Amid Hostility, U.S. Muslims Seek Political Voice
In the wake of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s proposal two weeks ago to ban all Muslims from entering the country, politicians from both parties as well as members of the Muslim-American community have spoken out against the inflammatory rhetoric. But lacking any nationwide organization to truly fight back, Muslim leaders are searching for a way to amplify their political voice.
Salam Al-Marayati, the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), said Muslim-Americans are often on the outside of the political process for two reasons. First, he told RealClearPolitics in an interview, it’s because Muslims are “political untouchables.”
“No politicians seek any open support from the Muslim community because they fear attacks from right-wing blogs and pundits and talk shows,” Al-Marayati said.
Second, as a relatively young immigrant community in the United States, Muslims lack any meaningful infrastructure to effectively lobby people in power.
“We still don’t have a budget that would amount to anything close to a lobbying entity and there are groups that are engaging government, engaging media, but nowhere near what other communities have in terms of lobbying efforts,” he said.
Al-Marayati and others like him intend to change that and, with it, Americans’ perceptions of a minority that finds itself under a cloud of suspicion.
Muslims make up just under 1 percent of the U.S. population, but they are a rapidly growing group – their numbers could more than double to above 2 percent by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center. Such a gain would make Muslims the second-largest non-Christian faith group in the country.
For now, however, Muslims are extremely underrepresented in Washington, with no Muslim senators and just two members of the House of Representatives: Democratic Reps. Andre Carson of Indiana and Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
As the 2016 election approaches, however, the scattered number of groups that do represent adherents’ interests are banning together to mobilize Muslim citizens. They hope to register 1 million voters, reach out to young people with an anti-radicalization education effort and engage non-Muslim communities through an open mosque day. Organizers announced those plans at a press conference Monday following a meeting over the weekend in Virginia involving more than 100 Muslim leaders to discuss Islamophobia and plans to counter violent extremism.
“We will be doing everything possible to make our community vibrant, active, energetic, understanding that this is their country and they have to make the choices, they have to be part of it,” said Oussama Jammal (pictured, at right), the secretary general of the United States Council of Muslim Organizations. “I think an involved citizenry is the best way to explain yourself and to define yourself.”
Many of these Muslim groups have been around for decades, but their influence has been both scattered and narrow. By bringing them all together, the leaders hope Muslim-Americans will recognize and use their political power to push back against the anti-Islamic tone that has colored the 2016 presidential race of late.
This isn’t the first time the importance of Muslim voters has been stressed in a major election. In 2000, George W. Bush reached out to followers of Islam, a strategy that paid off, as their support in Florida helped swing the election in the highly contested state that handed Bush the presidency.
James Zogby, founder and president of the American Arab Institute, disputes the notion that Muslims overwhelmingly supported Bush, saying that while recent immigrants may have supported him, African-American Muslims, who make up a significant portion of the voting bloc, overwhelmingly supported Democratic nominee Al Gore.
What is clear, however, is that in the years and elections after the 9/11 attacks, Muslims have heavily supported Democratic candidates, and American public opinion about the Muslim community has fallen into partisan divide. Zogby, a polling expert, sees a split down the middle: Better educated, young and minority voters, who generally lean Democratic, are more supportive, and less educated, older and white voters, who generally lean Republican, are less supportive. Since 2002, Zogby said, there has been a real shift among Muslim voters, who increasingly support Democratic candidates. Though many American-Muslims may be more socially conservative and share some of the Republican Party’s values, recent immigrants have no historical attachment to the GOP, Zogby said.
While Muslim populations in states like California, New York and New Jersey might not have significant impact on the 2016 elections, Robert McCaw, manager of government affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he expects voting blocs in Ohio, Virginia and Florida to play a key role in next year’s campaign.
Another focal point for many of the scattered Muslim political organizations is getting more followers of the faith elected to office. Ellison became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006 and Carson followed in 2008.
