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Colin Jackson

Arab Americans in Michigan see primary ballots as a tool for building political power

People cast their ballots during early voting in the state's primary in Ann Arbor, Mich., on February 20, 2024 (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Some Michigan residents, including many Arab American and Muslim voters, are using their vote in the state's upcoming Democratic presidential primary to protest the Biden administration's stance on the Israel-Hamas war.

Organizers of one statewide initiative, Listen to Michigan, are urging voters to choose the option "uncommitted" on their Democratic primary ballots, instead of President Biden. They see next Tuesday's primary as a crucial moment to remind Biden of their collective political power.

"Every single vote for uncommitted, we will count as a victory," Listen to Michigan spokesperson Abbas Alawieh said in an interview with NPR.

Alawieh says that Biden has been dismissive of calls for a permanent cease-fire. Organizers hope that their collective action will force his campaign to pay attention to what they say is an important and growing voting bloc in a battleground state where a narrow margin could decide who wins the state in November.

Trying to turn a ballot into a bullhorn

Earlier this month, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American serving in Congress, endorsed Listen to Michigan's campaign.

Tlaib has been an outspoken critic of the war. Weeks after Israel began bombing Gaza in response to the Hamas-led attack, she co-sponsored a House resolution, introduced by Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, urging the Biden administration to call for a cease-fire.

On Saturday, in a video posted to social media, Tlaib stood outside a voting location in Dearborn, Mich., reminding residents that early voting is underway and urged them to use their primary ballot as a form of protest.

"It's also important to create a voting bloc, something that is a bullhorn, to say enough is enough. We don't want a country that supports wars and bombs and destruction," Tlaib said in the video posted to social media by Listen to Michigan. "We want to stand up for every single life killed in Gaza."

Biden focuses on building broad coalition of support

Despite concerns from Arab American leaders in the state over Biden's stance on the war, his campaign has been making an effort to engage with them. Biden campaign officials also say they are focusing on issues important to a range of voters in the state.

On Thursday, Vice President Harris visited Grand Rapids, Mich., to discuss reproductive rights, an issue Democrats see as critical to drawing support in November.

"The president is working hard to earn every vote in Michigan. His investments in infrastructure and green energy have created thousands of union jobs. He walked the picket line with UAW. He is standing up for reproductive rights," a campaign spokesperson said in a statement to NPR. "And, he is working tirelessly to create a just, lasting peace in the Middle East."

President Biden speaks with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Cross Hall of the White House on Feb. 12 in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Last week, after a visit with Jordan's King Abdullah II, Biden reiterated his support for Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. The militant group's assault killed over 1,200 people in Israel, according to Israeli government officials.

But the president also spoke extensively about the "unimaginable pain and loss" by Palestinian civilians in Gaza who have lacked access to food and water and are unable to mourn and even bury their dead.

"Too many of the over 27,000 Palestinians killed in this conflict have been innocent civilians and children, including thousands of children," Biden said.

More than 29,000 people in Gaza have been killed, according to Gaza health officials.

The Biden administration is trying to negotiate another pause in fighting. That pause would be tied to Hamas releasing hostages captured during the Oct. 7 attack and humanitarian aid entering Gaza.

'How we build our own power in Michigan'

Alawieh, a former legislative director for Tlaib, said he's seen the grassroots effort to pressure Biden build over a matter of months to include Arab American and Muslim communities that don't always agree on other issues.

"This campaign is succeeding in engaging voters about how we build our own power here in Michigan," said Alawieh.

He stressed he doesn't want to see former President Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, retake the White House in November. But he thinks the Biden administration needs to show more of a commitment to ending fighting before asking Muslims and Arab Americans for their votes in November.

"I think it's inappropriate to come to a community that is enduring an unimaginable pain, unimaginable trauma and ask them, 'What about November?'" he said. "What would be appropriate is our fellow Democrats joining us in getting President Biden to do the right thing, to save lives now."

While Alawieh thinks it's too soon to discuss how he will vote in November, others are already urging Democrats to stop supporting Biden in the presidential election.

Samraa Luqman (R) hands out fliers outside of the American Moslem Society Mosque to ask voters not to vote for President Biden in Dearborn Heights, Mich., on Feb. 16, 2024. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Samraa Luqman, a community organizer in Dearborn, Mich., wants her elected leaders to show solidarity with the people of Gaza. Dearborn, also a part of Tlaib's congressional district, has one of the highest concentrations of Muslim residents in the country.

Luqman, who backs a nationwide push to abandon Biden at the polls because of his support for giving Israel military aid, says it would be a political mistake to ignore Arab American and Muslim voters.

Luqman and other supporters of the Abandon Biden movement argue that in a battleground state like Michigan the loss of Arab American and Muslim votes could swing an election.

"It's a lost opportunity for any candidate if you don't take the moral high ground and solicit us for votes. We are going to vote in a bloc this time and it's going to be with Palestine," Luqman said.

In 2020, Biden beat out Trump in Michigan winning the state by over 150,000 votes. In 2016, facing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Trump won the state by fewer than 11,000 votes.

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