It's 2019 And Democratic Presidential Candidates Are Ignoring Muslim Voters

Muslim organizers say the candidates' lack of interest in an upcoming gathering reflects a much larger apathy toward their community.

The president of the United States stood tall and proud at his North Carolina rally as the crowd chanted loudly for him to deport Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women in Congress. Just days before, Donald Trump had doubled down on his racist attacks against Omar and three of her freshman colleagues.

Back in Washington, Muslim organizers and policymakers were busy preparing for a historic moment: what they have called the first national gathering of Muslim Americans in politics.

But there was a problem.

With only a few days left until the July 23-24 conference, not a single Democratic presidential candidate was set to attend in person. HuffPost contacted every candidate for comment. Some replied to note schedule conflicts; others didn’t respond at all.

That apparent lack of interest brings into harsh light what many Muslims say is an apathetic attitude within the Democratic Party toward their community.

In politics, Muslims have largely leaned left –– despite holding many traditionally conservative values –– mostly due to the fact Democrats have tended to be more accepting of them while Republicans have vilified Islam. According to 2016 data, Muslim Americans are the “most Democratic-identifying religious group” in the nation.

But over the last few years, Muslim constituents have also voiced their concerns with the Democratic leadership for not taking a strong stance against Islamophobia. They complain that their communities are only remembered during discussions of national security and terrorism. More recently, Democratic Muslim voters have grown concerned about how the Democratic leadership has treated the first two Muslim women in Congress.

Next week’s Muslim Collective for Equitable Democracy conference will be hosted in Washington by the Muslim Caucus, a national nonpartisan group that seeks to build organizing structures for Muslims within politics.

When the conference organizers reached out to Democratic presidential candidates, they told HuffPost that many ― including former Vice President Joe Biden and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio ― ignored the invitation. They said that others, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Julián Castro declined the invite, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar agreed to send prerecorded videos. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren confirmed to HuffPost that she was scheduled to participate via live stream.

Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich) are scheduled to speak in person. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American war hero killed in Iraq and the man who famously held up the Constitution at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, are also confirmed to attend.

But the brushoff from so many leading Democrats does not sit well with Ghazala Salam, the president and founder of the Muslim Caucus. “It’s extremely disappointing,” she said. “How is democracy as accessible as everybody is telling me it is when we’re not even getting the attention of the presidential candidates?”

Muslim conference organizers said Joe Biden and Bill de Blasio ignored their invitation, while Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg declined to attend.
Muslim conference organizers said Joe Biden and Bill de Blasio ignored their invitation, while Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg declined to attend.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Hoda Hawa, the director of the Washington, D.C., office at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a nonprofit that seeks to advance both public understanding and policies that impact Muslim Americans, applauded those Democratic candidates who have brought on Muslims as part of their campaign teams. But Hawa said it was not enough.

Even among Democratic candidates trying to build voter support, Muslims seem to become relevant only in the context of national security. A notable example of this was during the 2016 presidential debates: Hillary Clinton brought up Muslim Americans merely to say they “need to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines” in the fight against terrorism.

“Far too often, a lot of candidates talk about our communities through a securitized lens and that really marginalizes our communities. I think it further isolates us from the civic and political process,” Hawa told HuffPost.

“It takes away our agency and our contributions in the fields of medicine and business and media and all these other sectors that are part of the fabric of America,” she added.

For now, more than 66% of Muslims identify as Democrats compared to only 13% who identify as Republicans. In 2018, the Muslim blue wave kicked off when nearly 100 American Muslims, mostly all Democrats, ran for public office.

“I think they need to understand that we are going to be an influential group of folks that can help not just the candidates, but the United States, by uplifting all marginalized communities through our work and keeping them from further slipping into chaos,” said Zarina Baber, the co-founder and vice president of the Muslim Caucus.

A sign at the 43rd annual Islamic Society of North America convention encourages participants to register to vote.
A sign at the 43rd annual Islamic Society of North America convention encourages participants to register to vote.

The Muslim vote is also increasing. In New York state alone, nearly 400,000 Muslims came out to vote in 2016. In Michigan, nearly 120,000 Muslims voted. Muslim turnout in Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Virginia –– four crucial swing states, each with a significant Muslim population –– jumped 25 percentage points from the 2014 to the 2018 midterm elections.

The lack of candidate outreach arises from the fact that Muslims make up about 1% of the entire voter base, said Shaun Kennedy, the co-founder of the Justice Education Technology Political Advocacy Center (also known as Jetpac). But elections are won with actual, not potential, voters. Consider the 2016 Michigan Democratic primary where Sanders defeated Clinton largely thanks to the local Muslim community.

In addition, if Muslims keep up their current political and charitable giving trends (and maintain current wealth levels), that’s an additional $3 billion that can be accessible to the candidates, Kennedy said.

So far this year, no 2020 Democratic presidential candidate has visited a mosque or hosted a forum for Muslims except Sanders, who went to an Islamic center in March following the mosque massacre in New Zealand, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who visited a mosque near Des Moines, Iowa, in April.

President Barack Obama didn’t visit a mosque until his eighth and final year in the White House when he spoke to Muslims at the Islamic Society of Baltimore in 2016. President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington in 2001, a few days after the 9/11 attacks, in an attempt to discourage the sudden wave of hate crimes against Muslims.

Years later, Muslims are frustrated that those sole visits are still the benchmark and that their communities are not being heard in a meaningful way ― especially when they have so much to offer as American citizens.

“We’re here to say we understand the Constitution, how critical it is to our country, and we want to uphold it,” Baber said. “And the only way you can help us uphold it is to engage us as a valuable partner in this process.”

CORRECTION: Among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has also visited a mosque this year.


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