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“An outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere”

A wide view of Grand Central Terminal with an unusually sparse crowd during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in New York City. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

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New York governor Andrew Cuomo has become the articulate, compassionate political face of government competence in fighting a pandemic.

That’s quite an achievement for a man who as late as early March 2020 trumpeted: “Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers… We think we have the best healthcare system on the planet right here in New York. So, when you’re saying what happened in other countries versus what happened here, we don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries. We are fully coordinated; we are fully mobilized.”

New York was neither fully coordinated, nor was it fully mobilized.

In fact, it became the pandemic’s prime hotspot in the United States, accounting for the highest number of infection cases and the highest mortality rate. Its hospitals were overwhelmed, its stockpiles depleted, its frontline workers perilously exposed to risk of contagion. Many of the deaths could have been prevented had Mr. Cuomo opted to lock down the Big Apple earlier.

For now, that recent history has largely been forgotten. Mr. Cuomo thrives in his element, a rising star on America’s political ferment. His sober but empathetic, fact-based daily briefings project him as a man in command with a mission to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of his state.

If Mr. Cuomo, a veteran of dealing with the aftermaths of disasters like Hurricane Sandy, learnt anything from his delayed response to the coronavirus pandemic, it was that “an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere.”

Unlike other epidemics in recent years such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS in the early 2000s, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 or the eruption of Ebola in West Africa in 2014, the coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19, left no corner of the globe untouched.

It is a lesson that goes to the heart of all that is wrong with global, regional, and national healthcare governance. It is a lesson that calls into question social and economic policies that have shaped the world for decades irrespective of political system.

It is also a lesson that goes to the core of the relationship between government and the people. It positions social trust as a pillar of an effective healthcare policy in a time of crisis.

In an era of defiance and dissent as a result of a breakdown in confidence in political systems and political leadership that kicked off with Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Arab popular revolts and led to the rise of populists, mass anti-government demonstrations and in 2019 the toppling of leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq, lack of trust complicated government efforts to counter the virus.

Distrust persuaded many Iranians to initially refuse to heed public health warnings to maintain social distancing, stay at home and install an Android app designed to help people self-diagnose and avoid rushing to hospital.

Pakistanis put their faith in religious leaders who rejected government demands for a halt to congregational prayers. So did many Russians as bans on mass gatherings split the clergy and threatened to undermine the Russian Orthodox Church’s key support for President Vladimir Putin.

Post-mortems of governments’ handling of the crisis once the coronavirus has been contained could increase the trust deficit.

Moreover, in an indication of pent-up anger and frustration that could explode, the imposition of curfews and stay-at-home orders failed to prevent incidental outbursts, including protests in mid-American states, quarantined Egyptian villages and poorer Tunisian and Moroccan hamlets.

In an echo of the Tunisian vendor who sparked the 2011 Arab revolts, 32-year-old unemployed and physically disabled Hammadi Chalbi set himself alight in a town 160 kilometres southwest of Tunis after authorities’ refused to license him as a fruit seller. In Lebanon, a taxi driver set his vehicle on fire while fruit vendors dumped their goods in the streets in expressions of mounting discontent. The protests suggest a universal corollary with the pandemic: an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere.

Protesters in 2019 went beyond demanding the fall of a leader. They sought the fall of political elites and radical overhaul of failed political systems. The pandemic called an abrupt halt to the protests. Protesters like the rest of the population went into temporary hibernation.

When they re-emerge, they are likely to put government leaders who prioritized political advantage above their health and economical well-being at a cost that surpasses that of the 1929 Great Depression on par with crimes committed against humanity during times of war.

Social, economic, ethnic, and sectarian fault lines are likely to be hardened in countries like Pakistan and Iraq where militants stepped in with healthcare and other social services to fill voids created by lack of government capacity.

The pandemic further painfully illustrated the economic cost of not only failing to confront a health crisis in a timely fashion but also the risk inherent in policies that do not ensure proper healthcare infrastructure in every corner of the globe, guarantee equal access to healthcare, make sure that people irrespective of income have proper housing and nutrition, turn a blind eye to the destruction of healthcare facilities in conflict situations like Syria, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, tolerate millions of refugees existing in sub-standard living and hygiene conditions, and disregard environmental degradation and climate change.

The pandemic casts a spotlight on the deprivation of populations of proper healthcare as a result of politically motivated discriminatory social and economic policies.

