The day Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign was an emotional one in the Rahman household. Tears were shed and faces met palms. Seeing the person we had come to affectionately call “Uncle Bernie,” with his commonly messy hair combed neatly, say the words “The path towards victory is now virtually impossible” filled us with a melancholy that no other politician had quite earned. Campaigns come and campaigns go, but none have captured my family’s heart quite like Sanders’ did.
Bernie did something that no other politician had done before: he listened to my community. He listened and understood the problems that Muslim Americans face, the ones we had given up hope of ever solving, and he told the country that Americans must do better.
Bernie’s platform tackled challenges that mainstream Democrats skirted around. For instance, he made the case for actively fighting for the human rights of displaced Palestinians in the wake of increasing settlements in the West Bank. This strong attachment to human rights at home and abroad was a game changer that brought Bernie’s campaign to the forefront in the eyes of many Muslim Americans, especially older ones. While presidents of both parties have instigated regime change in the Middle East without the consent of the people who live there, Sanders instead placed an emphasis on decreasing military presence in the Middle East and leading with diplomacy.
He challenged Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalist government and the lockdown of Kashmiri muslims at the Islamic Society of North America convention in Houston; the only other presidential candidate who attended was Julián Castro. Think about that. In a primary field that was so large it took two nights to hold a debate, only two candidates showed up. To Muslim Americans the message was clear: the Democratic Party will show up for you in name, but Bernie Sanders will show up for you in person.
This wasn’t always the case. In 2016 the Muslim community, including my family, was much more wary of Sanders’ message.
None of us were particularly politically active. Besides listening to Obama speak on the news from time to time, we mostly had blinders on.
Neither my parents nor my sister had their citizenships yet and there was this feeling that everything was going to sort itself out. We just thought that the next Democratic president would work on what Obama built. It was mundane stuff. There didn’t seem to be anything to really worry about.
Then one day on Youtube I watched a video of this guy named Bernie Sanders saying things I had never heard before.
The first thing I saw was his floppy, goofy hair and his arms waving wildly as he stated, “In the richest country in the history of the world the top 1% holds almost all of the wealth.” I was shocked. Was that really true?
Then he asserted that, “Healthcare should be a human right,” and that was the first time I considered why it wasn’t already.
The more he talked the more amazed I was. I had no idea that there were politicians who talked like this. For the first time in my life, I’d found a politician who cared about things that I care about. It was electric. Bernie Sanders is the reason I became interested in politics.
That Sanders spark got me to do things that I had never done before. I watched the news regularly to follow the election. I talked to my parents about politics. Before that, politics seemed like my grades: a touchy subject that I should avoid talking about at all costs.
The Sanders spark seemed to inspire everyone around me. Everybody I knew was increasingly drawn into politics, but I noticed there was a massive shift between older people in my Muslim community, including my parents, and young people like me.
My parents run a small clinic and they weren’t excited about the increase in taxes a Sanders presidency would put into place. Plus, they said Sanders had no real chance of winning unlike Clinton.
And then she lost.
Just like that, all of the progress Muslims had made since 9/11, that many of us had taken for granted, evaporated. Suddenly there was a Muslim ban, no space for refugees and a spike in hate crimes.
For a while we lost hope. But from that despair we learned. It wasn’t enough anymore to hold up our hands and say that we couldn’t do anything. Muslims activists, many of whom were women, protested, and ran for office on platforms that didn’t compromise the values that we held dear. It was a movement built on inclusivity and compassion, an expansion of civil rights and services to the disadvantaged, and an end to foreign wars.
In 2018, about 100 Muslims ran for office at all levels of government. That number was just 12 in 2016. In those same midterm elections, Muslim voter turnout soared. In Virginia, a whopping 60% of Muslims turned out to vote, a 31 point increase since 2016. If Muslim turnout was as high in 2016 as it was in 2018, Michigan, a state with a huge Muslim population, would have most likely flipped for Democrats.
These were people I knew — friends who distributed fliers for “Peace in Palestine” marches at the mosque and older family friends who worked on campaigns. After my sister’s med school white coat ceremony in Chicago, we went to a protest to end oppression in Kashmir. After all, a family who protests together stays together.
To Muslims, both young and old, 2018 proved that we didn’t have to pick the lesser of two evils anymore. Instead, we used our votes to support people who explicitly fought for us, not as a byline but as a priority. That’s why in 2020, Bernie was a candidate Muslims fought so hard for: he made us a priority. Even though he’s gone, we’re still here.
And if Democrats want to win, they should take notice.
Nishi Rahman writes the Thursday column on cultural and political diversity as a second-generation American. Contact him at [email protected]