Erum Salam, The Guardian, February 8, 2020
With the 2020 election well under way in the US, political advertisements with messages of hope and inclusivity have been flooding social media feeds and inboxes all across the country.
Sabirah Mahmud, a high school student and the national logistics director for the US Youth Climate Strike was surprised on 2 February when she came across footage of herself in a video ad for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, after a friend texted her. But the main shock was that it happened despite the fact she is a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter.
“Initially I was surprised but now I feel very uncomfortable. Of all the [Democratic] candidates, [Biden] is the one I would be most alarmed about,” Mahmud said. “This is a national campaign ad and my face is being put out to uplift his campaign. People will look at me and think ‘Biden has young Muslim followers’, but that’s not true because I’m not one of them.”
— sabirah ☾ (@sabirahmahmud) February 3, 2020
Mahmud attended campaign events for several of the 2020 presidential candidates including Biden’s kickoff rally in Philadelphia back in May of 2019. Mahmud went in order to question him on his policy regarding the climate crisis, but she never expected to be a prop for diversity.
Mahmud said she recalled being very nervous talking to the former vice-president.
“Before I could even ask him the question, he interrupted me mid sentence, mansplaining the entire climate crisis,” Mahmud said. “He went on to the next people to take pictures and shake hands.”
The Biden campaign did not return a request for comment.
Ayanna Lee, another Sanders supporter, protested with friends at an Elizabeth Warren rally in Milwaukee. She later discovered her photo was featured in an ad for Warren 2020.
“My friend sent a screenshot in the group chat,” Lee said. “I clicked on it and was like ‘No way.’”
“Not even 10 minutes into us walking in the door, her team was asking us what we were doing and trying to bargain with us to not make a statement,” Lee said. “We talked to her. Each of us took 10-20 seconds to give a statement about what we cared about like agriculture, indigenous rights or water.”
Lee said the Warren campaign was aware she was not at the rally in support of Warren. The Warren campaign also did not return a request for comment.
“I honestly didn’t know what to do. I felt weird because I knew I took myself to that rally but they took advantage of who I am,” Lee said. “It made me upset that I was being used for a campaign that didn’t support what I support.”
Nida Allam found herself in a similar situation in 2016. The Hillary for America twitter account, @HFA, supporting Clinton’s election campaign, tweeted: “We made history.” It featured a picture of Allam , who wears the hijab, crying. Like Mahmud and Lee, Allam was also supporting another candidate.
We made history. pic.twitter.com/TBvItE7oSa
— Hillary for America (@HFA) July 26, 2016
“I was at the DNC convention on the delegate floor and it was the moment Senator Sanders had conceded. I was crying because I was working on the Sanders campaign,” Allam said. “It was obviously really raw, hearing the stories of marginalized voices across the country who found hope in the message of the [Sanders] campaign.
Allam discovered the tweet from the Hillary for America twitter account after friends texted the link to her.
“As a visibly Muslim American woman, it felt like my hijab was being used in a manner that I didn’t approve of,” Allam said.
The loss of a loved one influenced Allam’s decision to pursue working on Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
“I had gotten involved in the campaign after losing my best friend.”
The best friend was Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, one of the three victims of the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting at the University of North Carolina.
“Our community was hit with such a huge tragedy,” Allam said. “That’s what really motivated me to become politically active, to uplift marginalized voices.”
Allam pointed out the Clinton campaign’s error at the time by replying to the original tweet with “Guess you didn’t get the memo…#StillSanders”.
“@HFA responded eventually and said ‘Sorry for the mix up. Thanks for everything you do’,” Allam said. “But they never took it down.”
This election cycle, Allam urges candidates to listen closely to different communities about what they want from their elected officials.
“Speak to the moms, the kids, the Imams. You can’t just use our image to garner support,” Allam said. “You have to speak to the issues that affect us on a day to day basis. We have to have equitable access to education and other resources through policy.”
Allam is now vice-chair of North Carolina’s Democratic party, the first Muslim woman to hold this position. She’s also running for county commissioner in her local election in Durham. If Allam wins, she will be the first Muslim woman ever elected in the state of North Carolina.
“My entire campaign is about continuing to uplift marginalized voices and engage people who haven’t been involved in the electoral process,” Allam said. “If there is representation across every level of government, you’re less likely to fall into these tokenisms of people.”