The non-discriminatory nature of the coronavirus forced the Israeli government to ramp up testing in communities of Israeli Palestinians which had been described by public health experts as a ticking time bomb.

The experts warned that Israeli Palestinians, who figured prominently among frontline doctors and nurses treating Jews and Palestinians alike, were an at-risk group, many of whom suffer from chronic diseases, live in crowded conditions, and are socially and economically disadvantaged.

Ramping up testing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 constitutes an immediate effort to stem the tide but does little to structurally prepare Israeli and Palestinian society for the next pandemic.

Pre-dominantly Palestinian “East Jerusalem is gravely neglected in every possible way in terms of the infrastructure. Most neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem don’t have sewage systems. Just about every possible public service you can think of is underbudgeted and lacking in East Jerusalem. The only thing they get a lot of is parking fines and (punitive) housing demolition orders, said”  left-wing member of the Jerusalem municipal council Laura Wharton.

A Monopoly board centred on Jerusalem given to her by Moshe Lion, the city’s mayor and a former economic advisor and director general of prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s office, illustrates the political calculus that potentially puts not only Jews and Palestinians but populations elsewhere at risk in a future pandemic.

“You have here the City of David, the Mount of Olives, the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), the Montefiore windmill, the markets, (the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of) Mea She’arim. Al Aqsa (the third holiest Muslim site) is not here, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not here. Basically what you have is a bunch of Jewish sites and various illusions to other things. It’s not a very balanced picture of Jerusalem,” Ms. Wharton noted pointing at various landmarks on the board.

African Americans, Hispanics and native Americans tell the story, They have fallen disproportionately victim in the United States to the coronavirus.

US surgeon general Dr. Jerome Adams, a 45-year old African American vice admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, one of America’s eight uniformed services, pulled out his inhaler at a White House press briefing in April 2020, saying he’s carried it around for 40 years, “out of fear of having a fatal asthma attack.”

Looking fit and trim in his dark uniform, Mr. Adams said he also had a heart condition and high blood pressure. “I represent that legacy of growing up poor and black in America. And I, and many black Americans, are at higher risk for COVID.”

The surgeon general said that “its alarming but not surprising that people of colour have a greater burden of chronic health conditions. African Americans and native Americans develop high blood pressure at much younger ages… and (the virus) does greater harm to their organs. Puerto Ricans have higher rates of asthma and black boys are three times (more) likely to die of asthma than their white counterparts…. People of colour are more likely to live in densely packed areas and multi-generational housing, situations which create higher risk for the spread of a highly contagious disease like COVID-19. We tell people to wash their hands, but a study shows that 30 percent of homes of the Navajo nation don’t have running water, so how are they going to do that?”

What goes for one of the wealthiest nations on earth goes for the rest of the world too, particularly with the last two decades suggesting that pandemics occur more frequently and are likely to do so going forward.

What started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 had by April 2020 brought the world to a virtual standstill. Millions across the globe were infected, tens of thousands did not survive, economies shut down and the prospects for recovery and return to what was normal seemed a mere hope in a distant future.

Andrew Cuomo may be the exception that confirms the rule. There is little in the response of leaders from China’s Xi Jingping to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald J. Trump that suggests that the lesson that an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere has persuaded them to think in terms of structural change.

If the first six months of the coronavirus are anything to go by, the name of the game has been jockeying for political positions, ideology trumps science, and everyone for him or herself in a race to the bottom rather than apolitical banding together globally, regionally and nationally to fight a dangerous and debilitating common enemy.

The response to the pandemic reflected the crumbling of the post-World War Two international order that is in the grips of a struggle by big and medium-sized powers to shape global governance in the 21st century.

The struggle has already crippled the United Nations and politicization of the coronavirus and healthcare threatens to undermine the World Health Organization, the one, albeit flawed, structure capable of coordinating a global response.

Complicating the response, was the rise of civilizationalists like Mr. Xi, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban and Mr. Trump who think in civilizational rather than national terms.

They conceive of their nations as civilizations in which Hans, Hindus or Christians rule supreme and there is no equal place for minorities rather than nation states defined by legally recognized borders, population, and language.

Theirs is a world of neglect for international law, increased conflict, political violence, and mass migration that promises to be even less prepared for the next pandemic. It is also a world in which early warning systems are weakened by muzzling of a free press.

Former US president Barak Obama, in his opening blast against Trump in the run-up to the November presidential election, put his finger on the pulse.

