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Muslims Showed Up for Biden in 2020. They Might Not Next Time.

The president’s disaffected supporters want him to push for a cease-fire in Gaza before they sign on for another campaign.

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The weeks since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel have seen the populations of Gaza subjected to a brutal wave of reprisals against Palestinians, with The Washington Post describing the scene as a “graveyard for children,” as the violence continues to flow as far as the West Bank. The latest casualty numbers are grim: More than 9,000 people have been killed in Gaza, including upward of 3,600 children. Israeli airstrikes continue to add to the number of deaths, including one controversial attack on a refugee camp to which Palestinians hoping to escape the violence had fled. 

The Biden administration has courted a backlash by not calling  for a formal cease-fire, going as far as to request a “humanitarian pause.” Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used rhetoric reminiscent of Hamas itself over the weekend, citing the Bible to justify the deaths of Palestinian civilians as power and communications in Gaza were cut off during Israel’s relentless bombing. 

Here at home, the Islamophobia that followed in the wake of Hamas’s attack on October 7 has not relented, even after the murder of a 6-year-old boy of Palestinian descent in Chicago. People have lost their jobs, attacks on Muslim Americans have continued, and harmful rhetoric has continued to spill forth from politicians and media outlets. On Friday, one House Republican even introduced a bill that would revoke the visas and refugee status of a number of Palestinians in the United States. 

For Biden, an electoral impact may be unavoidable. The president’s poll numbers among Arab Americans have, in a short period of time, dropped like a stone. The White House has taken notice, and it has attempted a pivot, of sorts: A quiet meeting with Muslim and Arab leaders last week was supposed to help reverse these trends, but the administration remains at a remove from the hearts and minds it is hoping to win back. Suffice it to say, the Muslim Americans calling for a change in the White House’s approach to the escalating conflict aren’t exactly keen on a mere “humanitarian pause.” They want a cease-fire and then a game-changing approach to the dreadful status quo in which the region is mired and democratic solutions to put an end to the decades-long occupation. 

It seems certain that the Biden administration will need to change its tune if it wants to win back those who say they won’t vote for him in next year’s presidential election. At the moment, the National Muslim Democratic Council says it will “withhold endorsement, support, or votes for any candidate who endorses the Israeli offensive against the Palestinian people.”

“I’m hearing our president speak about the need to oppose antisemitism and oppose Islamophobia, paired with a push to fund the brutal mass killing of Palestinians,” said Abbas Alawieh, a former Capitol Hill staffer who served as Representative Cori Bush’s chief of staff, Representative Rashida Tlaib’s legislative director, and for Representative Andy Levin before that. “The way that our administration is dealing with this issue, it’s as if the 2,700 children [as of last week] are collateral damage, and that’s deplorable,” said Alawieh.

Alawieh is a native of Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the largest populations of Muslims and Arab Americans in the country and a key constituency for Democrats in a state that serves as Biden’s so-called “blue wall”—a term of art given to those swing-ish states that Biden needed to capture to ensure his election in 2020. Bilal Baydoun, who is also a Dearborn native and the director of policy and research at a progressive economic think tank, says that Biden has reason to be fretful. “I think there’s a deep sense of alarm and disorientation,” said Baydoun. “Where do we belong in this big tent of the Democratic Party? There’s a deep sense of betrayal.” 

“The Biden administration should wake up to this,” Baydoun added. “If this is the cornerstone of their Middle East policy, it is not going to bode well for the Arab vote or the Muslim vote, honestly.”

Some of the very Muslims who campaigned wholeheartedly for Biden in 2020 say they won’t do it again. One such supporter is Dearborn resident Suzan Faraj, who estimates that she knocked on “thousands” of doors in Dearborn, motivated by a desire to get rid of Donald Trump. She convinced her Lebanese immigrant family, split between Dearborn and Chicago, to also volunteer. “This was the first time we wanted to get everybody out there and vote and get Donald Trump out of the White House,” Faraj told The New Republic. “This was our main mission, and this [referring to Gaza] is what we got right now. This is betrayal.” 

Faraj says that in recent weeks, she has been the subject of attacks and harassment, all part of a backlash she is now receiving for her previous efforts to help elect Biden. “I don’t need to hear those words, I’m already upset enough,”  Faraj said. “I feel like I’m getting blamed for encouraging so many to go out, and vote for him.” 

In 2020, she even got her elderly Lebanese immigrant mother, suffering from stage one cancer, to stand in line and vote for Biden. Just a couple of months ago, she says, her mother said she wanted to meet the president. Now Faraj says that her mother says, “I hate him, I can’t believe I wanted to meet him. Get him out of my face.”

“We’re feeling shattered; you can’t [just] get up and help these people. All you can do is scream. Democrats need to stand up for human rights, that was their message,” Faraj added. She won’t volunteer for him again. “I can’t knock on doors, I will not do that. I feel like I have blood on my hands. I will vote third party if [Trump and Biden] are on the ballot again.”

