FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA — Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) town hall, held at George Mason University at the same time as the third GOP debate on Wednesday, mainly focused on the presidential candidate’s favorite topics: income inequality, universal health care, campaign finance reform, and climate change.
But in one of the most emotional moments of the night, George Mason University senior Remaz Abdelgader stood up and demanded to know how Sanders would address the rising tide of Islamophobia in the U.S. Her voice breaking, she spoke of how hurt she feels when she hears anti-Muslim rhetoric from other candidates for president — including GOP frontrunners Ben Carson, who has said he doesn’t want a Muslim as president of the U.S.
“Being an American is such a strong part of my identity, but I want to create a change in this society,” she said. “I’m so tired of listening to this rhetoric saying I can’t be president one day, that I should not be in office. It makes me so angry and upset. This is my country.”
Sanders insisted she join him on stage and gave her a hug as the crowd of a couple hundred stood and cheered.
Then, in response to her question, Sanders does something he rarely does: he spoke personally about his Jewish faith and family history, which includes losing relatives in the Holocaust, and said Americans need to learn from that past. “If we stand for anything we have to stand together and end all forms of racism in this country,” he said. “I will lead that effort as president.”
Sanders also talked about the ways people in power have used racism and prejudice throughout U.S. history to keep working class people from uniting.
“They told white workers who were earning pennies an hour, ‘Hey, you think you’re in trouble, but you’re better off than the blacks,’” he said. “And they told straight people, ‘You’re better off than those gay people.’ And they pitted men against women. It’s always playing one group against another. That’s how the rich got richer while everybody else was fighting each other. Our job is to build a nation in which we all stand together.”
Minutes after the town hall and rally ended, Abdelgader told ThinkProgress that she was thrilled at Sanders’ answer, saying she was almost moved to tears but didn’t want to ruin up her makeup.
“If there’s anyone that should be elected to the White House, it’s him. He stands for everybody, whether you’re gay or Muslim or black or Christian or Latino. He is for equality. That’s why I identify with the next president of the United States: Bernie Sanders.”
Abdelgader, whose parents are asylees from Sudan, added that despite polls showing Hillary Clinton far ahead of Sanders nationally, she believes his message is resonating with young people and will carry him to victory. “A couple months ago, there wasn’t as much support for Bernie, but look at him now. I look through my newsfeed and everybody is ‘feeling the Bern’! So I’m confident in him.”
Another Muslim student, junior Aisha Jamali, told ThinkProgress she hopes the question prompts Sanders to talk about Islamophobia going forward as much as he has talked about Black Lives Matter and discrimination against undocumented people.
“I’m so happy she asked him that, because this vitriol and atmosphere of hate really scares me as someone who is Muslim,” she said. “We saw what happened leading up to the Holocaust, and what the Japanese people had to go through in internment camps, and we don’t want to see history repeat itself. I don’t think that could happen now, because we’ve come so far as a country, but when I see some of the hateful comments on Facebook and on TV I think, what century are we living in?”
She added that she was somewhat disappointed Sanders did not propose any concrete proposals for addressing Islamophobia, but said that having a such a major public figure denounce it is crucial.
“We don’t have enough people calling out the blatant misinformation,” she said. “They need to say, ‘That’s a lie. Muslims aren’t like that. We have peace-loving Muslims in this country.’ If public officials could call it out right when it happens, it would make a big difference.”