Shi'a Americans, a diverse community growing in presence & influence, made a noteworthy contribution to Joe Biden's victory, especially in the crucial swing-state of Michigan.
By: Mehdi Haider
President-elect Joseph Biden is at the cusp of assuming the highest political office in the land during one of the most turbulent times in recent American history, and he has a handful of communities and districts to thank for carrying him to the finish-line. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, key minority communities, particularly the Black community, but also the Latino, Asian-American, and Muslim communities, helped Biden win the election. And looking to the future, given the growing demographic shift in the United States, the role of minority voters will be more important than ever in the evolution of American politics. Among these critical communities, however, is one population that has been systematically overlooked: the Shi'a Muslim community which constitutes the second largest denomination within Islam. In a narrow race such as 2020’s, Shi’a Americans bolstered the vote that helped Michigan flip blue, contributing to Biden’s presidential victory.
In Michigan alone, this community likely numbers at least 200,000 residents, [i] constituting a significant plurality—if not a majority—of the state’s large Arab and Muslim population. The 13th Congressional district in Wayne County, Michigan, where the city of Dearborn is located, is home to one of the largest Muslim and Arab populations in the United States. The district’s Shi’a Muslim population has a significant presence and helped Biden’s nearly 68% percent electoral sweep in Wayne County, which has become all the more important given the failed last-minute partisan attempt by Republicans to prevent the certification of the legitimate vote tally in the county and would have been particularly impactful of the Shi’a and Black vote.
The Arab and Muslim residents of Michigan are mostly of Lebanese and Iraqi origins, but also of other Arab, Iranian, and South Asian nationalities, many of whom have been citizens for generations. [ii] Dearborn historically became a major hub for Lebanese immigrants to settle there in the late 1800s as Ford factories and other industrial manufacturing jobs provided many employment opportunities. Since 2005, it has been the site of the largest mosque in North America, the Islamic Center of America, which caters to the Shi'a community and illustrates the growth and flourishing of Shi’a-Americans in Michigan and the Midwest.
Presidential candidates have sought the support of this community in years past. Although he lost Michigan in the 2000 election, George W. Bush may have won the support of as many as 72 percent of Arab-Americans in Dearborn. By meeting with some Shi’a leaders in the area several times for counsel and a line of communication, George W. Bush managed to acquire their support, but left them disgruntled and filled with regret as a result of his domestic post-9/11 policies and interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was projected to win the Michigan Democratic primary by a landslide, but Bernie Sanders won in an enormous upset due in part to his “willingness to denounce Islamophobia and engage with Arab American and Muslim voters.” Arguably, no other politician has held the enthusiastic support of the Michigan Shi’a community the way Bernie Sanders has done.
Although Biden won the 2020 Michigan primary with 54 percent of the vote, Dearborn turned out again for Sanders giving him 62 percent of the city’s votes to Biden’s 32.5 percent. The Vermont senator attained 91.5 percent of the vote in the city’s south end and 81.7 percent in the east end and also won Dearborn Heights, but with a smaller yet sizeable margin.
Remembering Donald Trump’s 2016 win in Michigan by 10,704 votes, Jill Biden, the President-elect’s wife, made it clear on her visit to Dearborn in October 2020 that every vote would count in this election and the community would have “a seat at the table” in a Biden administration. Even though Donald Trump lost Wayne County in 2016, residents cast 76,402 fewer votes for the Democratic candidate relative to the 2012 election, highlighting a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton compared to Barack Obama. This time around, we saw much of the Shi’a vote manifest to remove Donald Trump from office and replace him with a president who claims that he will give them a voice in the administration.
The Shi’a-American story, however, is not just about Michigan. Trends are indicating that the overall national Muslim, and by extension Shi'a, population will have doubled by 2050. Muslims more generally have voted predominantly Democratic since 2004, and Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, became one of the first Shi'as to serve as a State Representative in Michigan in 2017. Beyond Michigan, there are also numerous sizable Shi’i communities across the nation in critical urban areas, including New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Texas, Pennsylvania, the DC Metro area, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. [iii] Many of them are wealthy, highly educated, professionally successful, and becoming more civically engaged, including standing for public office.
These communities are very diverse, and are comprised of Arab-Americans, Iranian-Americans, South Asian-Americans, and African-Americans among other backgrounds. Even if some of these communities are not in swing states, they nonetheless represent important communities with national networks of professionals, businesspeople, and community leaders who play a large role in American civic and economic life. Moving ahead, greater research and focus on Shi’a Americans are necessary as very little work has been done to examine this increasingly influential and growing community that may just be the deciding factor in elections to come.
Mehdi Haider is a graduate researcher at Harvard University’s Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He is a candidate for an M.A. in Law and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School at Tufts University where he concentrates on U.S. foreign policy and human security.
Figure 1. The Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, which is the largest mosque in the country and happens to belong to the Shi’a denomination.
[i] These figures are estimates based on demographic research conducted by the Arab American Institute and Zogby International on Arab-American communities in Michigan who estimated the 2010 population of Arab-Americans in that state to be at least 500,000; https://b.3cdn.net/aai/dfab1c90e9a819c9c1_tkm6iyilb.pdf.
[ii] Walbridge, Linda S. Without Forgetting the Imam: Lebanese Shiʻism in an American Community. Wayne State University Press, 1997.
[iii] The construction of Masjid Al Hayy in Sanford, Florida, a Shi’a community mosque educational center, marked a cultural and social milestone for the American-Muslim community and depicts Shi’a Americans’ increasing presence and visibility. https://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/os-mosque-sanford-masjid-al-hajj-20171031-story.html.