“What we are fighting against is these long-term trends in which being selfish, being tribal, being divided and seeing others an enemy, that that has become a stronger impulse in American life. And by the way, you know, we are seeing that internationally as well. And it’s part of the reason why the response to this global crisis has been so anaemic and spotty… It has been an absolute chaotic disaster when that mindset of what’s in it for me and to heck with everybody else – when that mindset is operationalized in our government,” Mr. Obama told a virtual gathering of his former staffers.

The pandemic demonstrates the need for coordinated policies ranging from global, regional, and national stock piling, international cooperation in medical research and development, conflict mediation, protection of minority rights, environment, absorption of refugees and robust but diversified supply chains.

It also highlights the importance to healthcare of eradication of poverty and proper social security nets, housing, hygiene, and access to water in a world in which an outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere.

The pandemic positions an approach towards healthcare that is integrated into sustainable social and economic policies as a matter of global and national security on par with regional and national defense and security policies and investments.

It also raises the question of what role major non-governmental institutions like the Clinton Initiative, George Soros and the Gates Foundation can play.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Implications of the U.S. election on U.S.-China relations

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Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

The last four years have been one of the most tumultuous periods in modern China-U.S. relations. U.S. President Donald Trump has been the critical catalyst of this upheaval as he has oscillated between presenting China as a valued partner in international affairs, to it being a pariah that needs to be ever more constrained.

Such fluctuations have mounted in intensity as the Trump presidency has progressed.  They have left observers uncertain as to whether or not this is a purposeful strategy of the leader of the world’s most powerful country, or an indication of an untethered, badly conceived, and even short-sighted policy.

Such a wild approach has been no clearer than in their economic relationship.  Here, the U.S. has strived to re-balance its trade relations with China, in particular, to reduce Beijing’s long-standing trade surplus with Washington.  The surplus has been argued by U.S. elites to have led to an unequal relationship, which a rising China exploits to challenge the U.S.’s economic supremacy.  This divide has increasingly taken on a symbolic quality with it becoming representative of a rising China that is soon to surmount the U.S. in global affairs, and which U.S. elites now regard as the most pressing strategic threat to its global position.

In an attempt to pressure China into some kind of re-alignment, the U.S. President initiated a trade war in 2018 and ratcheted up tariffs on Chinese imports to the American market.  By early 2020, these amounted to over $400 billion in tariffs, with China imposing its own retaliatory tariffs of $138 billion on its U.S. imports.  Such steps have taken place amidst ongoing trade talks between the two sides and have been viewed as a negotiating tactic that has ultimately been detrimental to both countries’ economies.  In late 2020, the WTO said that U.S. tariffs violated international trade rules, undercutting their legitimacy, as well as the U.S. claims that China is undermining the U.S.-led “rules-based” international order.

Elsewhere, the two sides have also come into friction concerning China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, with the U.S. carrying out regular freedom of navigation operations in the area.  The U.S. now also sends warships and military aircraft through the Taiwan Straits on a monthly basis (something innovated under President Trump), so as to deter China’s historical claims on the island.  In turn, Washington has urged its allies – Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom – to act similarly, which has raised concerns in China of the country being strategically constrained in the region.  Such a constraint could prevent Beijing from pursuing its foreign policy goal of claiming hegemony in East Asia.

Concerning the coronavirus pandemic, narratives emanating from the U.S. along with its Western allies have targeted China as being culpable for the outbreak.  In a recent speech at the United Nations, President Trump openly claimed that China had knowingly unleased the Covid-19 “plague” on the world, which prompted a terse response from Beijing’s officials that it is a cooperative, not a confrontational country that firmly has “no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country”.

Such criticism has been increasingly mainstreamed in the last few months in the West with it acting as a stimulus for discussions on how to deal with China’s rise. More critically, an October 2020 Pew survey showed that unfavorable opinions about China were at their highest ever level across the populations of Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and South Korea.  

All of these aspects of U.S.-China relations will present particular challenges regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election, in particular concerning growing global concerns over China’s international ambitions.  In this regard, Beijing will certainly need to redouble its diplomatic efforts to present the country as a responsible and benign international actor, through which others can benefit – in primarily – economic terms.  That, by most accounts, China has the coronavirus largely under control means that it has been able to restart its economic activity, which gives Beijing the ability to kickstart and lead an international recovery.  That most Western countries are still overwhelmed by the pandemic reinforces this capability and gives China the further chance to gain greater leverage and influence.

