Muslim anguish over Gaza holds electoral risks for Biden

Muslim anguish over Gaza holds electoral risks for Biden

Virginia (AFP): Hairdresser Linda Shawish cuts to the chase when asked about President Joe Biden’s decision to unequivocally back Israel’s bombing and ground invasion of Gaza.

“They’re standing for genocide,” the 45-year-old Palestinian American who previously voted for Democrats told AFP outside the popular Halalco grocery in Falls Church, Virginia.

“I definitely won’t be voting Democratic, and if Trump is the Republican candidate, I probably won’t vote at all.”

With a year left until the 2024 presidential election, Arab and Muslim American support for Biden threatens to plummet over his Middle East policy — a factor that could even swing certain states.

Some voters interviewed by AFP said Israel had a right to respond after a brutal attack by Hamas militants on October 7, which sparked the latest escalation in the long running conflict.

But all half-dozen who agreed to be on the record, and several more who did not for fear of professional repercussions, agreed that the United States had failed to exercise its leverage over its ally Israel to curtail Palestinian civilian deaths.

“Something has fundamentally broken in the hearts of many Muslim and Arab American Democrats,” Waleed Shahid, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Senator Bernie Sanders told AFP.

“They don’t see the president treating Palestinian lives and Israeli lives equally.”

While Muslims account for a small fraction of the US population — 4.5 million people, or 1.3 percent, according to the unofficial US Religious Census — the election “will be decided by a couple of hundred thousand votes in a handful of states,” said Shahid.

In 2020 Biden carried battlegrounds Michigan, Virginia, Georgia and Arizona — but losing Muslim voters in those states could cut short the president’s White House tenure.

– Disappointment  –

Somali-American Hadia Barre told AFP that Muslims in the United States have “been marginalized in American politics since 9/11 — and this discriminatory support to Israel is just going to further isolate and distance Muslim voters.”

She said she’s voted Democrat for 30 years, but had been starting to turn away from the party based on its position on transgender issues.

Biden’s “blind support” for Israel was her tipping point.

“I will neither vote for Democrats nor Republicans,” the 52-year-old said.

At the nearby Dar Al-Hijrah — one of northern Virginia’s main mosques completed in 1991 by developer Mohamed Hadid, father of models Gigi and Bella — Imam Naeem Baig said the community pinned its hopes on Biden after the pain of the Trump years.

“When it comes to the issues of racial justice and economic justice, you feel Democrats have much more to offer,” he said, adding that Donald Trump, who imposed travel bans on several Muslim countries, made no effort to hide his hostility.

An exit poll conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations after the 2020 vote found 69 percent of Muslims voted for Biden –  against just 17 percent for Trump.

But the horrific news and images coming from Gaza had cast a sense of depression and trauma, Baig said.

“As of the moment, I will not vote for President Biden,” he said, adding he now found his previous support “very embarrassing.”

– Calls for ceasefire –

Khalid Mekki voiced similar regret. Born in a Gaza refugee camp, he sees it as his duty to speak up for his people — including the family members he can’t reach because of Israeli communication blackouts.

“We love this country, it’s our country,” said the 52-year-old businessman, who runs the Bawadi Mediterranean Grill in an area of Falls Church famous for its Arab-owned restaurants, bakeries and hookah bars.

But “we cannot have blood on our hands — I don’t want it to be in my name.”

Several interviewees said the situation was exacerbated by what they called Biden’s insensitivity.

The US president took five days to call the family of the six-year-old Palestinian American boy fatally stabbed in a hate crime, for example, and he has publicly questioned the death toll provided by Gaza’s health ministry, which historically has proven accurate.

The White House has attempted to acknowledge these concerns, promising to release its first anti-Islamophobia strategy.

Biden, who prides himself on his empathy, has started speaking more emotively about Palestinian losses.

But for Mahdi Bray, a 72-year-old Black Muslim who said his solidarity with Palestinians stems from his experience under segregation in the US South, “actions speak louder than words.”

Biden could yet win him back, he said — if the president joins global calls for a ceasefire.