The Biden administration’s response to the criticism has been noticeably tepid; their most recent proposal to create a formal strategy to combat Islamophobia is likely to fall flat as long as there are no calls for a cease-fire. “I’m hearing from folks in the community that the president’s rhetoric of opposing Islamophobia is ringing hollow when he supports the killing, rings hollow at the mention of Palestinian children being killed,” said Alawieh. 

His public skepticism of the casualty statistics has also not gone over well. “His response is to cast doubt on the numbers, contrary to human rights organizations and others,” Alawieh said. “I think casting doubt on the pain that Palestinian children are feeling is Islamophobic.” 

“If you don’t address the killing of our relatives, friends, and children, how can we take you as a  serious partner to address Islamophobia in our country?” Alawieh said. 

The efforts to increase Muslim voter participation in the 2024 elections continue apace despite the black cloud Biden has been under in recent weeks. The Muslim activists who, in early June, founded the 99 Coalition PAC—its name referring to the 99 names of Allah from the Quran, as well as the economic needs of the 99 percent—say that lobbying for a cease-fire is consistent with their ongoing mission to try to lift up the disadvantaged. 

“We have our lists, we’ve been pushing out action items, calling representatives, pushing for the government to call for a cease-fire, and highlighting voices that are currently in Gaza but also Palestinian organizations here, whatever means to bring attention to this issue,” said Reema Ali, the organization’s director of communications, and one of its four co-founders. 

They’ve endorsed one candidate so far: Pervez Agwan, who is launching a primary challenge against Representative Lizzie Fletcher, a Democrat in Texas’s 7th district in Houston’s suburbs. Agwan, an Indian American, has made waves for making the crisis in Gaza a key issue in his campaign as of late, even going as far as to tell Semafor’s David Weigel on October 20 that “President Biden has a lot of blood on his hands.”* 

In a phone interview last week, Agwan echoed those sentiments to me. “Right now, Israel and the Biden administration are green-lighting the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and children, “ Agwan said. He’s called out Fletcher as being wholly supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies for policies benefiting the Israeli government. 

“We are running against someone who doesn’t represent the people but represents the crooked, the powerful, the corporations, and we are working to change that,” Agwan said. “Politicians in Washington are too spineless to stand against the war machine and the Israel lobby.”

There is a broad consensus among the politically active Muslims who supported the Biden administration that there will have to be at least a rhetorical shift toward a cease-fire if the Biden administration, and perhaps the Democratic Party at large, don’t want Muslims to stay home—or vote for third parties—in 2024. “You can’t expect to ignore Muslim Americans and take them for granted. The votes need to be earned, and Muslims play a key role in battleground states,” said Ali. “If you’re emboldening an apartheid regime, that’s not what people want to hear. Ignoring the voter base is not going to help you at all.” 

“I think that now that the times are so dark for many Muslim Americans, and the disrespect shown by the administration, has helped us realize how important it is to get our voice in the government,” Agwan said.

“If you are serious about opposing Islamophobia, call for a cease-fire, release the hostages, and bring relief for Palestinians who are suffering a humanitarian disaster,” Alawieh said. “Addressing Islamophobia needs to begin with opposing the killing of Muslims with impunity.” 

Right now, pro-Palestine activism in the U.S. seems to be at an all-time high, and not just from Muslims and Arab Americans. But to what end? “Democratic leaders have a real question to ask themselves,” Alawieh said. “Will the energy and infrastructure behind the protests be used to oppose [Biden’s] leadership, or can it be galvanized to implement the new pro-justice, pro-peace, anti-war foreign policy that must come out of this moment if this administration is going to act?”

The 99 Coalition sounds like a similar refrain. “Our message to Biden is if you don’t want Trump to win again, stop taking voters for granted, call for a cease-fire and end to occupation,” said Kumail Hasan, director of partnerships and another co-founder. “We just fully believe the administration, the U.S., the West in general should not take our feelings very lightly.” 

Hints of what would happen after a Republican win in 2024 don’t bode well for activism from Muslims. A massive peaceful protest is scheduled for Saturday afternoon in Washington, D.C., organized by Muslims, Arab Americans, and other people of conscience alike. But even efforts like that could face legal attacks. Virginia’s Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares announced Tuesday that his office would launch an investigation into the American Muslims for Palestine. The organization, which has been leading protests against the attack on Gaza across the country, is being investigated for allegedly “fundraising without proper registration and for potentially violating Virginia’s charitable solicitation laws, including benefitting or providing support to terrorist organizations.” This can only be read as an attempt to silence protests. As if being unheard wasn’t bad enough.

* This article originally misstated Pervez Agwan’s ancestry.