Many of us read the now quite-widely circulated article yesterday in The Daily Beast attacking Bernie Sanders for being “too tired” to answer a question by Syrian-American Ismael Basha after last Sunday’s Democratic debate in Flint.
The issue of Syria has divided many in the Arab American community over the past five years. Some stand with the opposition. Some stand with Assad. Some stand with neither. Some do it for political reasons. Some for sectarian leanings. All are horrified by the massive loss of lives. There is no question that in the midst of this civil war, no party is immune from being rightly accused of crimes against humanity. And there is no doubt that political leaders in the conflict, Bashar Assad chief among them, bear direct and indirect responsibility to end the carnage.
As an artist and speaker who travels to Arab American communities all the time (it’s actually really fun), I have seen everything when it comes to Syria. I have witnessed major organizations and charities openly call for Assad’s removal by the American military, and I have heard Arab American community organizations voice their fervent support for the Syrian leader. I live in Dearborn, a place where pro-Assad sentiments flow quite openly, perhaps mostly due to the predominantly Shiite make up of the community. At the same time, in the farther suburbs of Detroit, I find groups led by Syrian Sunnis loudly and consistently labeling him a war criminal.
I guess my point is this: When it comes to the Arab American community and Syria, the political disagreement is nuanced, widespread, and real. This is precisely why major Arab American advocacy groups like the Arab American Institute (AAI) and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) have refused to “take a side” in the political debate, while rightly expressing horror at the human cost.
Syria, in this sense, is not Palestine. It’s not Egypt in 2010. Virtually no one in our community politically stands with Israel or voiced political support for Hosni Mubarak. But Syria is different. The sectarianism is stark, and even outside of that, many non-aligned Arab Americans have seen Syria over the years as a strong bastion of Arabism. Now, that view of Syria may or may not be romantic, but the sentiment is quite genuine.
This all brings me back to the episode recounted in the Daily Beast. Sanders’ position of refusing to continue to militarily intervene in Arab countries (actions that have proven disastrous) is precisely one of the points that has attracted many Arab Americans to his campaign. Tim Mak, the author of the Daily Beast hit piece, accused Sanders of having a “disinclination to talk about national security matters” and “a relatively poor understanding on foreign policy, especially when compared side-by-side with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.” Neither of these things are true. As a member of a handful of Arab Americans who met with Sanders in Dearborn on March 7, the day before the Michigan primary he “shockingly” won, I can attest that we asked him about foreign policy issues, and he answered cogently and thoughtfully. More importantly, he answered in a way that reflected our community’s sentiments more accurately than any other candidate in the field. The vast majority of Arab Americans want even-handedness in Palestine and an end to American military intervention in our homelands. Sanders represents those positions. Sure, some members of our community want American troops to invade Syria and depose Assad, but it would be very ambitious to say that they represent anything close to a majority sentiment.
To paint Bernie Sanders as someone who refuses to listen to a Syrian refugee (who has been in America for over 30 years), as Mak did, is disingenuous and irresponsible. In the wake of the Paris attacks in late 2015, when almost every politician was caving in to pressure to denounce refugees en masse, Sanders quite loudly proclaimed that we should not turn our back on Syrian refugees coming to America. His position and words were a moral compass in the face of fear-mongering and scapegoating.
Mak’s article is not only misleading. It displays a stark misunderstanding of our Arab American community. He would have been well-served to speak to an expert or two before publication. He might have realized fairly quickly that Bernie Sanders won Michigan on Tuesday with overwhelming support from our community precisely because the Senator understands that which The Daily Beast clearly does not.