There are other Muslim elected officials throughout the country, including Mohammed Hameeduddin, who sits on the Teaneck, N.J., City Council and formerly served as the city’s mayor; Nadeem Mazen, a city councilor in Cambridge, Mass., and the majority of members in the Hamtramck, Mich., City Council. But in most areas of the country, there are serious hurdles for Muslims who seek elected office.
“Not only does the candidate have to face opposition from possible Republican contenders, you have to face the timidness or wariness within state parties that want to vet viable candidates,” McCaw said. “When there’s a high scrutiny process, sometimes factors that are out of your control, like your nationality or your national origin, your ethnicity, your religion, these sadly come into play even in the Democratic calculus.”
Other factors are more internal within the Muslim-American community. Murad Awawdeh, a co-founder of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, said that in the view of many Muslim immigrants, becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer is seen as more closely linked with the American dream than running for political office.
MPAC’s Al-Marayati said that many Muslims in the U.S. haven’t fully “bought into civic engagement.”
“People believe the system is rigged against them and politicians may pay lip service at most -- if they aren’t on the other side, which is attacking them. So we have a long way to go internally in terms of dedicating time and money into civic engagement and being part of the process,” he told RCP.
Despite those issues, most within the Muslim community see a future in which it’s much easier for Muslim-Americans to successfully run for elected office. The remaining question is exactly how long it may take to reach that point.
Awawdeh said he’s already seeing more involvement and interest in politics, and McCaw said that in 10 to 15 years he expects to see a significant increase in the number of Muslim elected officials. Al-Marayati is less optimistic, saying he remembered thinking in the late 1980s that increased participation was just 10 to 15 years away, and that it could be 10 years, 50 years or a century before Muslims are thoroughly integrated into the political process.
Much of the movement is happening at local levels where there are large Muslim populations, with organizations like the Democratic Club of New York working to increase support in citywide elections. Zogby pointed to Dearborn, Mich., which is just outside Detroit and right next-door to Hamtramck, as an example. Three decades ago, Dearborn had 19,000 Arab-American residents but only 700 were registered voters. Now, there are 30,000 Arab-American residents, about half of whom are registered, according to Zogby.
“Give this process time and you’ll see those kind of changes taking place,” he said.
In the intervening years, Al-Marayati said that politicians putting Muslims in high-ranking positions, such as Cabinet-level appointments, would give average Muslims a sense that they have a seat at the table and their views make a difference. He said that could do more good for the community than simply endorsing a candidate and trying to get out the vote.
“We’re looking for those kind of moves by national leaders to make Muslim leaders part of that solution,” he said.
Many Muslim leaders say the rhetoric and threats against them are worse today than in the aftermath of 9/11, when President Bush visited a mosque and said, “Islam is peace.” Carson said there have been numerous threats against him during his years in Congress, but the most recent stand out because of the “rise in distress and Islamophobia and, dare I say, xenophobia.” He said the police department provides security for him when he does major events in his home district.
“The environment is so hostile right now,” Carson said.
Despite that, Muslim leaders hope the inflamed emotions and hostile words won’t dissuade individuals from participating in politics, but rather will motivate them to get involved.
“I hope they’re not turned off by the toxic political environment. I hope this mobilizes them into action and they really believe their votes and their voices count when they head to the polls,” McCaw said. “I think that if a candidate like Trump or [Sen.] Ted Cruz makes it to the nomination, you’re going to see probably the greatest Muslim swing to the Democratic Party yet.”
McCaw later referred to Ben Carson’s statement that a Muslim shouldn’t be president, saying, “I think if you’re a Muslim in America and someone says you can’t be president, and you’re 12, there’s going to be a lot of people dreaming even harder to be president.”
It’s a process that will take time, however, and Muslim leaders are aware of that. Zogby, for one, maintains a positive outlook.
When Arab-American Muslims first got politically involved, “there were people who were excluding us from politics, there were people who didn’t want us in the game,” he said. “Political parties wouldn’t meet with us, they didn’t want our participation, they thought we were a threat. We are winning. People say I sound like the glass is half full. Well, guess what? I remember when we didn’t have a glass.”