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, decided to raise the stakes. They launched the “Listen to Michigan” campaign that asks “people of conscience” to list themselves as “uncommitted” in the presidential primary on Tuesday, February 27. This signals to Biden and the party that they must listen to citizens’ concerns, and earn their votes, or else risk losing in state and presidential elections.

The community leaders and activists dare to do this because they enjoy unprecedented leverage from the size and distribution of Arab- and Muslim-American voters in swing states like Michigan, where elections are tightly contested. Michigan is home to more than 300,000 Arab-Americans. Trump won the state by less than 11,000 votes in 2016, and Biden in 2020 by 154,000 votes, including many cast by Arab-Americans. Biden also won by 10,500 votes in Arizona, which is home to 60,000 Arab Americans, and by 11,800 votes in Georgia, where 57,000 Arab-Americans live.

Veteran Arab-American activist James Zogby, co-founder and president of the Arab American Institute, told me that this burst of action builds on 40 years of community capacity-building across the country. It captures Arab-Americans’ mindset that “is moving from paralysis and despair in the early 1980s to today’s feeling that we can control our destiny.”

The other partners in the informal coalition to change US policy add clout. Michigan’s large United Autoworkers Union has called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, recalling how it had also opposed apartheid in South Africa. The African Methodist Episcopal Church has also demanded an immediate ceasefire and called the attacks on Gaza “mass genocide”.

Progressive groups, such as US Senator Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution, have also joined the “Listen to Michigan” campaign.

Mayor Hammoud told me that coalitions of minority communities have always worked together on shared causes at the local level. But, he added, “I’ve never seen a paradigm shift on the Palestine issue like we see today, with up to 80 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of youth supporting the ceasefire we call for.”

One Arab-American who advised the White House in recent years also told me the newfound political leverage of the community “is unexpected, unfamiliar, and unprecedented.”

Indeed it is, and Tuesday’s Michigan primary should reveal precisely how impactful it might be – and if it can temper American war-making abroad by acknowledging its citizens at home who take seriously that their governance system is anchored in “the consent of the governed”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.