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Interview: Joe Biden's campaign is courting an overlooked demographic — Pakistani Americans

The Democrat presidential hopeful is building a broad coalition to defeat Trump by reaching out to untapped voter blocs.
Updated 19 Aug 2020

In the United States, Pakistani Americans are on the frontlines of every field of life, whether it's healthcare, technology or entrepreneurship. That participation, however, has never truly translated to access or representation in the corridors of power. With a turning point fast approaching in the form of the November 2020 presidential election, some see an opportunity to change that.

As Pakistanis and the diaspora commemorated the country's 73rd Independence Day last Friday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign collaborated to hold the first-ever officially sponsored event to reach out specifically to Pakistani American voters.

The webinar-style virtual town hall was held over Zoom in partnership with Pakistani American community leaders, Biden campaign officials and supported by the Asian American (AAPI) Victory Fund and South Asians for Biden.

Notably, the event featured the Biden campaign's national director of coalitions Ashley Allison, Karachi-born Hollywood actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani, as well as former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

Discussions in the 90-minute session, which ended with a rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's 'Hum Dekheinge', revolved around encouraging more people to register to vote, reiterating Biden's policy promises and the need to build a broad coalition to defeat the incumbent's reelection.

Throughout the campaign cycle, Biden's camp has aimed to set itself in opposition to Republican President Donald Trump by striking a conciliatory tone, particularly with non-white voters. Selecting Senator Kamala Harris, the first woman of colour and first Indian American to be a presidential running mate, is seen as the creating and securing of a previously untapped yet eligible voter bloc.

Business Recorder spoke to the event's convener, Dilawar Syed, a Pakistani American tech entrepreneur, former president Barack Obama’s Asian American Commissioner and co-founder of the AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC dedicated to turning out Asian American and Pacific Islanders voters.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Dilawar Syed is a Pakistani American tech entrepreneur, former president Barack Obama’s Asian American Commissioner and co-founder of the AAPI Victory Fund.—Photo courtesy Dilawar Syed
Dilawar Syed is a Pakistani American tech entrepreneur, former president Barack Obama’s Asian American Commissioner and co-founder of the AAPI Victory Fund.—Photo courtesy Dilawar Syed

Business Recorder: What is the significance of the 2020 presidential election for the Pakistani community? How is it different from elections in the past?

Dilawar Syed: Trump rode to victory in 2016 on a platform of division and bigotry. His policies, whether it’s the Muslim Ban or putting Mexican kids in cages on the southern border, have been anti-immigrant. His rhetoric has fanned racism against people of colour, including Pakistani Americans.

He has shown little regard for long cherished democratic ideals by openly musing about postponing the US elections and cutting off US Postal Service funding to suppress mail-in ballot.

He has grossly mismanaged the COVID-19 pandemic with the US leading the world in infections and deaths; and the economy collapsing with the worst quarterly contraction since WWII.

So, to Pakistani Americans — and all Americans — this election is about existential issues facing this country. Whether America will remain a democracy. Whether we will have a competent government to manage future crises. Whether America, a nation of immigrants, will keep its doors, and heart, open to all people, no matter their race or religion.

BR: What would be the significance of a Joe Biden presidency in particular for Pakistani Americans? For relations with Pakistan? What Biden/Harris policies in particular speak to Pakistani Americans?

DS: Joe Biden has committed to repealing the Muslim Ban on day one of his administration. The Muslim Ban creates a deep sense of uncertainty for people of Muslim-majority nations, and the United States is seen as unwelcoming.

The Biden campaign has launched a comprehensive agenda on domestic issues — education, healthcare, gun reform — that concern Pakistani Americans. Biden has rolled out detailed plans that build on the progress made under President Obama.

Biden has a strong command on foreign policy, including on Pakistan, going back to his Senate years and as the vice president. You can expect him to rebuild the trust and alliance with Pakistan and reorient the relationship to more than about security matters in the region.

He has taken an unequivocal stance against human rights violations in Kashmir as well as the persecution of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese government.

BR: How are Pakistani Americans working with other Asian/minority communities on the Biden/Harris campaign?

DS: I co-founded the Asian American Victory Fund with other Asian American leaders to mobilise the 23 million-strong Asian community in the US. AAPI VF endorsed Biden, and our strategy is to work with the Biden/Harris campaign as a united community. All Brown and Black communities have suffered social, economic and public health adversity under Trump.

We will be hosting joint events to get out the vote, and collaborate on the transition and future Biden administration appointments.

—Photo courtesy Dilawar Syed
—Photo courtesy Dilawar Syed

BR: This is the first time Pakistani Americans are holding such an event with a presidential campaign. How did this come about?

DS: My colleagues and I have been working with the campaign to ensure all communities are seen and acknowledged in this campaign. We wanted to project the community’s talent and invaluable contributions in American life, especially during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The campaign partnered with our terrific group of organisers to hold this first ever event on Pakistan’s Independence Day. Hundreds of families across the country joined us virtually. The community is energised, especially in a historic week when we put Senator Kamala Harris on the presidential ticket.

BR: Is this collaboration a sign of greater political engagement coming from the Pakistani community, a culmination of a history of engagement, the recognition of what is being called the "Muslim vote", or something else? What are some underlying or driving factors behind the Pakistani community's increasing involvement, in your view?

DS: The community has come of age since 9/11. The rise of Trump and the residual effect it has had on American polity has served as a wake-up call for Pakistani Americans.

Those of us who served in the Obama administration stayed actively engaged in building institutions like AAPI VF and Emgage [the largest Muslim American PAC]. These organisations helped enable a political space and channel for the community.

On the campaign end, there is, of course, a clear desire and commitment to engage with Pakistani Americans. Biden knows it will take every community to turn out the vote. The community is responding, as it was evident on our August 14 event.

BR: There is some wariness about a Biden presidency bringing back Obama administration-era foreign policy in South Asia and the Middle East, particularly related to the so-called War On Terror and drone strikes. How can these fears be reconciled with the need many feel to avoid another Trump presidency at home?

DS: We are at a different time in the region. Trump is not a friend of Pakistan, and has shown little interest in building America’s traditional alliances for broader peace and economic development. Biden has throughout his career shown engagement and dialogue as the means to move relationships forward.

Dilawar Syed tweets at @dilawar