The 32-year-old charismatic Muslim doctor is running for governor of Michigan and in the process trying to change US politics
At seven years old, Abdul El-Sayed sat in the eye of Hurricane Andrew, the most destructive hurricane in US history until Katrina. Living near Miami, El-Sayed drank juice while swaddled under mattresses between his father and stepmother, who was holding El-Sayed’s newborn baby brother just home from the hospital.
The 1992 storm had taken an unexpected turn southward, and the El-Sayeds could not be evacuated. The wind made an awful rattling sound on the screens.
The front door blew in. The wind and the rain whipped into the house, “as if the ocean was coming at you”.
El-Sayed’s father, Mohamed, crawled on his stomach to shut the door, the rain whipping his face, the wind beating his body. The eye of the storm passed directly over them and the National Guard eventually evacuated them.
At the moment, American politics feels a bit like being in the eye a hurricane. Donald Trump has stated America’s nuclear arsenal is “locked and loaded”, should North Korea make any false moves and neo-Nazis are openly parading in the streets bearing torches, resulting in a young woman, Heather Heyer, being murdered in Charlottesville, Virginia.
No one man can stop the hurricane. But in Michigan, a grown-up El-Sayed is now having a go, trying to keep the storm at bay in a state that is having some of the hardest times in the union. He’s still a year out from the primary, but in his attempt at running for governor of the state, he is trying not just to win, but also to change American politics itself.
If El-Sayed wins, he will be the first Muslim governor in US history.
When driving from Detroit to Adrian, Michigan, my hometown, you pass by a mosque near Ypsilanti that was burned to the ground in an arson last March. Adrian is 45 minutes from any freeway, the county is rural, and the cornfields rolling. You pass by a number of road signs offering jobs – $28 dollars an hour for skilled work, less for driving a truck.
The city itself, the largest town in the county, holds only about 20,000 people. It is the kind of place with lots and lots of American flags. It’s also Trump country, white and Christian, the county voting with the president 57% to Hillary Clinton’s 36%.
El-Sayed was speaking there on a recent Sunday afternoon in a public hall. A young local transgender man introduced El-Sayed to the audience – a brave choice for a region still coming to terms with gay rights, let alone trans rights. Just a few miles away in Jackson, Michigan, the house of two organizers for the town’s first ever pride parade was burned in what investigators are calling a possible arson.
El-Sayed’s stump speech revolves around fleshing out his personal story. He’s the son of an Egyptian immigrant who remarried to a now converted white, rural Protestant mother. His uncles learned to prepare venison Halal so his entire family could share in the meals. Throw in an atheist mathematician uncle from the former Soviet Union, and Thanksgiving dinners were interesting to say the least.
At this stage in his speech, El-Sayed usually pivots to speaking about the US constitution and the soaring rhetoric of hope and commonality.
“As you can imagine, these people come from fundamentally different walks of life, they have known different realities. But, they see a common future. And that’s because it’s a common future they have built together,” he said. “I learned about a society that was founded on an ideal that my father invested in back in 1978 when he came here, one that told him, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.’”
One of the first questions El-Sayed gets asked that day is about Sharia law, asking about his thoughts on the custom, by a clearly agitated man in a checked button-down shirt.
The rumors surrounding El-Sayed’s faith are small but persistent, spread by a handful of far-right websites preying on the uninformed and fearful.
One morning, I asked him about them over breakfast.
“Are you the spear tip of a vast Muslim conspiracy to bring Sharia law to the US?”
“No,” he said.
“Are you a front for the Muslim brotherhood to pervert American politics towards terrorism?”
“Were you handpicked by George Soros to lead a vast liberal takeover of the government?”
“No. I’ve never met George Soros.”
SOURCE: Drew Philp