Rashida Tlaib’s victory as the first Muslim woman elected to Congress sparks debate about Islam in the US

Rashida Tlaib has become the first Muslim woman elected to the US Congress after winning the Democratic primary election to represent Michigan’s 13th district. After her grassroots campaign, during which she raised over $1 million, she won 33.6% of the vote. She will enter Congress officially on the 6th November, unopposed by any Republican candidates. Her district, the 13th Congressional District, includes a large southern area of suburban Detroit in Wayne County. Tlaib’s predecessor for her seat in Congress, John Conyers Jr, retired last year after claims of sexual harassment. He had served in the position since 1965[1].

Speaking about her victory, she said she was filled with emotion; “Especially meeting voters and talking to them, they are inspired … One resident said she’s happy for me and has already written. It’s been amazing to interact with families at polling locations. I feel very much supported”[2].

Tlaib, who was born in Detroit in 1976, is the daughter of two Palestinian immigrants. She studied politics, and then law, at university before graduating in 2004, and has previously served as Michigan state representative after winning the seat in 2008, making her the second Muslim woman to serve in a state legislature in the US. Jamilah Nasheed of Missouri was the first[3].

Her victory is especially significant given the major increase in Islamophobia in the US in the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. There has also been a general rise in hostility towards immigrants and immigration in the country[4].

Tlaib’s win has highlighted the contested relationship between politics and religion, and especially Islam, in the US, as well as contention in the country regarding the compatibility of Islam with western values and way of life. This is demonstrated on the comments board of a New York Times article on the story. Tlaib’s religion and its interaction with politics is a major point of concern for many. Some wonder why the media are so interested in her religious background when they do not show similar interest in her non-Muslim counterparts. Many users comment on the fact that she has been seen entering a mosque via the woman’s entrance. A user name ‘M’ writes, “A progressive who uses the women’s entrance, LOL”, although other users do explain customs in the mosque in response. Others comment on her Palestinian background, linking it to the contemporary debate surrounding Israel. However, a lot of the comments about her victory are positive, with a user named T.D. commenting, “As a young Palestinian-American, I never thought it would be possible to be a nominee for Congress. And after Trump was elected, I became so disillusioned that I gave up on the idea to get involved in the political arena. Rashida Tlaib has given me hope and made me re-think what is possible. Thank you”[5].

Speaking about how her religion interacts with her political career and activism, Tlaib has said, “It’s not about just being out there and flaunting your faith. I always tell people that I’m exposing Islam in such a pivotal way, an impactful way, through public service”[6].

Reporting on her campaign, Daniel Burke from CNN Politics wrote, “People who follow religion and politics put Tlaib in the top tier of Muslim American candidates, saying she has as much chance as anyone to break one of the last religious barriers in Congress”. He notes that her campaign can be viewed as the confluence of both the surge of the Muslim democrats running for office and the surge in women running for office, representing “a perfect storm of progressive anti-Trumpism”[7].

Speaking to the UK’s Channel 4, Tlaib said she plans to face Trumpism by being herself and maintaining close links with her community. This “people-driven” approach to politics is what she believes will defeat the right-wing populism which has emerged in US politics. She rejects labels such as ‘socialism’ as being unhelpful[8].

Tlaib agrees that Trump is demonising Muslims and that this is having a significant adverse impact on the US Muslim population. She says her victory is hugely significant in this context, and she will ensure that she uses her platform to speak for Muslims in the US who are all too often “on the menu, but not around the table”[9].

When asked whether being a Muslim and the daughter of immigrants mattered to her constituents, she said that it matters to everyone because people can identify with her and the story of her family. She discussed her grandfather being displaced from his home in Palestine as one of the sources of her “drive and passion” and how this family history gave her a “personal voice” in political discussions concerning Palestine. When asked about her position on Israel and trade with Israel, she said that she has witnessed inequality on the basis of faith in Israel first-hand and that integration must be discussed in order to ensure peace in the region. She sees US aide as leverage to promote the value of integration and said she would vote against trade with Israel in order to action this leverage[10].

In 2016, Tlaib was ejected from a speech Trump was giving after protesting his plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, increase military spending, and decrease taxes[11].

[1] Cockburn, 2018.

[2] Cockburn, 2018.

[3] Cockburn, 2018.

[4] Cockburn, 2018.

[5] Dias, 2018.

[6] Burke, 2018.

[7] Burke, 2018.

[8] Channel 4 News, 2018.

[9] Channel 4 News, 2018.

[10] Channel 4 News, 2018.

[11] Burns, 2016.

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Burke, D. (2018) ‘She could be the first Muslim woman in Congress. She has to defeat Detroit’s Democratic establishment first’. [online] 7 August. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/07/03/politics/rashida-tlaib-congress/index.html. [Accessed 14 August 2018].

Burns, G. (2016) ‘Protesters forcibly removed after disrupting Donald Trump speech in Detroit’. [online] 8 August. https://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2016/08/donald_trump_speech_in_detroit_1.html. [Accessed 14 August 2018].

Channel 4 News. (2018) ‘Rashida Tlaib interview on Palestine, Trump’s America and becoming the first Muslim congresswoman’.

13 August. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aLngZBmtlg. [Accessed 14 August 2018].

Cockburn, H. (2018) ‘Rashida Tlaib: First Muslim woman to be elected to US Congress after winning Michigan Democratic Primary’. [online] 8 August. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/09/muslims-and-islam-key-findings-in-the-u-s-and-around-the-world/. [Accessed 14 August 2018].

Dias, E. (2018) ‘For Rashida Tlaib, Palestinian Heritage Infuses a Detroit Sense of Community’. [online] 14 August. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/14/us/politics/rashida-tlaib-muslim-congress.html?action=click&module=Top+Stories&pgtype=Homepage. [Accessed 14 August 2018].