It also appears that it is now the U.S. that faces the greatest challenges to its international legitimacy, the consequences of which may have profound implications for its own global standing.  This relates to the U.S. president’s handling of the pandemic, which has to date led to its world-leading status of 210,000 deaths (which is set to double by the end of the year) and over 7.5 million infections.  That the U.S. president himself has now become infected points to a leader but also a wider political system around him (including senior military leaders, senators, and most of his election campaign staff) that had a nonchalant, underprepared and irresponsible attitude to the major global health challenge of our time.  

President Trump’s infection also marks a major national security threat for the U.S. and the world.  Given his age, obesity, and unhealthy diet, it is feasible that the leader of the world’s most powerful country may become incapacitated from leading the U.S. in the next weeks.  Crucially here, it has been widely reported that Trump will be unwilling to accept any negative outcome in the forthcoming election.  Apart from suggesting that he would not leave office, he may try to rally supporters – potentially even violently – to protect his position.  Crucially here, some of the medication he is taking to help him recover from Covid-19 has the potential to debilitate his mental capacities and overall judgment.  This could impact his ability to recognize when he is incapable of leadership, but also spark irrational tweets and behavior that may destabilize the U.S. and even the world. 

If the U.S. president were to die – either during or in the months after the election – in all likelihood the country would be thrown into a truly unprecedented constitutional crisis.  With widely circulated claims among Republicans and Trump supporters that the election is rigged, if the Democrats were to win, we can expect lengthy legal battles, as well as a heightened potential for major civil unrest across the U.S. Either of these outcomes, would consume the U.S.’s domestic and international capabilities to act beyond its borders.  They would also signal a sense of the U.S. political system (and democracy) as being illegitimate.

Such crises will only be to Beijing’s advantage (among other U.S. competitors), especially given that China is in many ways returning – if not returned to – its pre-coronavirus economic activity.  If U.S.-China relations do signify a contest for supremacy between the world’s two foremost countries, Washington’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact upon the U.S. presidential election could very well indicate the U.S.’s decline on the international stage, and essentially speed up China’s path to global pre-eminence.  

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Battle for the Essence of the Democratic Party

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When President Trump fired defense secretary Mark Esper and cybersecurity chief Christopher Krebs just days after the elections, the President set a new integrity litmus test. He was clearly cleaning his circle of those who could stand up to him on the big stuff, such as not sending troops on the Black Lives Matters protesters or not pronouncing the elections rigged. In the meantime, Trump was showing the American public who he still considered loyal by not firing them by keeping the agency chiefs who stayed at least somewhere in the middle. 

In the new Biden era, being fired by Trump will be considered the new badge of honor, an integrity stamp of a sort. Despite talk of firing FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel, Trump has not taken the decision, yet, and there surely must be a reason for it. To paraphrase Trump’s infamous McCain quote, I like those who were fired by Trump, not those who were not fired by Trump. This is now the new integrity litmus test. 

In May 2020, I was amidst my campaign for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech as one of the top finalists, when in an interview on Bulgaria on Air I called the Trump Administration’s and the US authorities’ treatment of the media and the protestors during the Black Lives Matter crackdown “despicable”. I was set on going after the Trump Administration and the US authorities if I had the chance to win the UN mandate on freedom of speech. And I had no plans for going easy on anyone. 

There is something profoundly wrong with the US authorities, if instead of going after the crimes, they willingly choose to go after those that have a reaction against the crimes, outraged by crime impunity.

US agencies who “just don’t get it” have to be defunded. And that brings us exactly to the discussion on the future of the heart, soul and essence of the Democratic Party. 

The Democratic party has never been about appealing to the middle in order to be liked or about maintaining some kind of lowest common denominator to make sure that no one got offended. The Party has always been about equality and social justice, housing some of the most bad-ass status-quo shakers — not those that wanted to make sure that rich abusers stayed comfortable, racists were not inconvinienced, or abuse of military power for some illusive common good that served only those in power went unchecked. This is the party that offends and has offended throughout the decades to shake the status quo. This is why it is shameful that veterans in the Democratic Party have tried to shame Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others who have run and won their mandates on classical Democratic Party values. 

Civil rights movement defenders in the black marches never said: “let’s have a march but let’s do it only on the pavement not to inconvinience cars”. They took the whole street. 

When I worked for Congressman Bill Delahunt, the Chairman of the House Sub-committee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, representing 10th congressional district of Massachusetts, some 14 years ago, we did not say that torture by the CIA and the CIA extrajudicial rendition flights were okay but not too much, in order to appeal to the center. We would say that torture is unacceptable, that America can do better than that.

