As President Joe Biden declared unwavering support for Israel in the days after Hamas’ terror attack in Israel, Ahmad Ramadan, a former Biden adviser now leading coalition efforts for the Michigan Democratic Party, called the state party chair to raise the alarm about what he was hearing.
Michigan has one of the largest Muslim and Arab American populations in the country, and they say their support for Biden was instrumental to putting him over the top in the critical swing state in 2020. But now, Ramadan and other Democratic leaders in the state were hearing nothing but frustration with Biden — and threats to not vote for him again.
In a series of more than a dozen roundtable discussions with Muslim community leaders in the two weeks since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, Ramadan said the main takeaway is that “people are very disappointed.” They say they “will not forget what President Biden did and why he lied to them,” he added.
“President Biden won with historic numbers in 2020. And I was proud to represent that, but the last two weeks have really shifted things,” Ramadan said. “I’ve also been getting calls from people saying, ‘I have blood on my hands because I got people out to support him during that campaign.'”
While Muslim Americans remain a small minority of the U.S. population, their numbers are growing rapidly, and both parties are increasingly vying for their support. Democrats have mostly succeeded so far, as former President Donald Trump and other Republicans turned them off with policies like a travel ban that affected predominantly Muslim countries (something Trump is promising to implement again if he is re-elected).
Now, though, Muslim leaders are warning that Democrats risk losing their support, too, if Biden and the party do not do more to combat Islamophobia and address the pain many are feeling about the war in Gaza.
“Joe Biden has single-handedly alienated almost every Arab-American and Muslim American voter in Michigan,” said state Rep. Alabas Farhat, a Democrat whose district includes Dearborn, which is home to one of the largest Muslim and Arab American communities in the country.
Farhat said he has constituents and neighbors who have family members trapped in Gaza — including some who are American citizens — and they feel completely abandoned by the U.S. government for not doing more to help get them out, get aid in and pressure Israel for a cease-fire.
“The Biden administration and Democrats as a whole are going to have to do a lot of work to rebuild some level of trust with my community,” he said. “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
In rolling conversations in Michigan and beyond over the past two weeks, Muslim elected officials, activists and community leaders have coalesced around a plan to mobilize their constituents to vote next year — but also to encourage them to leave the top of the ticket blank in protest, according to multiple people involved in the discussions.
“That’s the plan right now,” Farhat said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of people that remember when you won Michigan years ago by a razor-thin margin, when you won Georgia with a razor-thin margin, when you won Arizona by a razor-thin margin — do not be surprised if there are consequences for your actions.”
Others have heard from constituents who are planning to vote Republican because they feel that at least Republicans were honest with them about their carte-blanche support for Israel, while they feel duped and used by Democrats.
What I'm hearing now is people feeling completely betrayed by Joe Biden.
Amer Zahr, President of New Generation for Palestine
“President Biden, not all of America is with you on this one and you need to wake up and understand that,” Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib said at a rally calling for a cease-fire Wednesday. “We will remember this.”
The White House and Biden’s campaign say they are aware of the concerns and working to address them, pointing to Biden’s comments in his Oval Office address on Thursday night pushing for aid to Palestinian civilians, urging Israel “not to be blinded by rage” and directly telling Muslim Americans: “I see you. You belong.”
“The President and this administration have been unequivocal: there is no place for Islamophobia, xenophobia, or any of the vile racism we have seen in recent weeks,” Biden campaign spokesperson Ammar Moussa said. “As MAGA Republicans continue to run on an openly Islamaphobic platform — including renewed support for Donald Trump’s Muslim ban — the stakes of next year’s election could not be more consequential. President Biden continues to work closely and proudly with leaders in the Muslim and Palestinian communities in America, to listen to them, stand up for them, and fight back against hate.”
Immediately after his Oval Office address Thursday night, Biden called the family of Wadea Al-Fayoume, the 6-year-old Palestinian American boy slain in Illinois in what prosecutors say was an anti-Muslim hate crime. Top officials like national security adviser Jake Sullivan have held meetings with Arab and Muslim American community leaders to discuss ways to combat Islamophobia.
The White House also sent Dilawar Syed, the highest-ranking Muslim American official in the Biden administration, to speak at a memorial for Al-Fayoume. In a moment that went viral, the crowd booed him when he started to speak, but he was later applauded when he finished his remarks by emphasizing that Biden will do "everything in his power to fight Islamophobia."
"That work, we commit to you, will not end until every American has the freedom to live their lives in safety and without fear," said Syed, the deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration.
Before the attack, Biden reinstated the White House’s Eid celebration for the end of Ramadan and took official actions to better coordinate federal efforts to combat Islamophobia.
Still, while appreciated, some Muslim American leaders say Biden’s comments in the address were not enough.
