America’s first Muslim woman in Congress


Rashida Tlaib is not a household name and might never become one but she has landed in the history books by becoming the first Muslim woman elected to the US Congress. Even though Tlaib won the Democratic primary on Tuesday, her Congressional seat is not guaranteed, but with no Republicans on the ballot in the overwhelmingly Democratic district in and around Detroit, Tlaib will run unopposed in the general election come November. When Tlaib eventually does take her seat she will have broken one of the last religious barriers in Congress.

Being the first Muslim woman and Palestinian-American to serve in the US Congress is an honor for Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians. All three would like to believe Tlaib won because she is a Muslim Arab. That is probably not the case. Most likely she won based on her policy proposals and track record in government. The 42-year-old mother of two ran a progressive anti-establishment campaign with a focus on environmental protections and opposing tax cuts for big corporations. The district Tlaib will represent notably does not have a majority of Arabs or Muslims, and is mostly a mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics, proving her accomplishment is not related to her religion or heritage.

Still, it’s a nice feeling for Muslims and Arabs, especially in America, to have one of their own representing them and their interests in Congress, especially during these days of Islamophobia. To achieve what she did, Tlaib had to overcome a crowded Democratic field and bigotry at the same time. Anti-Muslim bigotry exists even in Michigan, which boasts one of America’s largest Muslim populations. Even after Tlaib defeated the Democratic establishment, anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t going anywhere. But her victory could play a big role in helping define who American Muslims are and pushing back against what some on the right have painted of Muslims.

Tlaib has not shied away from the Palestinian-Israeli issue either. The former state legislator says she hopes to bring a "unique perspective" by advocating for equal rights for both Palestinians and Israelis. However, she said she is not afraid to stand up to right-wing extremists who attack anyone critical of Israel's policies. This is an unfortunate but unavoidable reality. In order to survive politically, Tlaib will have to side with Israel or at least not appear to be too pro-Palestinian. At the same time, there are parallels between the civil rights movement in Detroit where Tlaib grew up and in the US in general, and the Palestinians' struggle for justice. It is hoped Tlaib can make the connection. There is also a space in the Democratic Party to defend Palestinian issues, as opposed to the Republican Party.

Tlaib is one of many American Muslims talking about public service these days. More than 90 are running for office, from local school boards to the US Senate. They are running for office in numbers probably not seen since before the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001, again thanks to a runaway spike in the negativity by which Muslims are viewed in the US. In wasn’t always like this. Arabs have been coming to the US in large numbers since the late 19th century, and their ranks have grown in recent decades due to wars and political instability in the Middle East.

Today, the US political landscape is much more inhospitable to Muslims, perhaps the reason why they are entering politics: to try to change the tide. Tlaib is part of a new, more powerful and politically involved generation of Palestinian-Americans who are better educated and integrated than their immigrant parents. She can be an example that everyone has an equal shot at leadership, no matter their skin color, where they grew up, or, as one put it, how they pray.