Representing Muslims and Islam in the Sanders Campaign

Curator's Note

Islamophobia traffics in the visual. In the United States, individuals who appear “Muslim,” a cultural construction at the intersection of race, clothing, and language, experience micro- and macro-aggressions every day. Even though the U.S. census defines many American Muslims, including those of Middle Eastern origin, as “Caucasian,” the increasing racialization of Islam has transformed Arab and Muslim Americans into a beleaguered minority. As a result, the same visual symbols that connote dangerous Otherness to the broader public are getting reclaimed as marks of diversity and solidarity in progressive circles. Nowhere has this been more obvious this election season than in the presidential campaign of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

Linda Sarsour, the Executive Director of the Arab American Association and prominent Bernie supporter, introduced Bernie in Brooklyn on March 26 and noted soon after, “We went from Muslim women in hijabs being removed from camera view at rallies to introducing competitive candidates in front of thousands of voters.” Indeed, unlike Obama in 2008, Bernie Sanders has embraced images of Islam as a part of his political revolution. He tweeted in Arabic, campaigned in mosques, and even created this campaign video specifically addressing Islamophobia. Muslims have returned the favor, canvassing, voting, creating hashtags like #inshallahbernie, and bilingual puns like yo2Bernie.

Mainstream media expressed surprise when Bernie (a Jew!) won Michigan in a historic upset in March, in part, due to Muslim American support. However, far from being a hindrance, Bernie’s ethnicity is what has allowed him to associate himself so closely with Muslim Americans in the first place. Even though Bernie draws parallels between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racism in campaign materials, I believe his ability to reach out to Muslim Americans has depended not primarily on symbolic overlaps between Jewish and Muslim American identities, but on the increasing divergence between them. In other words, unlike Obama who risked contamination by association, Bernie has been able to inject his campaign with the trappings of Islam, because “Jew” and “Muslim” have become such oppositional identities in the broad American psyche – the former becoming whiter and more mainstream as the latter appears more and more marginal and non-white. Even if this visible Muslim support cannot disrupt the media narrative that only “whites” support Bernie, flanked by Muslim activists, the 2016 Bernie appears to be using his white privilege right, like the 1963 Bernie chained to a black woman to protest segregation.


It is interesting that this ad's visuals also allude to black communities (both in images of people and signifiers of hip hop and African identity). Does other Sanders material attempt to draw parallels between the oppression of Muslims and the oppression of blacks?

That is a great question. I cannot speak to any specific Bernie ads, but since Ferguson where has been a visible resurgence of Afro-Arab solidarity around issues of racial oppression and empire. I say resurgence because this predates the twentieth century (Lubin 2014; Feldman 2015). Of course, these solidarities are both strengthened and complicated by histories of black Islam (Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali etc) and the fact that a significant portion of U.S. Muslims are black even though the popular media collapses Arab and Muslim.

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