For Muslim-Americans, a big election about more than Trump

Donald Trump has energized a lot of Muslim-American voters. But their rising political activism goes beyond a backlash to one man. 

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
Wafa Berry waits in line to enter a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders last month in Dearborn, Mich.

Subhan Chaudry wants to be heard.

That’s why the 17 year old (who will be 18 by Election Day) scoured Dearborn, Mich., to register as many Muslim-American voters as possible before his state’s primary last month. 

And when Democrats in his city – which is 40 percent Arab – handed Bernie Sanders a convincing victory in the primary, it was a sign to him that things are changing.

As a political force, Muslim-Americans are not what they were a generation ago. In 2000, 78 percent of Muslim-Americans voted for George W. Bush. By 2008, 89 percent voted for Barack Obama.

That journey has been fueled by the Iraq war, and more recently, Donald Trump. But it is about more than partisan affiliation. It is about young Muslim-American voters like Subhan who are no longer content with being political makeweights – largely ignored and sometimes even antagonized for electoral gain.

They recognize the limitations of their own demographics. At a population of 3.3 million – 1 percent of the United States, according to the Pew Research Center – they hardly make up a crucial voting constituency. But the desire to do something has led record voter registration drives this year, Muslim-American advocacy groups report.

Moreover, it has led to a determination to become a crucial voting bloc in places where they do have a degree of demographic clout.

And that, Subhan says, is a big change.

“Our parents’ generation maybe had a different focus when they became citizens,” he says. “But we as the younger generation are more open to having our voice heard and our community recognized this year.”

A liberal pivot

A generation ago, the Muslim-American community tilted conservative and in many ways was most concerned with just fitting in. But since 9/11, the political shift has been dramatic.

In 2004, a majority of Muslims voted for John Kerry. By 2008, 49 percent of Muslims identified as Democrats and 89 percent voted for Barack Obama. By 2012, the number of Muslims identifying as Democrat hit 66 percent and 85 percent voted for Mr. Obama’s re-election, according to surveys by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

This year, the reasons for that shift have become even more apparent, with Mr. Trump proposing to temporarily ban all non-citizen Muslims from entering the country and Sen. Ted Cruz claiming that Muslim neighborhoods should be patrolled to prevent them becoming radicalized.

“It has been very hard for Muslims to identify themselves as Republicans when they themselves are being demonized by party leaders on a regular basis,” says Rabiah Ahmed, spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a Muslim-American advocacy group.

MPAC has been steering one form of backlash: voter registration.

Several campaigns are looking to register 500,000 voters. The goal is to get out the Muslim vote in record levels.

That’s where Subhan comes in.

When Senator Sanders won among Dearborn Democrats, 63 to 37 percent, he saw it as a victory.

“We have been here for years, but now we are making our voice heard at the ballot box,” he says.

Many of the voters who are turning out and registering, after all, fit the core Sanders demographic – second- and third-generation citizens under age 30.

For her part, Jabeen Bukhari is targeting first-generation immigrants such as herself. She focuses exclusively on women, in the belief that once a woman is swayed, her household will follow.

“Behind every woman is four or five votes. That is how to really get the vote out,” says Ms. Bukhari, a Hillary Clinton supporter, who has spent weeks meeting with women in southeast Michigan.

'We can decide the outcome'

The “Trump effect” is certainly playing a role. But so is the sense that, in some places, Muslim-American voters can make a difference.

“You can feel it in the street – you can feel it with people after they finish their Friday prayer that say, ‘We need to get out and vote,’” says Wilfredo Ruiz, a Muslim-American activist who has organized anti-Trump rallies in south Florida. “This is a state that is won by a percentage point. We can decide the outcome.”

In fact, they have already proven decisive in a nationally watched election.

When Rep. Allen West (R) of Florida sought reelection in 2014, he had gained a national following as an outspoken conservative. Among his targets was Islam as a “violent” religion and Rep. Keith Ellison (D) of Minnesota, a Muslim whose patriotism he questioned.

In a tight election that required two recounts, democratic rival Patrick Murphy won by 1,917 votes. Muslim activist group EMERGE reported that a registration drive resulted in 2,000 Muslim votes that went to Mr. Murphy.

Activists and advocates hope to register 200,000 Muslims in Florida this year to hold politicians accountable.

“They can attack us politically, because there are no political repercussions,” says Laila Abdelaziz, government affairs director at CAIR Florida. “In Florida, there will be repercussions at the ballot box.”

Strategic planning

Despite the excitement surrounding the 2016 elections, activists acknowledge that they need to be strategic to maximize their impact. One approach is to build coalitions with other minorities and political groups around common concerns, such as religious freedoms or racial profiling.

In March, for example, the University of Chicago’s Muslim Student Association joined with the Black Student Union, Fearless Undocumented Alliance, and Black Lives Matter to protest – and prevent – a Trump rally.

“The Muslim American community is ethnically diverse – it is African-American, Arab, and Asian-American,” says Khaled Beydoun, a law professor at Barry University and member of Muslim Americans for Bernie Sanders.

“Seven or eight million is not a huge number, but it can be strategic in a sustainable coalition that addresses issues in broader terms, such as linking Islamophobia to anti-black racism.”

But many young Muslims set to head to the polls this November have an even greater future goal in mind: having a Muslim on the ballot.

“We have candidates that represent the community, but it is our dream to have candidates from the community,” Subhan says.

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