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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Arab American fury toward Biden

A Listen to Michigan volunteer near a polling place in Dearborn, Mich. on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. The group helped to organize a push to vote “uncommitted” in the state’s Democratic primary elections, in protest of President Joe Biden’s response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza following the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, 2023. (Ali Lapetina/The New York Times)

By Charles M. Blow

On Monday, at a hip Arab coffee shop in Dearborn, Michigan, Nihad Awad, a co-founder and the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, told me that as a Palestinian American Muslim who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, he feels “betrayed bitterly” over the administration’s position on the war in the Gaza Strip.

So he was in the Detroit area this week to support the campaign to get voters to choose “uncommitted” in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary Tuesday. But as our conversation progressed, it became clear to me that his objective is not simply to send Biden a message about the war and make him shift his policy, as is the aim of many I spoke with in Michigan in the past few days. Awad wants more.

He doesn’t only want Biden to be politically corrected; he wants him politically crushed.

Of the president, Awad says, “I don’t think he can continue to lead our country.” When I asked if there is anything Biden can do to change his mind, Awad said, “He can retire.”

Earlier, I had put the same question to Dawud Walid, the executive director of CAIR’s Michigan chapter, who said that for most Muslims, anything short of Biden “resurrecting 29,000 dead Palestinians like Jesus” would mean that they will never vote for him again.

Of course, working to defeat Biden also means aiding the return of Donald Trump, but Awad and Walid seem to have made their peace with that.

Awad said he doesn’t like Trump and doesn’t welcome a second Trump term, but he’s prepared to accept that outcome for the sake of punishing Biden. “I’m going to live under Trump, because I survived under Trump, because he’s my enemy,” he says. “I cannot live under someone who pretends to be my friend.”

He believes that proving a point about the power of the Muslim vote is worth it. “Is it going to be painful? Four more years under Trump?” he asks. “I say yes, and we are bracing for it,” adding, “At least what I have accomplished is, I told every politician, ‘Don’t take us out of the equation, because you will miss.’”

Walid said that in a lesser-of-two-evils debate, Trump was, in some ways, the lesser. As he put it, “As bad as Mr. Trump’s rhetoric was, and him putting a travel ban on five Muslim countries, he wasn’t overseeing and actively arming a genocide.” It’s a view that echoes the sentiment expressed in the headline of an October opinion essay for Al-Jazeera by Haidar Eid, an associate professor at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza: “In dehumanizing the Palestinians, Biden had surpassed Trump.”

But what about the many Americans who might be horrified at the suggestion that they might just have to live through another Trump administration? No important change is going to be painless, Awad said, before invoking the name of Aaron Bushnell, the active-duty senior airman who died after setting himself on fire Sunday in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington while yelling, “Free Palestine!”

His repeated mentions of Bushnell underscored for me the intensity of Awad’s argument — how for him the issue goes beyond the realm of the merely political.

I met back up with Awad on Monday evening at the Masjid Mu’ath Bin Jabal, a mosque in Detroit, where he addressed a large gathering in Arabic (I listened via a translator provided by the mosque), and argued that because Muslims voted for Biden in 2020, they’re complicit in the part the president has played in Gaza, and that it was, therefore, their obligation to vote uncommitted as a form of repentance.

Awad was joined by Khalid Turaani, one of the organizers of the Abandon Biden movement. After the meeting, Turaani told me that he doesn’t want the Biden administration to bargain with Muslim voters over the prospect of a cease-fire in Gaza — he thinks Biden must do that anyway. He said, “I and my community need to punish Joe Biden by making him a one-term president.” Awad said that Biden’s long career in national politics should end “with the shame and the disgrace of the genocide in Gaza.”

Muslims represent only around 1% of the overall electorate, but Awad believes there are enough Muslim voters in Michigan and Georgia, two swing states, to make it nearly impossible for Biden to win reelection without their support.

So how many uncommitted votes did organizers need in order to consider their campaign in Michigan a success? On Tuesday morning, Abbas Alawieh — a former staffer both for Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and a spokesperson for Listen to Michigan, a group that helped lead the uncommitted campaign — told me, “We feel like our movement has already succeeded because we know that we’ve generated a moment.”

But Awad put a number on his metric for success: 30,000 to 50,000 votes. That goal was shattered Tuesday as more than 100,000 people voted uncommitted in the Democratic primary.

I’m not someone who dabbles in election predictions, so I’m not going to declare that the Israel-Hamas war will end Biden’s presidency the way that the Vietnam War effectively ended Lyndon B. Johnson’s. But as my New York Times colleague Michelle Goldberg wrote last week, even if Biden can’t completely satisfy those most horrified by his approach in Gaza, “if he doesn’t do more to try, he’s in danger of losing Michigan in November.”

Any notion that the voters now seething over America’s role in Gaza will simply “come home” and vote for Biden in the general election needs serious adjustment.

For some voters, this isn’t just a policy dispute. It’s a moral mission, and the mark of victory is a Biden defeat. The question now is, how large is that constituency?

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