This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
In February Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a Muslim-American, announced he would seek the Democratic nomination for governor of Michigan.
El-Sayed is a Rhodes Scholar who holds a doctorate from Oxford University and a medical degree from Columbia University, where he subsequently taught as an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology. Two years ago the mayor of Detroit selected him to lead the city’s Health Department. Now, at thirty-two, El-Sayed is running for governor.
As a humanist it is my great desire to counter stereotypes and to encourage people to relate to one another as individuals first without preconceptions. This is a tall order, especially given the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments throughout the United States and, admittedly, my own issues with Islam and religion in general. I had the opportunity to sit down with El-Sayed in April to talk about politics, faith, and secularism.
Joshua Lewis Berg: Religious institutions are constantly making efforts to assert more influence on government, on politics, and on the pluralistic population of the country. Could you say a little bit about the separation of church and state, what you see as the challenges to preserve it nationwide and in Michigan specifically, and how you plan to address those challenges?
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: As a religious minority, the capacity to practice my faith has everything to do with the separation of church and state, and I value that immensely. Maintaining it is critical and means creating a society where conversations can be had about any different faith or no faith at all.
It’s scary to me when folks start talking about how the separation of church and state is just a suggestion. The irony is that a lot of the pushback I’ve gotten about my Muslim faith assumes that somehow I will breach a separation of church and state, when in fact as a member of a religion that at most accounts for 1 percent of the population, I rely heavily on that separation to be able to practice my faith. I have nothing against folks wanting to practice their faith and wanting to educate their children on their faith, but we have to be knowledgeable about where those institutions and the edifices of the state are kept very thoughtfully differentiated. How that manifests locally is a thorny challenge, but one that we have to boldly address.
Berg: “Religious freedom” is ubiquitous now as a catchphrase (especially for right-wing conservative Christians, of which there are many in the state of Michigan). It’s used to defend overt prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community, against women, and against minorities, including religious minorities. What does religious freedom mean to you?
El-Sayed: I believe in religious freedom—lowercase ‘r,’ lowercase ‘f’—as the right to practice your faith as you see fit. Now, we have a long history in this country of believing in individual rights to the point where those individual rights don’t infringe on the rights of others. And I think one of the questions we have to get right is: How is it that we create the kind of collective society where everybody feels included, and everybody has the right to be and do as they choose?
There is a certain level of fear that says, “My way of living cannot persist if other people live differently than me.” We have to be able to create the institutions that empower folks to live as they choose and the means of having a really honest conversation about what the best life is. I’m a devout Muslim. I really value my faith, and I live in accordance to what my faith teaches as much as I can. And my interpretation is going to be very different than other Muslims out there because faith is entirely that—it’s open to interpretation. I have to recognize that my engagement as a Muslim is independent of anybody else’s engagement on any other life path they choose for themselves. And 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.
One of the most powerful statements in the world, which we’re often so uncomfortable with today, is “I disagree with you.” What you’re acknowledging is the other person’s right to make a decision, your right to make a decision, and the fact that never the twain shall interfere with one another. The minute somebody tries to use the power of the state to exclude someone else, what they’re actually saying is: “I don’t think that what I bring to the table about what the best life is…stands on its own two feet.”
As I raise my kids in this society, they’re going to be exposed to all different ways of thinking. And of course I believe in a certain thing, so I hope my kids believe in it too, but it’s my responsibility to convince them of that, not to shield them from something else. True confidence in what I believe means being willing to expose it to others who may disagree. I value my right to be a Muslim in this society just as I value your right to be a humanistic Jew and as I value a fundamentalist Christian’s right to be a fundamentalist Christian. My job, if I’m elected, is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States from anybody who would say otherwise.
Berg: Many Americans’ positions on social issues are based on their faith, including positions on civil rights, reproductive freedom, multiculturalism, tolerance, scientific inquiry, and more. Speak a little on what you think about these issues, but also how you plan to bridge gaps in order to win over a majority of voters whose positions differ from yours.
El-Sayed: One of the things I hope to do is pull us together, to recognize that the challenges we face as a state are so large and so daunting that the only way to resolve them is to come together around them as a state of nearly ten million people. In the end, the thing that brings us together and has brought my family together, including people of all different faiths and no faith at all, is belief in a shared future.
I really do hope we can bridge a certain divide and have conversations across boundaries we were told could never be crossed. Again, the most powerful words we can say are, “I disagree with you,” which is a statement that the conversation itself matters—that we’re both entitled to our own perspective and that the parties are willing to sustain the conversation despite a disagreement. I hope that’s what my candidacy can do because we are proposing real solutions to real problems.
