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Muslims Near Detroit, Mich. On Faith And Politics, Part 2


Over the weekend, an old feud reared its head at an Iowa event for Bernie Sanders.


DIONNA LANGFORD: We're classy here. We're classy.

RASHIDA TLAIB: Oh, no. I'll boo. Boo.

SHAPIRO: Sanders supporters erupted in boos at the mention of Hillary Clinton, and while the moderator tried to stop it, Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib did not heed the warning.


TLAIB: I - you all know I can't be quiet. No, we're going to boo. That's all right. The haters will shut up on Monday when we win.


After some backlash online, Tlaib apologized. Onstage with her was Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Both women, members of the so-called freshman squad of progressives in the House, have faced a lot of criticism. Our co-host Audie Cornish sat down with a group of Muslim voters in Michigan to find out what they think about that political scrutiny.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Our group is meeting in a community center called the W Institute in Dearborn, and one of the youngest, 20-year-old Malak Wesam, speaks up first. She's part of a podcast called "Dearborn Girls" that features Muslim women. She says Representative Omar, who, like her, wears the hijab, was of particular interest.

MALAK WESAM: My family and I would always check social media, watch the news every time her name was brought up just to see if, once she got into office - if she would kind of back up on anything, contradict herself, you know, just to kind of, like, see how much of a sellout she would or wouldn't be. It's been so incredible just to see how much she stood up for her truth and how much she hasn't backed down and apologized when she really shouldn't.

CORNISH: Representative Omar was accused of anti-Semitism in her early days in office. Critics said a tweet about Israel used an anti-Semitic trope, and she later questioned American Jews' allegiance to a foreign country, Israel, at a panel discussion.

WESAM: Right. She was accused of it, but I think it's very important to differentiate between anti-Semitism and being critical of an Israeli government and a Zionist government.

MICHAEL STEWART: Michael Stewart - I would say also, to add to that about Representative Omar, I really appreciate her bravery. She brings an authenticity. I believe she was used to talking about politics how you talk about politics with your aunt and your uncle, you know? And, you know, she was so authentic that she wasn't ready for that level of the stage, and I really admire the fact that she still apologized. She recognized what she said was an anti-Semitic trope, and she was ignorant of that. She was like, oh, my bad, you know? And then she apologized. And I think that she still hasn't budged, though, on her position and being critical of the occupation of Palestinian land.

CORNISH: And I know, dear, you are a police chaplain as well, right? So for you, there - is there special meaning to having some kind of acknowledge of interfaith boundaries or concerns?

STEWART: Absolutely.

CORNISH: Because you do hear this on the left, right? You had leaders from the Women's March who had to step down or step back because they were accused of being connected to anti-Semitism.

AMER ZAHR: They were kicked out.

CORNISH: They were kicked out.

ZAHR: They didn't have to step back. They were kicked out.

CORNISH: That's the voice of 42-year-old Amer Zahr.

ZAHR: This is something that Palestinians and all Arabs, I think, go through. I'm a comedian and a writer, so I say a lot of stuff about Israel, and nothing goes by without me getting these accusations. It makes its way into all politics, even liberal politics, so - to the point where the Women's March was seen as a liberal, anti-Trump, even progressive - though it turned out to be, like, a faux-progressive thing - that they still are unwilling - and it even happens in some parts of our community, too - still unwilling to include Palestinian rights in the larger narratives of everything else.

CORNISH: Michael Stewart is a black American Muslim and a former Detroit Police Department chaplain, so I ask him...

Mike, can I let you come back just because you appreciated Ilhan Omar apologizing?

STEWART: I really did.

CORNISH: So does that jive with what Amer is saying?

STEWART: Well, with Ilhan Omar, I think that it's a lesson for all of us that are activists, that are community people, because we talk a whole lot. And we're passionate about the positions that we take, and if we're talking about inclusivity, intersectionality, all these things and we're trying to really be inclusive, then we have to recognize that sometimes, what we say may offend someone unintentionally. And it's no problem to apologize, but then you still can stand firm and say, well, what I meant to say was - and my position about the liberation or the human rights of these people is still a priority in my message.

CORNISH: But that issue of language and how these women, the first Muslim women elected to Congress, are perceived is still worrisome for these voters. One person in the group points out that Rashida Tlaib's Detroit-area district is the third poorest in the country. But they say the media doesn't pay attention when she talks about poverty the way they do when she says controversial things. Then I mentioned that the most famous of these moments happened almost right after she was sworn into Congress.


TLAIB: When your son looks at you, he says, Mama, look. You won. Bullies don't win. And I said, baby, they don't because we're going to go in there. We're going to impeach the [expletive].

CORNISH: And Mark Crain, a black American housing activist, jumps in to say he actually worked with the group that hosted that event.

MARK CRAIN: Foul language by a politician is nothing new. Rashida has been under the microscope like no one else.

IMAN SALEH: Iman Saleh - if we look at the broader picture here of how Muslim women are even presented in the first place, we look at stereotypes, such as Muslim women are naive. They should be held down. They're not smart. They're oppressed. They're beaten down by their husbands. They're supposed to be behind the - so it's just a lot of things that come with the identity of being a Muslim woman. And when, suddenly, somebody speaks up, a Muslim woman speaks up, then everybody is up in arms about why she's stepping out of line.

CORNISH: It sounds like what you're saying is the fact that they counter the stereotype of what Muslim women should be is what, in fact, makes the backlash so harsh.

SALEH: Yeah. It's - we're not seen as normal.

CORNISH: Wissam, do you want to...

WISSAM CHERRAFADDINE: Yes. I just wanted to add - Wissam Cherrafaddine - that Rashida Tlaib did not run on the platform of representing Muslims or Muslim Americans, and her constituency is not made predominantly of Muslims. But once she's on a national platform, then she - her identity as a Muslim is first and foremost.

ZAHR: Amer Zahr - I think we have to be careful because I'm starting to hear a thread in the conversation here that I'm not crazy about. We have to be careful not to fall into this notion that we have to, like, assimilate, that we have to say we're American first or any of this BS. And yes, sure, Rashida represents a district that doesn't have a lot of Arabs in it. But her Arabness (ph) informs who she is. Her Arabness informs very strongly how she fights for people.

And so we have to be very loud and proud. And I'm not saying anyone's not doing that here, but sometimes, we say these things where, you know, we have to - we say, yeah, we're Muslim, but we're American, too. No, man - enough of that noise, man. We are - we don't have to prove to anybody that we're Americans. We are Americans. We're here, right? And I always say, we love America, but she has to learn how to love us back. And that is what's not happening so far.

CRAIN: Mark Crain - Amer had a really catchy quote. He said, she has to learn to love us back. But frankly, I kind of disagree with that, and I think that's one difference between the black and the immigrant experience a lot of times. It's because I exist fully and happily and completely without any expectation this country's ever going to love me back, and it doesn't rob anything from me.

And I think that's part of 300-plus years of the black experience in this country - is that we've come to understand America in a certain way and the way that it treats minorities in general, in particular the way it treats black people. But also, I think that relates to our worldview as Muslims. There is a bigger vision. That doesn't mean that we're not fighting for temporal justice. That doesn't mean that we're not making sure that our communities are respected through policy. But again, there's a bigger picture that lets me sleep peacefully.


CORNISH: And that was a group of American Muslim voters in Dearborn, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAIRO SONG, "ALEWIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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