Sunday, September 23rd, 2018
  
 

Civil rights voice from Detroit could be first Muslim congresswoman

“I love you all. Keep up the fight.”

In November, Tlaib, a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, may become the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress. Her victory in the Democratic primary, though narrow, all but guarantees her election, as she is running unopposed in a very Democratic district that John Conyers jnr held for more than half a century.

An attorney and single mother of two boys, Tlaib, who was a state representative in Michigan for six years, plans to take up Detroit’s civil rights heritage in her own way. She champions progressive policies like Medicare For All, a $US15 minimum wage and abolishing ICE, and is both a Democrat and a democratic socialist, though she said she eschews labels.

Already, her story offers a remarkable counterpoint to anti-Muslim policy and sentiment rising around the country, and especially to US President Donald Trump, who has banned travel from several majority-Muslim countries. Tlaib drew national attention when she confronted Trump during his 2016 speech to the Detroit Economic Club.

In a year when a record number of women are running for Congress, and races across the country include gay, lesbian and transgender candidates and many people of colour, Tlaib, 42, represents a new addition to the mosaic of US politics.

“I knew the win would be uplifting so many people with me,” she said. “It feels like a lot of weight on me to give them a voice.”

Rashida Tlaib embraces her mother Fatima Elabed, who wears a Palestinian flag across her shoulders, in Detroit after Tlaib won the Democratic primary race on August 7.

Rashida Tlaib embraces her mother Fatima Elabed, who wears a Palestinian flag across her shoulders, in Detroit after Tlaib won the Democratic primary race on August 7.

Photo: New York Times

Tlaib attributes her political vision and sense of justice to her Palestinian heritage. She often references checkpoints around her relatives’ homes near Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and how they limit residents’ access to health care and education.

When she stopped by a Middle Eastern bakery for lunch, she refused to purchase a water bottle, despite the summer heat, because it was manufactured by Nestle, which has increased the volume of water it pumps from Lake Michigan.

“My community wants me to work on economic justice,” she said. “I am not for the privatisation of water.”

When it comes to policy, Tlaib said she is mostly concerned with local issues, like Michigan’s high car insurance costs and creating “neighbourhood services centers” – re-imagined district offices that offer community resources like free tax preparation or energy grants. She plans to spend as much time as possible in Michigan, not Washington, and even wondered whether it was possible to move her swearing-in ceremony to Detroit. “If people want to meet with me, they can come here,” she said.

"If people want to meet with me, they can come here": Rashida Tlaib at home in Detroit.

“If people want to meet with me, they can come here”: Rashida Tlaib at home in Detroit.

Photo: New York Times

Asked how she proposes to pay for Medicare For All, she pulled up the Department of Defence website and read aloud from its daily announcements of new contracts, some earmarked for hundreds of millions of dollars. “This is unbelievable,” she said. “Oh and by the way, this was just for the Navy.”

Tlaib, who voted for independent Vermont senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Michigan primary, is part of a new class of far-left candidates that has had some political successes so far – most prominently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York – but that also has had many losses. In Detroit, the mayor and prominent labour unions like the United Auto Workers supported Tlaib’s primary opponent, Brenda Jones.

“I was in this environment like, ‘You are not part of this dynasty’,” she said. “I didn’t realise there was a line.”

Rashida Tlaib with her mother's thobe, which she plans to wear at her swearing-in.

Rashida Tlaib with her mother’s thobe, which she plans to wear at her swearing-in.

Photo: New York Times

Her outsider approach will face an even greater test on Capitol Hill, which she has already criticised as being out of touch with many Americans. Should Democrats win control of the House, Tlaib says she will probably not support Nancy Pelosi for speaker. “Trump got elected on her watch,” she said. “This is a new time, a time for a generational change.”

When Tlaib takes her oath of office, she plans to wear her mother’s thobe, a traditional Palestinian dress that her mother had dry-cleaned for her even before she won, and to place her hand on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran.

New York Times