The Michigan primary was settled on Tuesday, but some mainstream media are still chattering over Dearborn -- a city said to be 30-40 percent Arab, yet voted decisively for the lone Jewish candidate, Bernie Sanders.
And so many are still crowing about how so very wrong the pundits were to fret over anti-Semitism, it's hard to find the fretting. The stories are almost all "Nyah, nyah, we knew it all along."
The International Business Times let out some of the loudest chortles:
As the results rolled in, television pundits like Lawrence O’Donnell and Chuck Todd marveled on MSNBC that Sanders was doing so well in Dearborn “despite” the large Arab-American population there. WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer tweeted that Sanders’ dominance in Dearborn was “the stat of the night,” later adding “It’s official: Arab city feels the Jewish Bern.” Meanwhile, The Week dubbed it “just one more strange data point in an election overflowing with them.”
The assumption implicit in such commentary, of course, is that Muslims are biased against Jews — and that when they do cast a vote for Jewish candidates, it’s because they’ve somehow managed to overcome their own inherent anti-Semitism. But this fascination with Dearborn’s support of Sanders actually demonstrates the media industry’s own all-too-prevalent prejudice — and reveals how much reporting on American Muslims is still rooted in an unsophisticated naiveté about what motivates them.
The article quotes a prof saying that “the ‘Muslims voting for a Jew’ tagline is trite." And it quotes a Libyan-American writer saying that mainstream media are "guilty of promoting two-dimensional caricatures of Muslims and Arabs."
IBTimes isn’t the only miscreant, of course. The Huffington Post began its stridence yesterday with the headline: "Yes, Muslims Voted for A Jewish Candidate. Pundits Shouldn't Be Surprised." Added the subhead: "Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, shut down uneducated commentary about their support for Bernie Sanders."
HuffPo then interviews young Arab-American voters -- all 20 or 21 -- who say they voted for Sanders for his plans for health care and free college tuition. They talk like this:
Nasri Sobh, 21, voted for Sanders in neighboring community Dearborn Heights. He is Muslim, and is not particularly interested in Sanders’ faith.
"It’s not relevant. That’s like the bottom of our list," Sobh said.
"We’re living in an environment that’s not friendly to Arab-Americans or those of the Islamic faith," Yasmeen Kadouh, 20, added. "Saying that we don't support Bernie because he's of Jewish ancestry -- that would be entirely hypocritical."
Both stories have a common flaw: They don’t prove their premise that mainstream media were surprised at the vote results. They mention MSNBC's Lawrence O’Donnell and Chuck Todd being surprised that an Arab-American city would like Bernie. They cite WNYC’s Brian Lehrer calling it the "stat of the night." Hardly trumpets of alarm, and hardly a broad media trend.
Another flaw is that IBTimes and other media seem to equate Arabs with Muslims. (It does acknowledge that some are Chaldeans, or eastern Christians from Iraq; but the article pretty much acts like "they're all alike.") That's an argumentative matter among the Detroit area's 150,000 Chaldeans (and the Arab American News did run a long debate on the question). But the Detroit-based Chaldean Community Foundation itself is pretty definite about its heritage:
Historically, Chaldeans are from the Arab World but are not Arabs. The Chaldean people of today are descendants of the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations and the Aramean legacy of Mesopotamia. They have a 5,500-year history dating back to Mesopotamia—the cradle of civilization—which is present day Iraq.
Why not just avoid the question and say the Chaldeans are "descended from ancient churches in what is now Iraq"? And what about the large Eastern Orthodox community in this area, which is largely Arab?
It's not even certain that "the Muslims" voted for Sanders. In Vox today, Bilal Dardai, a Pakistani-American writer who lives in the Chicago area, says Dearborn's Muslims are hardly monolithic:
The majority of Dearborn Muslims are Shiite, for example — but Shiite Muslims are a minority worldwide, representing less than 15 percent of the global Muslim population. Nationwide, Arab Christians represent nearly half of all Arab Americans; in Dearborn this proportion is much less. Dearborn is also made of a specific set of national identities, primarily Lebanese with smaller groups of Iraqis, Yemenis, and Palestinians. Furthermore, those Arab Americans who identify as either Shiite or Sunni Muslim are not themselves monolithic — like any people of faith, depth and manner of belief will show variation from person to person.
Please understand my point here. It is not to say, "No, they're wrong! Muslims do hate Jews!" No, my point is the misuse of news space for propaganda -- that so many media fell over themselves to make an ideological point about Muslims and Jews, rather than simply report.
Some media did get it right the first time. The Detroit Free Press showed its knowledge of the various communities, with sentences like "Arab Americans, Chaldeans, and Muslims across Michigan have mobilized or been closely watching the political process unfold over the past year." The Freep's story -- which it developed right at the polls, not with after-the-fact crowing -- had reactions like:
"I'm a millennial, so the obvious choice would be Bernie Sanders," said Zayd Sufyan, 26, of Dearborn, a third-generation Arab-American Muslim. "He's for the minority, he's noticing the youth, wants them to be able to go to school without paying too much for it."
As for Sanders being Jewish, Sufyan and Mussad said that was not a factor at all.
On social media, some "will see...my Arabic name and they'll be like: Why are you supporting him? He's Jewish," Mussad said.
But "I support him because of his policies, not because of...his personal religion."
Nowhere does the story do any clickbaiting like "We were right! You were wrong!"
The HuffPo and IBTimes stories were amiss in one other way: Dearborn voters also chose Donald Trump. Yes, by a smaller number -- 3,153 to Bernie's 7,126 -- but still remarkable when you remember that many articles substitute "The Donald" for "The Jews" as the objects of Muslim/Arab ire.
But neither result proves anything either way about the Muslim vote, says Tobin Grant at Religion News Service. Simply because we don't know what percentages of those who voted for either man were Arab or Muslim. Could be all, could be none, could be half, etc.
"You can’t take overall percentages and infer how they were created," Tobin points out. "It’s a classic problem that social scientists refer to as the 'ecological fallacy.' This is a fallacy [that] occurs when we use aggregate results (like election outcomes) to mistakingly (sic) guess about individual decisions (like how groups voted)."
Dare we suggest that some journos suffer from unsophisticated naiveté?
Above photo: Islamic Center of America, Dearborn, Mich. Photo by James R. Martin / Shutterstock.com. Cover thumb: Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire Jan. 22. Photo by Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com.