“I believe he made a good case for what he believes in, but in no way did he come close to addressing the human disaster,” Dr. Mahmoud Hadidi, the chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, said. “There’s a lot more that President Biden, who had a lot of support from the community here, could have said or done to show concern for the civilians trapped in this unfortunate situation" in Gaza.
Muslims make up only 1.3% of the U.S., about half the size of the Jewish population, but advocates argue their votes are critical in battleground states that may be won or lost on narrow margins, including Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia and Arizona.
There are an estimated 240,000 Muslims in Michigan, a state Biden won in 2020 by 150,000 votes. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by a little more than 10,700 votes.
“The president cannot win without the Muslim vote, point blank,” said Nada Al-Hanooti, the executive director of Emgage Michigan, the state chapter of a national nonprofit that works to engage Muslims politically.
Al-Hanooti, who is Palestinian American, said she’s heard many people say they either won’t vote for president in 2024 or they’ll vote third party.
The margins in states like Michigan in recent elections have been so thin that many groups can and do claim credit for swinging an election, with representatives of each competing for precious resources and pushing to get their agenda moved up the White House’s priority ladder.
And some of the demands from Muslim Americans are likely nonstarters for Biden and would have been even before the attack as well.
But everyone agrees Biden will need every vote he can get in states like Michigan.
“Michigan is a competitive state and it’s purple to begin with. With these complicated dynamics, it’s going to make it one of the most challenging states in the country,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who lived in Dearborn for 40 years.
That anger has been especially felt in Dearborn, where the city’s mayor has been excoriating Biden and other officials on social media for being “silently complicit in some of the most horrific war crimes our eyes have witnessed, funded by our tax dollars.”
Sami Khaldi, the president of Dearborn Democratic Club, said she will still vote Democratic, but added: “I would like to advise my president to rethink about his strategy, his policies, foreign policies.”
“What I’m hearing now is people feeling completely betrayed by Joe Biden,” said Amer Zahr, president of New Generation for Palestine, a Dearborn-based network of mostly young Palestinian Americans. “People are feeling that the Democratic Party is unequivocally, with a few exceptions, supporting Israel and not humanizing Palestinians and looking at the humanity of Palestinians.”
That frustration is also widely felt on the political left beyond Muslims, especially among younger voters. A new Quinnipiac University poll found that while a large majority — 68% — of Democrats overall approve of Biden’s handling of Israel, and 42% of all registered voters do, only 21% of voters aged 18-34 approve, while 50% disapprove.
Osama Siblani, the publisher of The Arab American News, which is based in Dearborn, said at a protest there this week supporting Palestinians: “Let it be known that come [next] November, we will remember, Mr. President.
Siblani is a registered independent who supported Biden, he said, despite formerly being active in Republican politics and launching George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in Dearborn.
He said he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the GOP and critical of Trump and "his hate mongering." Last year, he defended Michigan’s openly gay Democratic attorney general from “sick, crazy and homophobic people.”
Asked in an interview what Biden’s team could do to win back his vote, Siblani said it was too late.
“I will never vote Biden again, if he stands on his head,” he said. “We will not meet with anyone who represents the Biden or Kamala Harris campaign because they lied to us. They lied to us. When they came in 2020, they said, ‘You will have a seat at the table.’”
Jasmine Rivera, the co-executive director of Rising Voices, a progressive nonprofit that works to engage Asian American women and young voters, said concerns about rising Islamophobia may hamper organizing efforts.
“Many of our canvassers are Muslim American. And now there is fear, because of the possibility of anti-Muslim hate crimes, to have people who are going door to door wearing hijabs,” she said. “That also dampens the ability for voting advocacy organizations like ours to actually work in these communities.”
Many Muslim and Arab Americans voted for Republicans like Bush, who visited a mosque six days after 9/11 to speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry in the wake of the terror attacks and declare: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. ... Islam is peace.”
But Muslim and Arab Americans shifted Democratic as Islamophobic rhetoric became more mainstream in the GOP, culminating in Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
But Republicans have tried to make new alliances with culturally conservative Muslim voters. In the 2022 campaign, Michigan's GOP nominee for governor, Tudor Dixon, embraced a push by some Muslim officials in Dearborn and other towns to remove LGBTQ-themed books from public libraries.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who runs Democratic Majority for Israel, said he sees more political upside for Biden on his stance on Israel than danger, especially in a likely Biden-Trump rematch.
“We’re in the white heat of this moment, but I think as we get closer to the election, it’s going to be clear that if you might otherwise be a Biden voter, staying home is going to be a vote for Donald Trump,” he said. “It would be strange to see people lend any support to a racist, Islamophobic candidate like Donald Trump because they differ, perhaps very strongly, on this one issue.”