October 28, 2015 is one of those dates that Muslim-Americans will never forget. At a town hall meeting at George Mason University, one of the attendees--a young Muslim-American student and aspiring international human rights attorney--expressed the anguish of an entire community:
"Being an American is such a strong part of my identity, but I want to create a change in this society," she said. "I'm so tired of listening to this rhetoric saying I can't be president one day, that I should not be in office. It makes me so angry and upset. This is my country."
In response, a major Presidential candidate--a man who by most objective standards most won over America's heart during the first Democratic Debate--invited her over to join him on the stage.
As he embraced her, he also embraced her cause: The elimination of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and every other brand of bigotry and racism that has long festered in our country's "us versus them" political discourse since time immemorial:
They told white workers who were earning pennies an hour, 'Hey, you think you're in trouble, but you're better off than the blacks. And they told straight people, 'You're better off than those gay people.' And they pitted men against women. It's always playing one group against another. That's how the rich got richer while everybody else was fighting each other. Our job is to build a nation in which we all stand together. ""
He concluded with a simple pledge:
And you are right. There is a lot of anger being generated and hatred being generated against Muslims in this country, that's absolutely correct. There is hatred being generated against immigrants in this country. And if we stand for anything, we have got to stand together and end all forms of racism in this country. I will lead that effort as President.
The entire moment is worth watching and re-watching (possibly with tissues), and then worth showing to both your grandparents and your kids. In the span of a few minutes, Bernie Sanders demonstrated to the entire nation and the world the absolute best of true American values--and everything that American politics can and should be.
He did not aim for any applause lines or to target any specific "demos" or "test groups"-he opened up about his own deep scars from the horrors of bigotry and spoke from the heart on how that has shaped his worldview.
Longtime Passenger on the Bernie Express
Full disclosure: As many of my friends (and certainly all of my family members) already know, I am an unabashed Bernie Sanders supporter. I have been an admirer of his tireless advocacy on social justice issues since I watched the subprime mortgage crisis unfold as a horrified, disgusted and anxious college sophomore. Bernie's dedication for enforcing accountability and addressing the root causes of income inequality inspired me in a way that even Obama-fever (and I was certainly as infected as any of his biggest supporters in Chicago!) did not.
This past summer, I had the amazing opportunity to attend his standing-room-only town hall meeting in Columbia, South Carolina just prior to leaving our country to begin my Fellowship, and it was like watching a Bollywood movie in the motherland.
The audience cheered the heroes (Free education! Healthcare! Infrastructure!) and booed the villains (The Koch Brothers! Lobbyists! Irresponsible Wall Street speculators!). Yet Bernie is not just rhetoric. He practices what he preaches and has never ran negative ads. He does not accept money from entrenched corporate interests and as a result, his top donors are from various labor unions and individual contributors rather than investment banks, the pharmaceutical industry, and media conglomerates.
Likewise as a passionate (and at times I'm sure, insufferably outspoken) advocate for international human rights, I greatly admire Bernie's impressive foreign policy track record. As most folks already know, he was one of the few Congressmen who had the courage and foresight to defy the warmongers and oppose the Iraq War. Yet even more recently, he was the first Congressman to boycott Bibi Netanyahu's seditious and warmongering Congressional address--yes the same Bibi Netanyahu who just acquitted Hitler in favor of indicting the Palestinians). Despite the fact that unconditional support of Israel has long been one of the truly bipartisan "safe" positions, while any criticism of Israel--much less open support for Palestine--has long been considered the lethal third rail of politics, Bernie has already distinguished himself as a moral advocate for peace through equitable justice:
The bottom line is that Israel must have the right to exist in peace and security, just as the Palestinians must have the right to a homeland in which they and they alone control their political system and their economy.
As the current sole superpower, our nation has special obligations and responsibilities to not only the current international community, but future generations. It is clear to me that President Sanders can establish and pursue a foreign policy which truly values human rights, dignity, and justice for all the world's citizens-one which first seeks to do no harm and champions humanitarianism.
A Historic Presidency: First nonChristian POTUS
The Muslim-American community is not some one-issue monolith, and there are clearly a multitude of reasons why I support Bernie. Thus this act of decisively un-politicianlike compassion for and unyielding solidarity with the Muslim American community is just one more reason why he has both of my votes-and why it should be clear that Hilary should NOT take the Muslim vote for granted for the crucial primary. Yet while if elected Hilary would of course be our nation's first (and grossly long-overdue) first female POTUS, it should be pointed out that President-elect Sanders will be our FIRST non-Christian POTUS*!