Social justice and equality are uncomfortable. Rights are defended and guarded. They are never simply given. As an example from the other side of the aisle, when Republican President Eisenhower sent the troops on Little Rock to enforce black kids’ right to attend school just like any other kid — what Brown vs Board of Education reaffirmed in order to end racial segregation exactly 30 years before the day I was born — Eisenhower did not aim for troops to only show up and waive at the crowds. The soldiers took the black kids by the hand and walked them straight in the school, in the face of hundreds of racist opponents — not trying to please them.

Defending rights takes grit and courage. And some US agencies will never really get it unless their budgets are cut and they are all actually pressed up against the wall — to change unwillingly, forcably and through the trivial but always effective use of financial pressure.

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich’s reaction to the Black Lives Matters protests at the time when I was running for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech this year was that it is the protesters that should be arrested under an outdated rackateering law from the 1940s — not the murdering cops. A memo leaked to the New York Times showed that Mr Bowdich considered the social justice movement “a national crisis” comparable to 9/11. The hundreds of thousands of people mourning and marching across the country, unified by the simple thought that no life should be taken lighly, for nothing, were actually similar to terrorists in the eyes of the FBI who wanted to charge them as racketeers.

It is that kind of injustices and human rights infringements that I would have stood up against as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech, as witnessed by the outrage and intentions, expressed in my May media appearances. I claimed back then that it is precisely in times of crises that rights are tested and defended. The United States is no exception. The US government is bound by international human rights law standards and no interpretation by second-rate lawyers loyal to the Trump Administration, comparing social justice protesters to racketeers and terrorists, can change that. International voices such as myself and others are here to make sure that US authorities do not forget their international human rights legal obligations.

America has a long way to go to recover from the damage that Trump and his cronies spread across the various US agencies have done to democratic principles and human rights. The Trump institutional capture of key agencies such as the FBI and the CIA, let alone DOJ, has lead the country into a downward spiral.

US authorities will not learn unless their actual day-to-day, functional survival is put on the line. People do not get it otherwise. This is why I fully support AOC and others in their defunding efforts, which are considered by many as controversial, extreme, out there and even dangerous, but in reality are simply the only effective way to fight institutionalized racism within the FBI, the police and other law enforcement agencies. “There is nothing radical about moral clarity”, to repeat AOC’s simple, yet powerful assertion. The comfortable, lowest common denominator parts of the Democratic Party need to wake up and realize that it is the Black Lives movement that got Joe Biden and the rest of the party across the finish line in November. And this precisely will be at the heart of the battle for the essence of the Democratic Party over the next four years.

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Why are some Muslims, from India to the U.S Voting against their Natural Allies

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Recent national elections in the U.S. and regional elections in India have presented an interesting conundrum. The numbers show that some Muslims, are voting in a counter-intuitive fashion. Given the rise of Islamophobia and right-wing religious nationalism, both in the U.S. and in India, one would surmise that Muslims would vote overwhelmingly to the left of center. But both, in India and in the U.S., many Muslims have however chosen to send a message to the center-left – your sympathetic rhetoric and your verbal condemnations of Islamophobia is not enough, we want to see concrete policies that improve our political and economic conditions. Neither the promises of Joe Biden, nor the fear of Hindu-nationalism is influencing their vote. These Muslims are, for sure, in a minority albeit a growing one. Politicians on the center-left may ignore them at their own peril.

In the U.S.

In the U.S., President-Elect Joe Biden’s campaign outreach to Muslims went far beyond that of any presidential candidate in the past. Biden’s campaign had a manifesto for American Muslims and a designated outreach person. Biden spoke at Muslim conventions and even quoted from Islamic scripture. He dropped an “inshallah” in the debates. Biden promised to end the so called ‘Muslim-Ban’ on day one and has repeatedly condemned Islamophobia. Biden spoke up for Uyghur Muslims in China and Kashmiris in India and has opposed the annexation of West Bank. He has promised to resume relations with the Palestinians and restore aid to them. Even Imran Khan, the PM of Pakistan, a self-proclaimed champion of Muslims, does not have such an impressive pro-Muslim curriculum vitae, he has repeatedly refused to speak up for the Uyghurs.