I grew up as the child of scientists. People think that science is a body of knowledge. It’s not. Science is a system of asking questions and answering those questions. And it relies on us asking really good questions and then sticking to what is observable to be able to answer in ways that we can agree upon. My motivation is around the spirit of science in the sense that it requires people from all different backgrounds to come together and acknowledge a shared truth—to recognize that the most courageous thing we can do as a society is face our problems head-on and try to solve them.
Michigan is facing a lot of challenges, whether it’s a failure to build a twenty-first-century economy; the failure to invest adequately in public schools or to get special interests out of them; whether it’s the ability to protect our environment, including our Great Lakes; or whether it’s the ability to provide healthcare for people who really need it, no matter if they’re poor or working-class white people in the Upper Peninsula or poor or working-class African-Americans in Detroit—these problems need all of us to come together and commit to a solution, and we only do that if we can have conversations.
Berg: Our current president and his administration are hostile to immigrants. The Department of Housing and Urban Development tried to cancel the funding of the Freedom House right here in Detroit, the only organization in the United States providing shelter, legal services, and comprehensive social services for asylum seekers, all under one roof and at no charge. And many Michiganders support anti-immigrant policies. As a member of the Democratic Party, which opposes Donald Trump on these policies, how do you plan to appeal to these voters and how do you plan to confront this anti-immigrant sentiment and specifically the policies here in Michigan?
El-Sayed: The good news is that Freedom House Detroit got their funding back. Secondly, my parents were immigrants. Unless you’re Native American or African American, somebody in your family willingly came here. We have to remember that as a point of humility when we talk about immigrants. And I never met an immigrant who didn’t want well for themselves, their families, and their newly adopted homeland, whether they’re documented or undocumented. We also have to remember that we have a huge farming economy. I was talking with a gentleman who said, “Look, we have to remember that none of this happens without immigrants.”
This is about the economy, right? We like to have abstract conversations about things like immigration without recognizing that it’s about the lives both of immigrants and their families—many of whom are not immigrants—and also the lives of people who work in critical sectors of the state economy that rely on immigrant labor. I’m for comprehensive immigration reform that makes sense, and I’m happy to have a conversation about how we actually enforce that. In the absence of such reform, I don’t believe the state of Michigan has a responsibility to enforce federal policies that don’t make sense and are ruining families and sections of our economy. I believe that Michigan should be a sanctuary state, and I’d love to see people like Donald Trump threaten to take the entire state’s funding away, particularly when it’s one of the states he carried. He’s probably going to be looking for those votes again in 2020.
Berg: You mentioned your Muslim faith. Religion has been steeped at times in intolerance and rejection of science, and one could argue that the Democratic policies you support are at odds with common interpretations of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Still, many religions have undergone what I feel are positive reformations that bring them into modernity, and you said everyone interprets their religion differently. There are even people now calling for a reformation of Islam. Given the attitudes and assumptions prevalent in the United States about Muslims, and the misinformation and conflict between certain strict interpretations of Islam and progressive policy, what is your personal relationship to Islam? How do your beliefs inform your thinking and decision-making on behalf of your constituents?
El-Sayed: My faith inspires me to all the greatest heights of service and inclusivity and belief and hope for a future that’s better than the present. I wasn’t always a person of faith. Growing up, I rejected religion substantially and came back to it when I was in college as a means of inspiration and a belief in a set of values that had everything to do with making the world a better place. There is a ton of misunderstanding of faith generally and misunderstanding in particular of Islam, and some folks don’t know enough about Islam to even talk about what a reformation would mean.
As an elected public official, it doesn’t even quite matter what my interpretations are because I believe that my job would be to enforce the separation of church and state. My faith interpretation is really based on a belief in one entity that is greater than me, a sense of humility in the face of that entity, and a recognition of my own impermanence and the responsibility to create a more just, more equitable, more verdant, more understanding world. It’s a recognition that all people are creations of God and therefore there is nothing more important to be respected than humanity, independent of whatever faith you practice. There’s a verse that was always very meaningful to me as I studied medicine and is part of the reason I became a doctor. It says: “And he whoever gives life to a soul, it’s as if he or she has given life to humanity and whoever takes a soul, it’s as if he or she has taken the soul of all humanity.”
So, I don’t use my faith to exclude. I try to use my faith to inspire myself and others about what’s possible in this world. As far as disagreements about what the best life is, it’s not really my job to make arguments on either side, because I know the best life is one used in service of the creation, whatever that is. And I feel if more of us with faith or no faith at all agree that it’s really about what we do for people—that it’s about including, it’s about servicing, it’s about inspiring, and it’s about creating better opportunities for humans—there would be a lot more harmony in the world. It’s my place to try and really embody the inspiration and the humanity of what I believe in and use it to serve people the best that I can.