Abdul El-Sayed, a Michigan-born American of Egyptian descent who, last year, very nearly became the first Muslim governor in U.S. history. Abdul is a professor and medical doctor turned politician and civil servant, who has a fantastic new podcast on public health called America Dissected. Additionally, his new book, Healing Politics, will be out on May 5, 2020 and is now available for pre-order.
I am grateful for his time to share his remarkable story, including his relationship with his grandmother, his experiences as a Muslim, and his clear commitment to justice. You can listen to the full interview on my new podcast, Spirited. Listen on any of the major podcast apps: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Simran Jeet Singh: What sets your core? What drives you every day?
Abdul El-Sayed: I'm a person of deep faith and when I think about my faith, I think about it in terms of the faith of my grandmother. She was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt in the 1920s. She was the fifth of nine. She never got to go to school. She was illiterate, but she was the wisest and smartest person I've ever met. She had this, like, incredible temperament about her and this belief that was rooted in her bones. She didn't need any fancy proofs or any jurisprudence or any of that. It was just something that she believed. When I'd come to Egypt and I'd be hanging out with my cousins and aunts and uncles, she'd always bring me down to earth because I'd be coming in as a hot shot American kid to what was a very working-class family. She'd always remind me that the only difference between me and my cousins was the opportunity that I had. At my best, I operate because of the opportunities that I have and because of that kind of faith that my grandmother had that I’d like to reach if I can.
Singh: Tell us about your spiritual formation and your sort of religious background. How did that play into the person that you are today?
El-Sayed: I grew up in a devoutly Muslim household, but I rebelled quite a bit against religion, not necessarily against faith. I think I always had a firm faith, but I rebelled against religion. I've always been a bit of an iconoclast, and I'm a bit curious. So, I was the kid who was always asking the hard question, and my Arabic teachers didn't quite like that. So, I found myself just pushed away. And then, in terms of sort of living the classic, Muslim boy life, I also pushed against that. At the same time, I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened, and for people who look like us, 9/11 changed everything.
In college, moving out of my family's home gave me the space to sort of come back to my faith on my own terms in the context where my faith was very much being singled out and was a place of conversation. With that distance, I got to sort of explore my faith on my own terms. I got to learn about prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and found this man who just had this impeccable character, the kind of character that I admired so much in grandmother — the kind of temperament that always sought to be kind, to be compassionate, to be softhearted with those who are oppressed, and to be courageous. That's when I found my faith again. That's when I started to really practice my faith again on my own terms, and that's how I try to live my faith today. I think I fail more often than I succeed, but it’s the aspiration I have.
Singh: How did you get into public health work?
El-Sayed: Well, I got the opportunity to do a Ph.D. in the middle of medical school, and my Ph.D. explored the social disparities in obesity, and more broadly really focused in on these social determinants of health throughout my Ph.D. years and going back to medical school. I had full intentions to continue my training but just patient after patient who I had the opportunity to help care for as medical student showed me just how limited a tool clinical medicine was.
And it's not to take away from how important medicine is and how amazing it is that we have it. But just to say that if I wanted to leverage my career to try and address some of these more systematic injustices that exist that manifest themselves in health, that working at the end of the line was just not going to be the way to do it.
Singh: And politics?
El-Sayed: The first time anybody who knew anything about running for office told me I should run for office, it was at my college graduation at the University of Michigan. I was lucky enough to be named the senior speaker and the top student in my college. The main speaker that day was Bill Clinton. I gave my speech and Clinton gave his speech and in the middle of his speech, he said some really nice things about my speech. Afterwards, he pulls me aside and he looks at me in the eye — and if you've ever met Bill Clinton, he's got this ability to look through your soul. So, he starts looking through my soul and he asked me, “Son, why are you going to medical school?” And I looked at him for a second, and like the first idea that came to mind — and Simran, you’ll appreciate this — I was like, well I'm brown. That's just what we do. I didn't say that, but I said, “I love people, and I love science, and this is how I want to serve.” He said, “You've got a natural gift for communicating it and maybe someday you’ll run for office.”
I told you about my trips to Egypt and the 12 hours it would take me to get to Egypt. I travel about 10 years difference in life expectancy. The crazy thing is from my suburban home in Metro Detroit, driving due south for 25 minutes, I could travel the same 10-year life expectancy gap. And that for me became a bit of a calling. What do you do about that and how do you fix that in your own community? That north start led me out of clinical medicine to public health and eventually pursue elected office. I didn’t win, but the work doesn’t change. It just takes different forms.
Singh: Did you experience any of this sort Islamophobia that you alluded to in your campaign for governor?
El-Sayed: I mean certainly. There was this actually just a report that was released by a group of researchers about the Islamophobia that we face just online. It got so bad and we got so many death threats that at some point we just hired a full-time bodyguard. The interesting thing is that it's still floating around now. There’s this sort of chain post Facebook … it's funny cause it's like, it's like perverse comments on my attributes, but in this sort of sinister way — they’re like, he's handsome and charismatic and smart. And I was like, well that's lovely. If I could get my wife to say those things about me, that’d be great. But they’re like “he may be being groomed to be the next Obama.”
But yes, it was all there. There's a way to just perseverate on it that makes it the full experience of your experience. And I just chose not to do that. It happened but I don't think about it. It wasn't the thing that like really drove my experience of the campaign and I'm grateful for that.
Singh: What’s your vision for the future? What are you hoping to see going forward?
El-Sayed: I'm really optimistic. I think it's, it's easy to look at this moment, and be less than optimistic, but I'll tell you why I'm optimistic. I get the privilege of spending a lot of time with people and particularly young people who are agitating for the future they want to live in. And what I'm seeing is young people standing up and saying, we can do this better if we're willing to rely on each other and to embrace each other in that work. Whether it’s agitating for things like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal or a jobs guarantee or universal housing. These things are going to happen. What folks don't appreciate is that it feels slow at the time. Every day ticks by, and we haven't changed. But think about what can happen in 10, 20 years. I put my faith in God — certainly in those young people who realized that we can do this better and are putting their lives and their time and their energy on the line to make that happen. So, I'm grateful for the sacrifices that are being made for that. I'm thankful to do my small part in the work.