Top White House Officials Meet With Arab And Muslim Leaders To Reconcile

Arab and Muslim American communities have been frustrated with President Joe Biden over his Gaza policy.

Top Biden administration officials met with Arab American and Muslim leaders in Michigan on Thursday for an intense two-hour meeting in an attempt to make amends with Arab and Muslim voters who increasingly say they will not vote for President Joe Biden over his Gaza policy.

The delegation consisted of Jon Finer, a deputy national security adviser at the White House; Samantha Power, who is working on aid for Gaza as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development; Tom Perez, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee who is a White House liaison to local governments; and Stephen Benjamin, a senior adviser and the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, the majority floor leader and the second-ranking Democrat in Michigan; Abdullah Hammoud, the mayor of Dearborn; and Assad Turfe, the deputy county executive of Wayne County, were among those who attended the meeting.

Abbas Alawieh, a senior democratic strategist and spokesperson for the Listen to Michigan Campaign, a voter engagement initiative, told HuffPost that the meeting was very tense at moments, with some attendees in tears. Some of those who attended made specific demands, including an immediate and permanent cease-fire and to reinstate funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

But Alawieh said officials in the room did not commit to supporting a cease-fire, which he said left many there frustrated.

“It isn’t just important for saving lives but also, here in Michigan, the level of betrayal. It’s not superficial; it’s bone-deep. People feel it every single day as people endure a collective trauma,” Alawieh said.

Alawieh said the officials spent the day in Michigan in meetings between Arab American, Muslim American and Palestinian American community members and elected officials.

“[Officials] were lucky to be hearing from the expertise of people harmed by the very policies the Biden administration is championing,” Alawieh said.

Alawieh said that, although he was grateful for the meeting, he was skeptical of any meaningful changes in the White House policy on Gaza and predicted that those consequences will not only cost Democrats this election but will be felt for years to come.

“If President Biden wants a shot here in Michigan, he’s going to need to do something different,” he said.

Imran Salha (center), imam of the Islamic Center of Detroit, and Lexis Zeidan (left) address the media before joining about three dozen people in Dearborn, Michigan, on Thursday as they protested Israel's attacks in Gaza. The protesters had hoped to be heard by members of the Biden White House who were scheduled to meet with Muslim and Arab American leaders.
Imran Salha (center), imam of the Islamic Center of Detroit, and Lexis Zeidan (left) address the media before joining about three dozen people in Dearborn, Michigan, on Thursday as they protested Israel's attacks in Gaza. The protesters had hoped to be heard by members of the Biden White House who were scheduled to meet with Muslim and Arab American leaders.
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Assad Turfe echoed Alawieh’s sentiments in an emailed statement to HuffPost noting that his decision to attend this meeting was “not taken lightly.”

We entered this conversation because of the necessity for our voices to be heard. Our community’s pain must be acknowledged. This was about ensuring the administration sees the real impact of its policies, not just on foreign soil but right here, affecting our people, our families,” Turfe said.

“We made it clear that any future engagement with the administration is conditional upon real action. The developments in Gaza will serve as the benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of the administration’s actions. The Biden administration must act swiftly and decisively to end this violence, honoring the principles of justice and human rights,” he added.

Hammoud posted on X (formerly Twitter) that it was critical to directly engage with officials about the effects of the White House policy. Arab Americans make up more than half of Dearborn’s population.

“For the last several months, it has become increasingly clear that our position and viewpoints on the ongoing conflict have not been accurately captured by mainstream media and have failed to reach the highest office in our government,” Hammoud posted.

Arab and Muslim American communities have been vocal in their frustration with the Biden administration. Just last week, several members of the Palestinian American community refused to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington to discuss the humanitarian situation in Gaza. In Michigan earlier this month, Arab and Muslim community leaders canceled a listening session with Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, hoping to send a message about the community’s longstanding frustration with the actions taken by the White House.

More than 30 local elected officials across southeast Michigan have pledged to vote “uncommitted” in the Feb. 27 Democratic primary and urged their constituents to do the same.

“We must hold our president accountable and ensure that we the American taxpayers are no longer forced to be accomplices in a genocide that is backed and funded by the United States government,” the officials said in a published letter addressed to Michigan voters.

Biden has generally dismissed the idea that Arab and Muslim Americans will not vote for him in the general election.

“We understand who cares about the Arab population,” Biden said last month, contrasting his stance against that of the current Republican front-runner, former President Donald Trump.

Michigan, a critical swing state, holds the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation. More than 200,000 registered voters in the state are Muslim, while 300,000 trace their ancestry to the Middle East and North Africa. In 2020, Biden won the state by a thin margin of about 154,000 votes.

In other battleground states, Muslim and Arab voters have launched an #AbandonBiden campaign. Community leaders have signed pledges, organized conferences and urged other voters to distance themselves from the Biden administration.

More than 100 days into the Israel-Hamas war, the president has declined to join scores of Democratic lawmakers who have called for a cease-fire or for a reduction in American support for the Israeli operation. Blinken is currently in the Middle East working on negotiations for a truce and hostage release.

“I am all about dialogue and meaningful discussions, but we were disrespected,” said Sam Baydoun, the commissioner for Wayne County, where Dearborn is located. Baydoun declined invitations to attend the meeting on Thursday and the one with Rodriguez earlier this month.

“Nobody is listening to us,” he added. “President Biden said we’re going to have a seat at the table. Well, guess what? We’re not even in the room.”

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