After Sadiq Khan and Ilhan Omar, will America get its first Muslim governor?

Published April 23rd, 2017 - 07:51 GMT
Abdulrahman El-Sayed is running for governor in Michigan. (Handout photo)
Abdulrahman El-Sayed is running for governor in Michigan. (Handout photo)

There are only two Muslims in Congress, but this 32-year-old physician turned professor turned public servant is eyeing the gubernatorial race.

In the wake of Brexit, Sadiq Khan, was elected London’s first Muslim mayor. And in the same general elections that brought Trump to the White House, the US got its first Muslim Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, who originally came to the US as a refugee from Somalia.

Only one other Muslim holds a seat in the US Congress – Keith Ellison of Minnesota – but at a time when racially-motivated crimes are up in the US, a young Egyptian American is running for governor.

A rise in right-wing nationalism in the US and Europe has all kinds of people worried, not only Muslims – immigrants, people of color, women, the LGBT community. But perhaps the one silver lining to this is seeing people from under-represented communities getting into politics, community organizing and activism like never before

And while there’s a tendency to lump supporters of Trump in with Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France, the issues facing their constituents are different. Wilders, who ultimately lost the race for Prime Minister in the Netherlands, ran on a platform based solidly on anti-immigration and Islamophobia. Le Pen – coming in second in the French presidential elections at publishing time - has tried to soften the National Front party that her father founded with the likes of former Nazi SS officers. 

For Abdulrahman El-Sayed, the path to politics was winding and unconventional. El-Sayed worked as a doctor, then gave up a tenure-track position as a professor to be the director of Detroit’s Public Health department. He’s never held elected office before, but his stint at the Public Health department is what led him there - specifically the water crisis in Flint.

El-Sayed is hoping his status as an outsider to the political machine will appeal to Michigan voters – half of whom are black, and a fifth of whom are living below the poverty line.

“As much as folks will look on paper and say ‘he’s young and he’s brown and his name is Abdul,' they’re not in the rooms when we have conversations with real people,” El-Sayed said during a state-wide tour.

Michigan residents are suffering from economic woes and the infamous water crisis in Flint has left thousands with tainted drinking water.

El-Sayed says he attributes the rise of Donald Trump not so much to his success as a candidate, but because the other side has neglected to talk about issues facing the working class for too long.

While Trump succeeded in tapping into working class voters' anger and resentment, if people of color and women, and people who just happen to be outliers, get elected and work hard to show results - in other words, not talking about building walls - then that's where change will happen.

Lindsey Leger

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