Aside from our Deist Founding Fathers, electing our first Jewish President will be such a watershed moment in our nation's history, and will send such a massive message to the world. We Muslims can help elect our nation's first Jewish President-one who is decidedly not a living caricature of Emperor Palpatine-and we can break a million stereotypes and misconceptions in the process.
And you know what the best part is? Unlike Hilary's oft-repeated quest to become the first female POTUS (and how that is the decisive factor which differentiates her from Barack Obama), Bernie has never tried never tried to capitalize on this and score political points. God knows the media never highlights it either (whose luminary journalism instead can be summarized as "OLDEST ELECTED PRESIDENT EVER LULZ"), but Bernie remains committed to discussing the issues that actually affect ordinary Americans over turning this into a personality contest over who has the the more compelling personal story.
So let me say what Bernie will not: This man has ONE HELL of a compelling story. The son of Polish immigrants who lost so many family members to the horrors of the Holocaust. The man who graduated from an elite bastion of political and economic neo-liberalism, yet dedicated his life to advocating for the poor and marginalized. A man who marched with Martin Luther King himself--but will never mention it as a means to score political points. A man who joined the Young People's Socialist League in an era where even suspicion of being a "dirty commie-socialist" was a virtual death sentence for your political career and social life-and a man who actually ran and won as an independent democratic socialist in a nation where two party system dynastic politics is the order of the day.
"Strategic Voting": A Cowardly Subversion of the Democratic Spirit
Yet the biggest hesitancy to vote for Bernie does not come from his political record or pedigree. It comes down to a far that he's "too progressive" to win a general election-and that a vote for Bernie in a primary will be a gift for whoever the GOP Clowncar spits out for the general election. I know this firsthand, because some of my own family members have this view.
We can learn much from our Canadian neighbors. They just had a historic election, and many Canadian voters--especially Muslim Canadian voters--who were desperate to rid themselves of Stephen Harper's decade-long reign of terror had the same fears-that a vote for the outspokenly Progressive Thomas Mulcair's New Democratic Party was a gift for Harper's Conservatives. The result? Stephen Harper's Conservatives got demolished and those fears of Harper retaining the throne were unfounded. Yet through strategic voting, Canada's progressives passed also over a far more progressive force in favor of the establishment left-and the charismatic yet inexperienced boyish dynastic inheritor who leads it. While our Canadian neighbors finally liberated themselves from the decade long nightmare they have been living under, many feel they simply settled for some chicken that will do.
The ultra-cynical and calculating nature of "hedging your bets" through "strategic voting" represents one of modern democracy's shortcomings-the insecurities of the voters themselves. It is especially distressing and disheartening to see the proliferation of this practice in the Muslim-American community, since many of us fled from decidedly undemocratic, authoritative or hopelessly corrupt systems of governance where the true value of votes is often subverted if not outright rendered meaningless.
While a broader understanding of the concept an "informed" vote may include such political calculations, a genuinely meaningful vote should reflect the candidate who wins over your mind and heart. So for all of my aforementioned family members, friends, and the general American electorate, my one plea is simply this: Trust the American electorate to vote smart and do the right thing. Vote for the candidate who has earned your vote-not the one who merely serves as a compromise for your fears.
A large part of my own moralistic worldview is shaped by my understanding about the central tenets of my faith. The Qur'an commands humanity thus:
Allah commands justice, the doing of good, and giving to kith and kin, and He forbids all indecent deeds, and evil and oppression: He instructs you, that ye may receive admonition
I fully trust Bernie to both a President and Commander-in-Chief who will use might for right and do the right thing--and while I certainly do not speak for this immensely vibrant and diverse family of communities--I call on my fellow Muslim Americans to entrust him to do the same. Support him because he has long been fighting in the trenches for those without a voice. Support him because of his courage and dedication to social justice. Support him because he stays true to his principles, and conducts his campaign and himself in a manner which transcends politics as usual and truly makes him a role model.
And support him because one Wednesday night in front of America's youth, he vowed to stand by one idealistic young woman and all members of her embattled community-and in doing so, genuinely made her feel that she has the power to could change our nation and the world.