Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and Berg
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and Berg

Challenging Preconceptions

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and Berg

Let’s play word association. I’ll start. “Muslim-American Abdul El-Sayed.” What immediately comes to mind? Given the prevailing anti-immigrant, Islamophobic sentiment in this nation, I imagine it’s not the term “Governor.” However, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is not only running for governor of Michigan, but he is also exceedingly qualified to hold the office.

Dr. El-Sayed is a double D (Detroit Democrat), a Rhodes Scholar, an Oxford Ph.D., a Columbia-educated medical doctor and former head of the Detroit Health Department. Impressive stuff for anyone, let alone a 32-year-old.
Did I mention Abdul is a Muslim? My personal experience with Islam is limited. As a supporter of equal rights for LGBTQ, women, apostates and other communities traditionally oppressed by religions, including Islam, suffice it to say, I, too, have some bugaboos.

However, this column is meant to explore my complicated relationship to religion, specifically Judaism, so I must also explore the tougher issues like prejudice, including my own.

We all struggle with preconceptions that are informed by identity, society and the conditioning of history. That is why I make every effort to talk with people face to face. So, when I was invited to do an invocation at the announcement of Dr. El-Sayed’s candidacy for governor, I jumped at the chance.

I spoke in turn with Muslims and Christians, representing myself as a Humanistic Jew. I invoked a desire for educating our children, protecting our environment — you know, the whole liberal spiel. I was hoping Abdul wouldn’t just spew the spiel, but walk the walk as well.

Now that I was officially a groupie with full backstage access, I planned to take advantage and get to really know Abdul El-Sayed, the person. He was raised by an Egyptian father and a white Christian stepmother, so immediately I thought, “family Passover seder invite!” I sat next to Abdul, beaming with pride that he was there to witness my family dayenu the heck out of his entire liberal agenda and remind us that, regardless of calls for the destruction of Israel by countries like Syria, we must aid all those in need, including refugees. But, this left little time for Abdul and me to talk.

I was not giving up on my quest to delve deeper, so I contacted The Humanist magazine and pitched an interview with the first Muslim-American gubernatorial candidate in Michigan. I urge you to read the interview in the July/August issue of The Humanist. Here are some highlights:

“… as a religious minority, the capacity for people like me to practice my faith has everything to do with the separation of church and state and I value that immensely.”

“… while I can have a conversation about what I think is the best life, I cannot lean on the state to exclude other people whose conceptions of the best life may be different than mine.”

“The state’s facing a lot of challenges … Those problems need all of us to come together and commit to a solution, and we only do that if we can have conversations.”

“I am for comprehensive immigration reform that makes sense and happy to have a conversation about how we actually enforce that. In the absence of that, I do not believe that the state of Michigan has a responsibility to enforce federal policies that don’t make sense and are ruining families and are ruining sections of our economy. I believe that Michigan should be a sanctuary state …”

So, there it is, preconceived notions dispelled. Aside from a belief in the Divine, he is pretty much in lockstep with me on everything else. Right now, humanity is reeling from human beings killed by suicide bombers deluded to think they are doing Allah’s bidding and going to heaven. However, Abdul seems like a guy to whom Islam informs and is equal or even subordinate to the value of peace and all life in a secular society. I truly believe that in modern times, wisdom and compassion are slowly but surely reforming tradition and doctrine. I wanted to know more about what Abdul thought.

And, someday I will. But, for now, the following is how Abdul left it. “I don’t care about being the first Muslim governor. I care about being a great governor of this state, and I’m running because I know I have the skill set as a physician, a scientist, an educator and a public servant.”

We need brave progressives, but Michigan is diverse and Abdul still must prove, even to me, that he can win. I remember another unseasoned politician with a Muslim name faring well, so I have high hopes.

Although Obama showed the utmost respect to Muslims whenever he was “accused” of being a Muslim himself, his PR team reiterated that he is, indeed, a Christian. This time around, I won’t deny the pleasure I’ll take in responding to the “accusation” of “but he is a Muslim” with “you betcha!”

To meet Abdul is to like him. To know him is to respect him. Whatever your political or religious orientation, I urge you to get to know him too before you go to the ballot box.

Joshua Lewis Berg


Joshua Lewis Berg, The Wandering Jew, is a mythical figure whose legend consists of wandering the world in search of the perfect bottle of kosher pop and other revelatory phenomena.

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