While a majority of American Muslims campaigned very aggressively for the Biden-Harris ticket and raised millions of dollars for the Democrats, the exit polls indicate that only 69% of American Muslims voted for them. On the face value that is a huge win, but if you look at in comparison to the past it is troubling. Despite the fact that Biden went far beyond any other candidate in his outreach to Muslims, and the Islamophobia of President Trump is well documented, Biden has garnered the least percentage of votes by a Democratic presidential candidate in the last four elections according to exit polls conducted by the Council on American Islamic Relations.
 A possible explanation for this relatively weak performance is that, for some Muslims his “iron-clad” support for Israel and his willingness to work with pro-Hindutva operatives in the U.S., make his opposition to Islamophobia sound less credible.  Words are not enough. If his electoral promises do not actually translate into actual policies, one can expect further decline in Muslim support for Democrats. American Muslims are a rapidly growing and politically engaged community that is over represented in swing states.

A closer reading of the exit polls suggest that things are worse than they seem. The exit polls show that while 17% American Muslims voted for Trump (up from 13% in 2016), 11% declined to reveal who they voted for. It is possible that they lean heavily towards Trump, hence the secrecy. That would mean that in spite of all his Islamophobic rhetoric, Trump may have doubled his support among American Muslims. One Trump supporter told me he voted for Trump because Trump did not invade a single Muslim country in four years unlike Biden who supported the invasion of Iraq.  

YearCandidateMuslim Vote
2008Barack Obama88%
2012Barack Obama85%
2016Hillary Clinton74%
2020Joe Biden69%

In Bihar

The recent elections in Bihar has an interesting story to tell. The state is clearly polarizing as most gains have been made by parties on the extremities. Prime minister Modi’s right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) went from winning 53 wins in the 2015 elections to winning 74 of the 243 seats in 2020. A significant swing in favor of Hindutva ideology. The Communist Party (CPI-ML) gained 9 seats, it had 3 seats in 2015 to 12 seats in 2020. The communist parties combined had a 400% increase, they went from 4 to 16 seats. The parties in decline are the so-called secular centrist parties. The Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD) which is the biggest single party in the state lost five seats (80-75) and the Indian National Congress (INC), the grand old party of India, also lost ground (27-19).

Clearly the secular center is shrinking. The biggest surprise of the elections was the performance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All Indian MajlisIttehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a Muslim party, which in the past five years has gone from 0-5 seats. The Majlis won in predominantly Muslim area of Seemanchal and is being accused by commentators of stealing the secular vote away from secular parties. Some are describing Majlis as BJP’s B-Team.

It is interesting that now in Indian politics, the code for Muslim vote is ‘the secular vote’. Indian Muslims are now the last line of defense for the rather rapidly shriveling secular space. The criticism of Owaisi and the Majlis for denting the prospects of secular parties in Bihar is both misplaced and inaccurate.  The question that is important is not why Owaisi’s Majlis, a party historically based in Hyderabad (South India) is contesting elections so far in the North of India. The key question is why are Muslims in Bihar voting for Majlis? A party that has no record of governance in their region.

In a speech months before the elections, Owaisi predicted a tectonic shift in Seemanchal’s politics and he said that it was coming because of the profound injustices and inequities that plague Muslims of that region. If secular parties that have governed the state for decades had delivered good governance to Muslims, Owaisi would have stayed at home.

Muslim Disillusionment

Muslims are increasingly disillusioned by secular and left politicians. Islamophobia was on the rise even before Trump became President and 37% of American Muslims, pre-covid pandemic, were found hovering near the poverty line. There is much discontent. I think just as 17-25% American Muslims voted for Trump rejecting the centrist politics of Democrats – many Muslims in Bihar too are frustrated by the failure of secular parties to improve their material condition. The region of Bihar where Owaisi’s party won five seats is the poorest and infrastructurally the least developed area of the state. Voting for secular parties for decades did not help them much. They have been voting without hope. They too are tired of the lip service.

Muslims of Bihar are fortunate that they have an alternative in Majlis and they are able to reject both Indian secularists and Hindu nationalists unlike some American Muslims who feel that they are stuck between Republicans who are Islamophobic and Democrats who promise much but deliver little. The minority of Muslims who appear to be voting counter intuitively, seemingly against their own interests, either for Donald Trump in the U.S. or the Majlis in Bihar, are clearly sending a signal to secular politicians – do not take our vote for granted, you need to earn our vote.

The center-left may be a natural ally of Muslims, but if it does not deliver for Muslims, they may lose their vote in ever increasing numbers.

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