A New Obama? The Media Starts Selling Abdul El-Sayed

On August 24, the Guardian ran an unusually long profile of one Abdul El-Sayed, a 32-year-old Muslim doctor and son of Egyptian immigrants who is already campaigning heavily for governor of Michigan, even though the election won't take place until November of next year. The headline on Drew Philp's article dubbed El-Sayed “the new Obama.”

It was the ultimate puff piece, shameless in its utter lack of objectivity and balance, and it began, as such pieces invariably do, with an anecdote calculated to win sympathy for the subject. When he was seven years old, writes Philp, El-Sayed “sat in the eye of Hurricane Andrew,” drinking juice “while swaddled under mattresses between his father and stepmother, who was holding El-Sayed’s newborn baby brother just home from the hospital.”

What does this story have to do with anything? For Philp, it is a metaphor: “At the moment,” he suggests, “American politics feels a bit like being in the eye a hurricane.” Donald Trump is ready to attack North Korea; neo-Nazis paraded in Charlottesville. “No one man can stop the hurricane,” admits Philp. “But in Michigan, a grown-up El-Sayed is now having a go, trying to keep the storm at bay.” El-Sayed, you see, seeks “not just to win, but also to change American politics itself” by becoming “the first Muslim governor in US history.”

Philp goes on to depict El-Sayed as a progressive hero who is struggling against an army of Yahoos. He follows El-Sayed to Adrian, Mich. (“Trump country, white and Christian,” and “the kind of place with lots and lots of American flags”), where the candidate is introduced to an audience by a transgender man (“a brave choice for a region still coming to terms with gay rights, let alone trans rights”). El-Sayed shares “his personal story” with the audience, then goes into some “soaring rhetoric” about “hope and commonality.”

When he takes questions, one “clearly agitated man” asks him about sharia law. El-Sayed replies by saying that he supports separation of church and state and that he wouldn't take away anyone else's right to pray and wouldn't want that right to be taken from him either. (He has made it clear that he prays several times a day.) For this, the audience gives him “an enormous round of applause” – even though El-Sayed's answer is a total dodge.

Repeatedly, El-Sayed has described himself as a devout Muslim: he prays several times a day; he has said that “his Islamic values are at the center of his work as a civil servant"; his father is an imam. If he's a devout Muslim, that means he firmly supports sharia law. But how does he square this with his purported approval of secular government? Is he a devout Muslim or a devout believer in the separation of religion and state? You can't be both.