Fearful U.S. Political Climate Galvanizes American Muslims to Register to Vote

Thursday, June 02, 2016
Muslim American woman at Bernie Sanders rally (photo: Bill Publiano, Getty Images)

 

By Carol Pogash, New York Times

 

OAKLAND, Calif. — After Friday Prayer at the Oakland Islamic Center, Mamoun Kund, a 51-year-old Sudanese-American, sat at a table and did something he had not done in the 11 years he has been a citizen — he registered to vote. Until recently, he had no interest, he said, but now “I hear talk about Muslims, Hispanics and women.”

 

“It doesn’t make sense,” he added. “Americans aren’t like that.”

 

Upstairs in the area for women, Dina Agag, who wore a bright red head scarf, picked up voter registration forms for herself and five members of her family. As she did, a friend whispered, “This is the most important vote in our life.”

 

These are unsettling times for many American Muslims.

 

“People are losing their sleep,” said Naeem Baig, the president of the Islamic Circle of North America. “The political environment is creating a divide in America” by race, language, gender and religion.

 

But it also has had an unintended consequence: galvanizing Muslims to vote.

 

In late December, after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, and the call by Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, a national umbrella group, announced plans to register a million voters.

 

“When your existence in society is in danger, you try to mobilize your community,” said the organization’s secretary-general, Oussama Jammal. “You have to be part of the entire society.”

 

While the effort is mostly geared toward the November election, groups here have made a push to register Muslims in time for the state primary on June 7. Drives were held on a recent Friday at 21 mosques and Islamic centers in the Bay Area and Sacramento and at seven places in the Los Angeles area.

 

“Muslims are a big campaign issue, as big as the climate, the economy and immigration. We’re spoken about as if we’re not there,” said Rusha Latif, an organizer of the Rock the Muslim Vote campaign. “We want to amplify our voices.”

 

For organizers, the time is ripe for registration.

 

“It’s hard to encourage people to participate based on good things happening,” said Melissa Michelson, a co-author of “Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns” and a professor at Menlo College. “Fear and threats are much more powerful motivators.”

 

As the general election approaches, Muslim organizations will pay particular attention to swing states, where “several thousand voters have the ability to tip the elections,” said Robert S. McCaw, the director of the government affairs department at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

 

Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population. A study (pdf) conducted by the Institute for Social and Policy Understanding, a nonpartisan think tank, found that only 60 percent of citizens who are Muslim are registered voters, compared with at least 86 percent for Jews, Protestants and Catholics.

 

“A lot of Muslims didn’t participate in elections because they didn’t see a lot of difference between the parties,” said Emir Sundiata Alrashid of the Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland, where a voter-registration drive was held last month. The mosque sits in a residential neighborhood near a freeway overpass.

 

About a dozen mosques serve Oakland’s diverse population. On the streets near the larger mosques and Islamic centers, women in hijabs and burqas duck into shops for halal meats, dates and honey.

 

Rodolfo de La Garza, a professor of public policy at Columbia University who studies minority voting and election participation, believes Muslim voter registration efforts will be easier than those in African-American and Latino communities, where residents were long disenfranchised.

 

“If you think the state is always against you, why would you engage it? Only recently have Muslims not trusted the state,” he said. “It should be a lot easier to get them to register to vote.”

 

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., is one of two Muslims in the U.S. House. Ellison said he has seen anti-Muslim speech “every election cycle.”

 

But this year, the bigotry has reached a new level, he said.

 

Ellison cited a Georgetown University study, “When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections,” which found that in December, when Trump called for barring Muslims, there were 53 anti-Muslim attacks nationwide, a third of all attacks last year.

 

“The average Muslim is a little desensitized to politicians making negative comments about us,” said Corey Saylor, the director of the department to monitor and combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “This time it’s so pervasive and mainstream and, frankly, threatening that a lot of people feel the need to do whatever they can.”

 

Jehan Hakim, California president of the American Association of Yemeni Students and Professionals, said “So many family and community members are really, really scared.” Hakim, who organized mosque voter registration drives in Oakland, said her four children wanted to move to Canada. Along with signing up new voters, Hakim also participates in “Meet a Muslim,” a Bay Area gathering for non-Muslims to learn about their neighbors.

 

The change in tone has been gradual. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, “the conversation in the mainstream media was that American Muslims are part of America — we’re in this trouble together,” said Baig of the Islamic Circle of North America.

 

But after the San Bernardino shootings, Trump called for closing mosques and banning Muslims. (He recently amended his statement, saying it was “just a suggestion.”)

 

“People coming to his rallies are cheering what he says,” Baig said. “We are beyond a state of shock.”

 

Trump’s campaign spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

 

Emir Alrashid of the Lighthouse Mosque sees parallels with a once-targeted group. “We’re going through the same struggles the Japanese did about their loyalty to the country after Pearl Harbor,” he said. “Just because you share an ethnic group or religion, you shouldn’t have to pass a loyalty oath to be considered a loyal American.”

 

The Lighthouse Mosque draws followers who are African-American, South Asian, Yemeni and Caucasian.

 

In interviews, many Muslims volunteered that they feel as if they are an “other” in their own country.

 

“People might be born in America, but they feel like a lot of times they’re looked at like ‘other,'” Emir Alrashid said, adding that he sometimes feels that way, too. He was born in the United States and served six years in the Marine Corps.

 

“People see a Muslim sister at a grocery store, and they don’t think she’s an American citizen. They automatically seem to think she’s ‘one of those Muslims,’ even here in the Bay Area,” he said. “I can only imagine how it is in Utah or Mississippi.”

 

To Learn More:

Trump and Cruz Want Muslim Neighborhoods in U.S. “Patrolled and Secured” by Law Enforcement (by Vivian Salama and Jonathan Lemire, Associated Press)

Muslim-Americans in U.S. Military Jolted by Anti-Muslim Sentiment in U.S. (by Steve Straehley and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Anti-Muslim Rhetoric, Once Used Only by Far-Right, Has Now Gone Mainstream Republican (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

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