MANASSAS, Va. – Friday prayer service was winding down at a mosque in northern Virginia when the group’s president made his way to the front of the room and made an announcement he typically reserves for the final weeks before Election Day.
“The beauty of this country is that we have a voice,” Ehsan Islam began as he looked out onto a room so crowded for Jummah that some of the men were on a tarp outside. “We live in a state that is a swing state, that is a very important state, and all the candidates are going to be fighting over this.”
“We can decide the outcome,” he told congregants at the Dar Alnoor Islamic Community Center in suburban Washington, D.C.
This cycle – with Republican nominee Donald Trump proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country and threatening to shut down mosques–Muslim Americans have are urgently aware that they need to mobilize against him.
“There has never been a time like this with so much tension,” Islam told TPM in an interview.
In New York, Demonstrators rally against Trump’s proposed ban on asylum for Muslims.
Since announcing his candidacy, Trump has shown a pattern of ostracizing minority groups, calling undocumented immigrants “criminals” and “rapists” when he declared his candidacy. Trump’s demagoguery against Muslim Americans, however–his conflation of religious Muslims with radical Islamists at a time when the country appears to be more alarmed by terrorism than at any other point since 9/11– has especially divisive and is now leading American Muslims to take action.
According to Pew Research Center there are 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States–just 1 percent of the total population–but voter registration drives by groups like the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, Islamic Circle of North America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Arab American Institute are already underway as groups set out to register a million new voters this year.
“There is a real sense that this particular election cycle has really targeted our community,” said Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute, which works to mobilize Arab Americans, including, but not limited to, Muslim Americans. “The response has certainly been that we need to get more organized.
Berry said that this cycle she will deploy field workers in five different states – Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California–to work on mobilization
“I didn’t have that in 2012,” Berry said. “There is definitely a sense of urgency that this particular election is important.”
Data on Muslim American voters is scarce, their voting patterns have hardly been studied, and it may be too early to know exactly how Trump’s rhetoric is spurring action. But, according to CAIR–which keeps its own private voter database on individuals with traditionally Muslim names– more than 300,000 new Muslim voters have registered to cast ballots since the 2012 presidential election.
Linda Sarsour, a community organizer and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said her job is also getting easier this cycle as more Muslim voters are getting involved.
“I have been an organizer for 15 years. I remember 15 years ago it was like pulling teeth,” she said of trying to convince mosques to allow voter registration on their property. “Now it is like they are asking us to come.”
Linda Sarsour has been mobilizing Muslim American voters for more than a decade.
For Muslim Americans, Trump’s screeds are alarming, but his popularity – the fact that millions of Americans are supporting him–is an additional catalyst for action.
“It’s even more frightening that a majority of our society goes with him. They believe in him and they agree with him and it’s OK for them to accept what he’s saying,” said Lamyaa Awad, a 23-year-old from Fredricksburg, Virginia, who had come to Friday service at Dar Alnoor. “People have become more brave about portraying their racism.”
The Bridge Initiative, a research project based at Georgetown University that studies Islamophobia, estimated that in 2015 – a year that saw the escalation of the Republican primary, the San Bernardino and Paris terrorist attacks and a worldwide refugee crisis–there were 174 reported incidences of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States: 12 murders, 8 arsons, 29 physical assaults, 50 threats, 54 acts of vandalism and 9 shootings or bombings.
Over the last year, a woman threw hot coffee on a group of Muslims praying in a park. In another incident, someone shot at the car of a woman leaving a mosque in Tampa. In March, the Washington Post reported a Trump supporter allegedly beat a 23-year-old Muslim senior at Wichita State University as he screamed, “Trump will take our country from you guys!”
“We kind of lose our trust in each other as a neighbor, as a friend,” said Shaheen Parveen, a 41-year-old attendee at the Virginia mosque who was registered to vote. “I think what if [Trump] is the person who opened the real face of America?”
Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Muslim Americans began mobilizing earlier this year not just because of Trump.
“Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking this is just about Trump. The Republican Party has a Muslim problem,” Hamid said.
This cycle, Republican candidate Ben Carson said on Meet the Press that the country shouldn’t elect a Muslim-American president. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) sought foreign policy advice from well-known anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced on the campaign trail that he would prioritize Christian Syrian refugees above Muslims.
It is a far cry from the party’s approach in the 2000 election when George W. Bush actually sought to make inroads with the Muslim community and as CAIR has estimated, as many as 70 percent of American Muslims voted for him.
“This is really an unprecedented moment for the American Muslim community,” Hamid said. “There was fear after 9/11 but this is really at a different level. The rise of Trump has made us realize that our place in American society is more tenuous than we may have expected.”
But mobilization against Trump and numbers that show 70 percent of American Muslims identify as Democrats do not necessarily translate into enthusiasm for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy, interventionist strategy in Libya, her Iraq war vote and strong support for Israel all give some younger Muslim Americans pause.
“I am very dissatisfied with our choices,” said 20-year-old Aneesa Johnson, who had supported Sanders in the primary. “I’d like to not vote, but I think that would be irresponsible.”
The Clinton campaign pointed to her Muslim outreach efforts in Minnesota, California, and New York, and said it has been doing its own targeted outreach to Muslim leaders.
Sarsour, the community activist in New York who is a Sanders supporter, said that one of her messages to Muslim American voters this year has been to not be one-issue voters and she says the community has been much more “engaged.”
“I will be honest with you, we have been an apathetic community,” Sarsour said, noting that many Muslim Americans tell her they rarely see candidates who fully represent American Muslim values. “My messaging is anti-Trump. That is where I feel more people are more willing to participate.”
“It has been a whole campaign about us without us,” Sarsour said.