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Palestinian, Muslim, woman - American. Inside Rashida Tlaib's historic run for Congress Open in fullscreen

Katy Stone

Palestinian, Muslim, woman - American. Inside Rashida Tlaib's historic run for Congress

Rashida was born to Palestinian immigrants in Michigan [photo credit Rashida Tlaib]

Date of publication: 24 July, 2018

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The New Arab Meets: Rashida Tlaib, who is hoping to be the first Muslim American woman ever elected to the United States Congress.
Rashida Tlaib might not yet be a household name outside of Detroit, but Michigan's primary on August 7 could be about to change all that.

At home, she's best known for taking on the powerful billionaire Koch brothers, and forcing them to take their toxic heap of chemicals away from the Detroit River.

But she's now in with a serious chance of making it to Congress, and being the first American Muslim woman to do so. What's more, if the voters of Michigan's 13th congressional district do cast her on top, she'll have disrupted a more than fifty year run of the seat being held by a member of the Conyers family.

The eldest of 14 children, Tlaib was born to Palestinian immigrants in Detroit. When she started school she didn't speak English and while her dad worked on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, she helped out with her younger siblings at home.

Tlaib went on to train as a lawyer and made her mark as a passionate social justice and environmental campaigner, serving as a Michigan state legislator for six years.

When The New Arab catches up with her, the countdown to the vote is on. She and her team are in the last few days of her campaign, door-knocking and fundraising every hour of the day.

After California, Michigan has the highest population of Arab-Americans. "If you'd asked those Arab-Americans five years ago what the most important campaign issues are, it would have been around home ownership, and having the same kind of economic opportunities as others around the state," says Tlaib. "Now, it's personal."

While the economic issues haven't gone away, many of those she speaks to are faced with the cold hard reality of increasingly mainstream Islamophobia in politics and in Trump's America.

I went to a school that was predominantly black and Latino; a diverse community. I can't remove that lens and I feel like I've become a better Muslima, and a better public servant because of it

She shares stories from her door-knocking. "You know, Rashida, if you get elected," she remembers one voter saying to her, "it's a signal that they can ban us from coming into the country, but they can't ban us from Congress."

She quotes another: "Please win, my kids are struggling with their identity, with who they are. They need to see somebody who has the same face in a position like Congress, to say 'yeah, we do belong here'." Many in the community are pinning their hopes on her to do just that.

While Rashida's gender, religion and ethnicity might be the makings of headlines and a first in Congress, it would be wrong to think these attributes define her platform; far from it.

Fewer than five percent of voters in Tlaib's district identify as Arab-American, and it is her brand of progressive, unapologetic politics that sets her apart from other Democrats on the list.

Read more: US opinion on Palestine is finally starting to shift

As the only campaign in this district that hasn't accepted any corporate money, she's determined to stand up to banks and a corrupt political establishment.

"The Democratic Party is very much disconnected from its base," she says, "and voters are trying to figure out if there's a difference between me and Republicans, because that's how much Democrats are voting with Republicans on issues like holding banks and polluting industries accountable."

People often assume Tlaib grew up in the Arab American enclave of Dearborn. But she actually spent her formative years in Detroit, a predominantly African-American city, where, as she puts it, "every corner is a reminder of the civil rights or the Labour movement".

"I went to a school that was predominantly black and Latino; a diverse community. I can't remove that lens and I feel like I've become a better Muslima, and a better public servant because of it.

Detroit has been neglected for so long. For me, it's a calling to serve, and a calling to protect. I think that comes from my Palestinian roots

"When you grow up with Arabs and Muslims you're kind of in a bubble, and when I think of 'what have I done to be a good Muslima?' I think of what I've done to take care of my community and my neighbourhood."  

Tlaib's experiences and platform resonate with others whose background means they are automatically discriminated against by the system. Her district is the third-poorest in the country, so her ability to empathise with people trying to break free of the cycle of poverty is key.

She's also acutely aware of how her heritage and upbringing have informed her progressive platform. As a child visiting the West Bank for her uncle's wedding, she was quick to question the glaring inequalities she saw around her, at checkpoints, or just queueing for the bus. Systemic segregation based on race or religion is something she's seen a lot of.

"Detroit has been neglected for so long. For me, it's a calling to serve, and a calling to protect. I think that comes from my Palestinian roots."

Excited Democrats are hoping the Midterms in November might see a "blue wave" sweep the country, and help them win back the House. And with more than 90 Muslim Americans running for public office this year, there's even talk of a "Blue Muslim wave".

But Tlaib treats that notion with caution. "We've had these so-called 'waves' before," she says. "I'm kind of sceptical of the term, I don't want to say to people, 'let's ride this wave', because waves come and go."

She's got a point. A six-year stint in the state legislature, and her veteran grassroots campaigner credentials show Tlaib clearly isn't in politics for quick kicks. As a Muslim American, Trump's presidency has been doubly painful, but, she says, having him in power helps keep her focused. For the first time in our conversation she falls quiet, pausing to reflect on the damage his presidency has inflicted.

"It's going to take us years to address it, and repair the relationships he's harmed." But a split second later, her resolute, impassioned spirit is back: "We just gotta own the ocean."


Katy Stone is The New Arab's Opinion Editor.

Follow her on Twitter: @KatyRoseStone

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