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In Michigan, Muslim and Arab American Voters Reconsider Support for Biden

Sam Baydoun, a Wayne County commissioner in Dearborn, Mich., has been glued to Al Jazeera for weeks to absorb news from the war in Israel and Gaza.

Mr. Baydoun, a Democrat who is Lebanese American, has watched with fury as Israeli airstrikes have caused the deaths of many civilians, including children, following the deadly attack by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed many. He saw President Biden visit Israel and pledge full-throated American support.

And he is thinking ahead to the presidential election of 2024, a contest that could hinge on a handful of states including Michigan, whose Muslim and Arab American voters turned out decisively for Mr. Biden three years ago.

“How can I tell somebody who’s watching these atrocities on live TV, today, to vote for President Biden?” he said. “The pulse of the community is overwhelmingly not supportive of Biden now. They feel betrayed.”

There are about 200,000 registered Muslim American voters in Michigan, by some counts, a significant bloc in a battleground state of 8.2 million registered voters.Credit…Valaurian Waller for The New York Times

That anger at the Biden administration’s response to the conflict in the Mideast is widely shared by Arab Americans in Michigan, especially in Wayne County, which includes the cities of Hamtramck and Dearborn, where Muslims have a large population and have been elected to top leadership roles.

Mr. Biden has made repeated gestures of support to Muslims and Arab Americans: In an Oval Office address on Oct. 20, he denounced Islamophobia and the death of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old who was fatally stabbed in Illinois in what authorities have called a hate crime. Mr. Biden said he was “heartbroken” by the loss of Palestinian life in the war: “We can’t ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians who only want to live in peace and have an opportunity,” he said.

Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for the president’s re-election campaign, said that Mr. Biden “knows the importance of earning the trust of every community, of upholding the sacred dignity and rights of all Americans,” and is working closely with Muslim and Palestinian American leaders.

But many Arab Americans were outraged by Mr. Biden’s visit to Israel, his embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his pledge that “we will continue to have Israel’s back.”

Nada Al-Hanooti, a Palestinian American organizer based in Dearborn, said that as of 2020, there were approximately 200,000 registered Muslim voters in Michigan, making the community a significant voting bloc in a battleground state of 8.2 million registered voters.

“In 2020, the Muslim community was instrumental in turning out the vote for Joe Biden,” said Ms. Al-Hanooti, the Michigan executive director of Emgage, a national organization that seeks to strengthen the political power of Muslim Americans. “We did a lot of get-out-the-vote efforts.”

Mr. Biden won the state by nearly 155,000 votes. Muslim voters turned out in significant numbers — 145,000 voted in the presidential election, according to Emgage. An exit poll commissioned by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that roughly 69 percent of Muslims nationwide voted for Biden.

Ms. Al-Hanooti said Muslims turned out in large numbers for Mr. Biden mainly because they were motivated to help defeat President Trump. As a candidate for president, Mr. Trump called for a shutdown of Muslim immigration and referred to “radical Islam” infiltrating American communities; while in office, he issued an executive order that imposed restrictions on refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

In Dearborn, Mich., the bustling downtown is dotted with Middle Eastern restaurants and storefronts with signs in Arabic. Credit…Valaurian Waller for The New York Times

“But the truth is that we are experiencing the same Islamophobic rhetoric right now coming from the Biden administration,” she said, adding that Muslims in Michigan “don’t feel safe, they don’t feel heard and they don’t feel seen.”

Adam Y. Abusalah, a Palestinian American resident of Dearborn, joined the Biden 2020 campaign as a field organizer in Michigan.

“At the time, I thought Biden was the better candidate and that he would lead with compassion and humanity,” said Mr. Abusalah, 22, who works in local government.

But he now feels that the administration’s approach to Palestinian issues and Israel, he said, is indistinguishable from Mr. Trump’s. The president’s staunch support for Israel in recent days has been gut-wrenching, he said.

Mr. Abusalah said his community is feeling anguished and fearful in the wake of the outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

“It feels like it’s a crime to speak up for Palestine right now,” he said. “The media and our elected officials make us look like we’re bad just for speaking up about injustices.”

Some prominent Arab American figures in Michigan have predicted that many voters in the state will choose to leave the presidential candidate ballot blank next year.

One of them is Osama Siblani, the publisher of The Arab American News and an outspoken voice on Middle East policy. He has heard the worry that abandoning Mr. Biden means that Mr. Trump, should he be the Republican nominee for president, will prevail.

“My argument is, ‘Let him win,’” he said of Mr. Trump.

In Dearborn, a city whose bustling center is dotted with Middle Eastern restaurants and storefronts with signs in Arabic, Mayor Abdullah Hammoud has absorbed the distress from his constituents over the direction of the Democratic Party.

“What I’m hearing from community members now is the feeling of being back-stabbed,” he said. “The feeling of being brought into the fold under this tent of diversity, yet the issues, the values, the principles we fight to uphold are not being taken up by the party that we have pledged to support again and again.”

Osama Siblani, the publisher of The Arab American News in Dearborn.Credit…Valaurian Waller for The New York Times

At a vigil for Gaza on Thursday evening on the campus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, students held candles and listened somberly as an organizer, Hani J. Bawardi, an associate professor of history at the school, spoke to the crowd.

He planned the vigil to help students despairing over the war feel that they are not alone, he said on Friday.

Many students have never voted in a presidential election before, Mr. Bawardi noted, and some are now asking themselves: “What do we do with our votes?” he said.

He predicted that a third-party candidate would capture their attention next year, in the same way that Ralph Nader did in the presidential election of 2000.

“I don’t see any other path than a repeat of that,” Mr. Bawardi said.

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