The relationship between American Muslims and the Democratic Party is often described as a marriage of convenience. One of the best illustrations of this was the appearance of Khizr and Ghazala Khan at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The Khans, parents of a U.S. Army captain killed in the Iraq War, didn’t exactly fit the liberal mold: Khizr Khan was a political independent who supported Reagan twice. But now the Khans were ardent Democrats. “Vote for the healer, for the strongest, most qualified candidate, Hillary Clinton, not the divider,” Khizr Khan said.
What choice did they have? Months earlier, Donald Trump had called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” This blatantly discriminatory proposal was part of a larger political campaign steeped in Islamophobia. Not even the parents of a war hero—the so-called good Muslims—were protected. As a result, more than three-quarters of Muslim voters cast their ballot for Clinton. The Muslim-Democratic alliance has only been strengthened in the wake of President Trump’s Muslim ban, which translated his xenophobic campaign promises into the law of the land. Today, Muslims constitute the “most Democratic-identifying religious group” in the country.
This is despite the fact that many Muslims continue to lean conservative, as Wajahat Ali Khan has pointed out in The New York Times. “[P]rivately, they adhere to traditional values, believe in God, and think gay marriage is a sin, even though an increasing number support marriage equality,” he wrote.
The Republican Party’s Islamophobia has turned Democrats and Muslims into strange bedfellows, while also masking differences that have emerged since the 2016 election. Interviews with Muslim leaders and activists, however, reveal that those differences often do not hinge on the Democratic Party being too progressive, but on the Democratic Party not being progressive enough. And far from treating the Democrats as a haven in troubled times, Muslim-Americans are starting to demand more from the only mainstream party that will have them.
For American Muslims, the challenges of living under a Trump administration started with the Muslim ban but are not limited to it. Trump’s first year in office corresponded with a 15 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S. The Trump administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East has also not sat well with most Muslims, including the administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and its decision to open a U.S. embassy there.
Trump has also used and legitimized anti-Muslim rhetoric as a campaign strategy in the midterms. A new report published by the group Muslim Advocates found “80 separate instances of clear anti-Muslim political rhetoric being directly used by candidates in 2017 and 2018 races.” A majority of the candidates using this rhetoric are Republican. And Trump himself tweeted last week that a migrant caravan approaching the U.S.-Mexico border—which has become a flashpoint for midterms races—had been infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners,” a clear attempt to inject an Islamophobic element into the issue. (He later admitted he had no proof for his claim.)
But Muslim-American political activity this campaign season has not been restricted to responding to these existential threats—to the contrary, it has been notable for its breadth, variety, and inventiveness.
This has been most evident in the midterms’ “blue Muslim wave,” in which more than 90 American Muslims ran for office across the country. Most lost in the primaries, but a few have made it onto the ballot in November, including two Muslim women running for Congress, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan. What’s striking about Omar and Tlaib is that their platforms are squarely in the left wing of the Democratic Party. Like other progressive insurgents, they are committed to economic justice for working people, Medicare for All, abolishing ICE, and holding Democratic leadership accountable.
Muslim organizers are urging Muslim voters to think of their vote not simply as a means of ensuring their survival in this country, but also as a tool to shape a particular political vision. The Muslim grassroots organization MPower Change has been leading a nationwide get-out-the-vote and digital engagement campaign called #MyMuslimVote, partnering with local organizations in states with significant Muslim populations, including Michigan, Georgia, Virginia, and Texas. MPower’s campaign director Mohammad Khan explained that its voter mobilization strategy changed after the 2016 elections. Khan said, “We wanted our communities to think about voting in an aspirational way, we wanted to expand what people think of as Muslim issues. Muslims are not day-to-day thinking about how they’re going to fight terrorism, they’re thinking about the same things everyday that other people are thinking about.”
The results of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary contain some important clues on what these aspirations might be. In Dearborn, Michigan, a city where 40 percent of the population is Arab-American, Bernie Sanders beat Clinton with 59 percent of the vote. Some journalists were surprised that Arabs and Muslims had voted for a Jewish candidate, but it’s likely that voters were less interested in religion than the presence of a progressive, non-establishment candidate in the race.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), “a substantial segment of Muslim respondents (roughly 30 percent) did not favor either of the two major party candidates” in the 2016 presidential election. Sanders’s appeal to Muslim voters is partly explained by the fact that, amongst major faith groups in the U.S., Muslims are the youngest and most likely to identify as low income. A 2018 ISPU survey revealed that one-third of Muslims find themselves at or below the poverty line. It should come as no surprise that, like other Americans who voted for Sanders, Muslims want better wages and affordable health care.
