Don’t let Islamophobia spoil Abdul El-Sayed’s campaign for governor

Political consultant Jermain Jones speaks with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a Democratic candidate for governor, outside a Detroit voting precinct in August 2017.

Last year, I spoke what I thought was the truth about Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: He can’t become governor of Michigan because its voters won’t elect a Muslim.

I’ve regretted it ever since.

Here’s the backstory. It was the morning of a primary election last August. I was working the polls at Wayne County Community College District in Detroit as a volunteer for another political candidate. As often is the case on voting day in Detroit, things went wrong. Machines  malfunctioned. TV news crews descended to document the mini crisis.

Jermain Jones is a Detroit-area political organizer and owner of Jones American Political Consulting Firm.

For whatever reason, the media asked my opinion of the election. I gave it to them, saying El-Sayed, the City of Detroit’s former health director, may be ready to be governor, but Michigan isn’t ready for him.

“Even the Democratic establishment I don't think is ready to push an Islamic candidate in a state like Michigan” I told the Associated Press. “Islamophobia is strong in America right now.”


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I had met El-Sayed a few weeks before at a United Auto Workers event at Belle Isle in Detroit when he approached me at the polling place in Detroit. A reporter trailed behind him.

“Assalamu Alaikum,” I said to El-Sayed (which means “peace be upon you.”)

“Walaikum Assalam,” he replied (“peace be upon you, too.”)

El-Sayed made his pitch. He said I should reconsider my allegiance and volunteer for his campaign. I asked, “Why are you a better candidate?” And he gave an impressive, studious response.

I paused for a moment. I tried to find the most politically correct way to say what I thought.

“Abdul you’re a really great guy, but there will be plenty people throughout this very ‘red’ state that are going to hold your Islamic/Arabic background against you,” I told him.

I went on.

“You’re overqualified. You’re  a great speaker, and you’re handsome, but unfortunately we have a lot of work to do as it relates to educating our conservative/traditional counterparts about the true peaceful Islam: the loving and nurturing face of Islam.”

Cultural bias is unfortunate. But it’s real, I said. El-Sayed is running in a state dominated by those who view Fox News as canonical law. To say he’s fighting an uphill battle in the gubernatorial race is an understatement.

El-Sayed was visibly upset. He vowed to prove me wrong, and bid me farewell before making the rounds with other volunteers and voters. As he walked away, a reporter from AP asked about my encounter.

Hoping I hadn’t just made a rising political star angry, I told the reporter that Democrats “can’t afford to gamble this election away.” Republicans have a monster candidate in Attorney General Bill Schuette who has been practically groomed for this moment. And it wouldn’t be wise to test the tolerance of northern and western Michigan voters now.

The reporter took notes, asked my name, and moved along.

Almost immediately, I felt regretful. I had come to the polls with friends of different races and religions from myself. We as a state can do better.

And it began to sink in to me how important El-Sayed’s campaign is to Arab and Muslim Americans across the country. Political strategy is one thing, but during his campaign, El-Sayed will shake hands with and meet Michiganders who have never met a Muslim.

There is no better ambassador to knock down stereotypes and prejudices against Muslims than him. Win lose or draw, he is a winner, and Michigan already is better off because of his campaign.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Tue, 02/27/2018 - 10:07am

It is not Islamophobia. It is respect for the law. We do not want someone in power who is going to skirt the law with something like “what is the definition of the word is”. This candidate could be black, white, or purple; Muslim, Christian, or atheist. But if he was not a resident of Michigan for the time period specified in the current law, then he is not eligible to run for governor in 2018.

Tue, 02/27/2018 - 12:49pm

Follow the law. It is a reasonable law.

Michael weed
Tue, 02/27/2018 - 7:34pm

We cant have a muslim governor. Have you been to dearborn lately. Muslims are taught in the koran to make friends with their enemies then conquer them.

Charles F Morton
Tue, 02/27/2018 - 7:39pm

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was running to be the first Catholic president. There were many comments that he would take orders from the Pope rather than be his own boss. He faced these critics and said, "I am an American first, and a Catholic second, and I will follow the constitution as it is written." Those words stopped the criticism completely and it never came up again.
If El-Sayed hopes to be a viable candidate, he needs to say, "I am an American first, I will follow the United States and the Michigan constitutions as they are written, and renounce Sharia Law! It has no place in this country!"

Kevin Grand
Wed, 02/28/2018 - 6:12am

"Islamophobia" didn't doom Dr. El-Sayed's 2018 Gubernatorial ambitions.

This is a red herring that democrats along with his supporters are using to save face any way they can, while simultaneously insulting Michigan Voters by making us look like something that were not.

Dr. El-Sayed did it to himself by not taking the time to fully read the voter application form he filled out when he moved into New York state several years ago.

And if Dr. El-Sayed cannot be bothered to pay attention to something as basic as a simple one-sheet voter application form, the amount of material that he will need to read and familiarize himself were he governor would completely and totally overwhelm him.

Mike Mack
Wed, 02/28/2018 - 1:36pm

What makes Mr. El-Sayed "overqualified" as a candidate for Michigan's Governor? Mr. Jones never tells us. I don't know anybody who opposes a person because he/she is Muslim per se; but, I do know people who oppose somebody because that person advocates supplanting U.S. law with Sharia law.

Diana Hage
Sun, 03/04/2018 - 12:19pm

I am getting sick and tired of "labels people put on others if they are of a different religion, etc.
My parents were not formally educated but they had a lot of common sense and compassion regarding their relationship with others. My mom and dad were immigrants from Lebanon and they were aware of differences in people they met in the USA. They taught us to be kind and compassionate toward others so I decided that "kindness and honesty" was going to be my religion. Is it working? Hell NO!!