After Rashida Tlaib won the Democratic Party’s nomination for the US House of Representatives in Michigan on August 7, three descriptors were used over and over to explain the significance of the moment: She’s Muslim, she’s Palestinian, she’s Arab American. Additionally, the breathless commentary went, Tlaib is on course to become the first Muslim congresswoman in US history.
All of this is true. Tlaib is all of the above and a great deal more. She’s not a hyphenated American so much as a composite one — in, of and for 21st-century America. Tlaib is an attorney, an activist for equal opportunities, a former Michigan state legislator, a mother of two and the oldest of 14 children born to Palestinian immigrants to the United States.
This makes Tlaib’s near-certain entry into the 116th US Congress much more than a personal triumph. She is, in the words of a US television news presenter, “the beautiful story of America.”
Is she really?
Yes, in that Tlaib seems to stitch together the American story rended by Donald Trump. Where this US president pits white Christian Americans against non-white Americans, as well as against immigrants, Muslims and Arabs, Tlaib takes up all the strands and weaves them together. So, when she takes her oath for Congress, Tlaib will wear “a Palestinian thobe that my mother is preparing and swear on the Holy Quran.”
That doesn’t conflict with Tlaib’s propensity to use political and social references from US history. “We’re not divided, just disconnected,” she says of America and the wider world, adding that she’s quoting from a recent sermon by a local pastor, Steven Bland.
Along with the church-going, Tlaib is conscious of how she straddles other communities. Sometimes, she uses the hip term “Muslima,” meaning an educated Muslim woman. But mostly, she describes herself as “American, parent, Muslim, Arab-American and woman.”
This led her, almost exactly two years ago, to heckle then-presidential candidate Trump at a Detroit public meeting. Tlaib called it an act of Americanism. For, as Trump mentioned his proposed Muslim ban, Tlaib demanded to know if he had even read the US Constitution. The candidate didn’t respond and Tlaib was forcibly removed from the event. The footage still exists, fleshing out an increasingly glorious narrative of moral strength ranged against brutish bigotry.
Born and bred in Michigan’s Wayne County, Tlaib is fiercely American even as she proudly bears another, more universal message that comes from her Palestinian roots. “There is a hope that I will bring a voice to people who have really been voiceless and dehumanised in many ways,” she told Stephen Henderson on the “Detroit Today” radio show on August 9, to explain the enthusiasm sparked by her political rise on the West Bank and among Arab Americans. “My connection, my strong connection [to the Palestinian territories], my grandmother still lives there, will be critical to elevating their voices.”
Even so, the “voiceless,” as Tlaib repeatedly made clear, are not just in the Palestinian territories. They are in the Michigan district she will represent in Congress.
Often, “my families [in Michigan]” can’t even pay a water bill, she said of her constituents and they’re struggling with the same sort of grinding life issues as people in the Middle East. “I am always going to come from the lens of growing up in Detroit,” Tlaib declared, “where every corner is a reminder of the civil rights movement and no one should be considered unequal solely on the basis of their faith or their ethnicity.”
Tlaib does well in applying this equalising “lens” to her patch of the American Midwest as well as to the Palestinian territories. Michigan’s 13th Congressional District — so heavily weighted Democratic that Trump’s Republican Party is not even running a candidate — was represented in Congress for half a century by the formidable John Conyers. He is a legendary civil rights activist and proposed measures to provide special protection to Muslims from “religious intolerance.” In the way it’s told, no one can fill Conyers’ shoes.
However, if anyone can do it, it might be Tlaib. She seems to take social justice as an issue that can and does unite Americans with everyone else, especially in the Middle East. She puts paid to the absurd, recurring controversies in the United States and Europe about Muslim and Arab capacity to melt into their adopted Western homes.
By sidestepping the froth churned up by issues such as the burqa and niqab, Tlaib forces the United States — and the world — to see a high-functioning Arab Muslim woman for the organic reality of her achievements and aspirations.
One would expect nothing less from a composite American.