But Sanders also engaged with Muslims differently than Clinton did. Zohran Mamdani, board member of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York (MDCNY), said, “A lot of times in Democratic conversations, things are framed as looking at a whole community through terrorism and anti-terrorism and not seeing us as full, complex individuals who have a multitude of issues and deserve to be treated in a way that all other communities are.” The appearance of the Khans at the Democratic National Convention reinforced this framework, with its focus on a war that came shortly after 9/11 and that many Muslim Americans opposed.
One of the most powerful moments in Sanders’s campaign came at a rally in Virginia where a young Muslim student asked him how he would tackle Islamophobia as a president. Sanders responded by sharing his own Jewish family’s experiences with bigotry, placing Islamophobia in a larger context of American racism. In contrast, Clinton drew criticism from many Muslims, including MPower Change, after she blamed the 2016 attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on “radical Islamism.” Muslims felt that Clinton’s use of this term, which President Barack Obama avoided, implied that Islam’s more than one billion followers were responsible for the beliefs and actions of a small minority.
Muslim-American political activity this campaign season is perhaps most evident at the local level. Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, which means that, unlike other minority groups, they do not have the numbers to influence election outcomes on a national level except at the margins. But they do have the numbers to make an impact at the local and state levels.
For example, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recently published a special voter guide for Muslim voters in Maryland. The guide includes a survey of candidates’ views on a variety of national and local issues that Maryland Muslims care about, including their position on whether public schools in areas with significant Muslim populations should close for the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. This is a particularly important issue for Muslims in Maryland because of the difficulties they faced in getting the state’s largest school district to start recognizing Muslim holidays in 2015.
One of the first groups to endorse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her upset primary victory of Rep. Joe Crowley in New York this summer was a community organization called Muslims for Progress. Based in New York City and Long Island, the organization was created in 2017 by Toufique Harun and Saema Khandakar, husband and wife, in response to the disaster of the 2016 election. Harun and Khandakar, who describe themselves as “complete and total political novices,” said that the group is focused on increasing Muslim involvement in politics and that it was inspired by Indivisible, a nationwide grassroots movement of locally led progressive organizations.
Ocasio-Cortez’s director of organizing is Naureen Akhter, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi-American Muslim who also co-founded Muslims for Progress. Akther heard Ocasio-Cortez speak at a rally in June 2017, and soon after started leading signature-gathering efforts in Queens to help her get on the primary ballot. Akhter was critical in shaping Ocasio’s engagement with the large Bengali and Muslim community in New York’s 14th Congressional District—Ocasio even made a special campaign video for Bengali voters in which she spoke in Bengali.
In 2017, Muslim and Arab voters in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge rallied behind the first Arab candidate to run for city council, Reverend Khader El-Yateem. El-Yateem, a democratic socialist, ultimately lost the Democratic primary to Justice Brannan, but his presence on the ballot inspired unprecedented voter engagement amongst Arabs and Muslims, especially Arab and Muslim women.
In addition to supporting new progressive voices, Muslim organizers are focused on holding the Democratic Party accountable. MDCNY has an official endorsement process in which candidates have to fill out a questionnaire on a wide range of issues that matter to American Muslims. Mamdani said the purpose of this process is to “distinguish between those that simply talk about Muslims within this larger framework of ‘diversity is good and immigration is good’ and those who actually know that we don’t want broad platitudes.”
Harun from Muslims for Progress said that Muslims drawn to his group care more about issues than parties. “We work with the establishment candidates who fight for the issues, we work with grassroots candidates who work for the issues, we work with Republican candidates who work for the issues, we will work with anybody who fights for the right issues,” he said.
The focus on accountability has forced Muslim organizers to make difficult choices in the midterms. The New York attorney general primary between Public Advocate Letitia James and law professor Zephyr Teachout was especially challenging for MDCNY, since MDCNY had endorsed James in past elections. This time, the club endorsed Teachout after a tight vote amongst club members. James’s ties to Governor Andrew Cuomo were particularly frustrating for Muslim progressives, partly because Cuomo has never visited a mosque in his seven years as a governor.
Muslims, like other minority voters, expect more from the Democratic Party than it has given them in return. Khizr and Ghazala Khan’s appearance at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was a defining moment for Muslim visibility and inclusivity in American politics for many Muslims—but not all of them. Whether the Democratic Party can speak to the diversity of American Muslim politics will determine how deep this alliance will go.