Inside Story

America’s blue Muslim wave

Donald Trump’s highly charged rhetoric can’t change the fact that Congress is more diverse than ever

Thomas Kean 14 August 2019 3399 words

Looks like America: Ilhan Omar (centre) and fellow representative-elect Jahana Hayes after a group photo for the new members of Congress outside the Capitol Building in Washington in November 2018. Kevin Dietsch/UPI

It wasn’t long before Abdullah Hammoud worked out what he and his supporters should expect going door-to-door in Michigan’s 15th House District in 2016. Every twenty houses, he says, they would meet “some sort of vulgarity” — and this was in a Democratic primary. All because Hammoud, a biostatistician by training, is a Muslim of Lebanese descent.

“It shows you that the bigotry, the racism, the xenophobia wasn’t confined to just one side of the aisle,” he says over lunch in downtown Detroit.

Ultimately, Hammoud’s religion wasn’t an insurmountable barrier to electoral success. After emerging victorious from the crowded primary field, he won the safe Democratic seat in the Michigan House of Representatives, at the age of just twenty-six.

“We did it just by sheer work ethic,” he says. “It got to the point where I knocked on the door, someone would answer and be like, ‘Stop coming to my house.’ I said, ‘The same tenacity that I’m putting into my campaign is the same work ethic you can expect when I get into office.’ You win people over.”

Since Hammoud’s election, the picture has further darkened for America’s Muslims. Donald Trump’s regular swipes at Islam, and actions by his administration, including the infamous Muslim travel ban, have contributed to a wave of hostility not seen since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Studies showthat hate crimes and discrimination have all risen noticeably since 2015, in some cases surpassing that previous high water mark.

“You win people over”: Democratic Party congressman Abdullah Hammoud. Thomas Kean

But here’s the thing: in spite of this climate — or, more likely, because of it — a growing number of American Muslims are running for office. In what was dubbed the “blue Muslim wave” (blue being the colour associated with the Democratic Party) at least 128 Muslims ran for office in the 2018 midterm elections, nearly all of them for the Democratic Party.

Incredibly, at least fifty-five candidates were successful, many of them breaking new ground. In January this year, Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American lawyer, and Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia and arrived in America as a twelve-year-old refugee, became the first Muslim women to be sworn into Congress and take their oath of office on the Qur’an. Omar won the seat in Minnesota formerly held by Keith Ellison, an African-American Muslim who edged ahead in a statewide race to become attorney-general of Minnesota.

Others narrowly missed out, like Abdul El-Sayed, a thirty-two-year-old Egyptian American who was vying to become the governor of Michigan, and Abraham Aiyash, a Yemeni American who finished a close second in the Democrat primary for a state senate seat in Michigan. The least-known candidate in a field of eleven, Aiyash went door-to-door through the 2nd District to engage Muslims, who he says have traditionally voted in smaller numbers than their white and black counterparts.

“People like my parents came into the country at this time when there was an idea that you just work hard and keep your head down and that’s how you contribute as a citizen,” Aiyash says. “I think Muslim Americans now realise that in order for any mass social change to happen it is the marginalised communities that have to step up.”

Those who have “stepped up” have often found themselves the target of racist attacks. Tlaib and Omar, in particular, have become popular targets for the far right. Their election prompted one conservative pastor to warn that “the floor of Congress is now going to look like an Islamic republic,” to which Omar tweeted that it was “going to look like America… And you’re gonna have to just deal.”

More recently, Tlaib and Omar, together with fellow minority Democratic lawmakers Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have attracted the attention of President Trump, who notoriously tweeted that they “hate our country” and should “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.” At a rally in North Carolina on 17 July, the president nodded as his supporters directed chants of “Send her back” at Omar.

The four women have responded to these attacks (and numerous subsequent death threats) with courage, poise and dignity. “This is the agenda of white nationalists,” Omar told reporters. “This is his [Trump’s] plan to pit us against one another.” Two apparently racially motivated mass shootings last weekend have underscored the potential impact of the president’s rhetoric.

For Shaun Kennedy, the campaigns director and co-founder of Jetpac, an organisation that seeks to build Muslim political engagement, the vitriol unleashed at the Muslim congresswomen is unsurprising. “As more Muslims become prominent we’ll actually see more Islamophobia,” he says. “But that will invert in the long run.”

Jetpac played an integral role in building the blue Muslim wave. In February 2017, it launched a campaign calling for more Muslims to run for office; Kennedy has worked with more than thirty Muslim candidates over the past four years.

While Tlaib and Omar have garnered the most attention, Kennedy says he’s excited by some of the lower-profile victories chalked up by Muslim candidates — those like Sarah Khatib, who was elected in 2017 to a planning committee in a town (Walpole, Massachusetts) that voted for Trump. “That’s where we’re going to see a huge impact because they’re inherently closer to their constituents as local politicians,” he says.

Kennedy is quick to preface his comments by explaining he’s neither Muslim nor American. Born on Norfolk Island, he holds dual Australian and New Zealand citizenship and came to political consultancy almost by accident. Visiting the United States on a short-term working visa in 2015, he joined the re-election campaign for Nadeem Mazen, a city councillor in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two weeks after Mazen’s unlikely victory in November 2015, he and Kennedy co-founded Jetpac to scale up some of their approaches to voter engagement.

Just a month later, Donald Trump — then a candidate in the Republican primaries — called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Many who responded to Jetpac’s 2017 campaign cited Trump’s election as a catalyst for their decision to run for office, Kennedy says.

But the Democratic Party has not always been a natural fit for the Muslim community. When political pundits paid Muslims any attention at all, they generally considered them to lean Republican because of their conservative social values. In 2000, George W. Bush courted Muslims in a move some have argued was decisive in the outcome of that year’s presidential election. In Florida, a state he won by just hundreds of votes, he is thought to have gained a majority among the estimated 60,000 Muslim voters.

The response to 9/11 changed all that. Within three years, the wars in the Middle East, increasing civil liberty concerns and rising Islamophobia had transformed the Muslim community into a staunch Democrat bloc. One poll on the eve of the 2004 presidential election found three-quarters of Muslim voters planned to vote for John Kerry; by 2017, just 13 per cent said they were Republican or leaned Republican. Contrary to perceptions of the community, only 21 per cent described themselves as conservative or very conservative, well below the US average of 36 per cent.

The blue Muslim wave is more than a backlash against Trump and the mainstreaming of Islamophobia within the Republican Party, Hammoud says; it’s also a sign of the maturing of the Muslim community. Comprised largely of foreign-born Muslims or the children of immigrants who have arrived since 1965, when US immigration laws were reformed, the emphasis has traditionally been on education and financial success. “My mother still wishes I was in medical school,” Hammoud laughs.

“There’s a lot of self-hate that develops in the Muslim community,” adds Aiyash. “There’s this idea that I have to further lessen my identity and further dampen it so people don’t hear who we are. But finally in the post-Trump era we soon come to recognise that there is a need for us to stand up not just as Muslim Americans but as Americans in general, fighting for issues like civil rights.”

“It’s about class and poverty”: Yemeni American Abraham Aiyash. Thomas Kean

This maturing extends beyond the political sphere. As the children of these immigrants and refugees come of age, they are becoming a more visible and forceful presence in the arts, civil society, the media and academia. Many are not seeking to hide or downplay their Muslim identity.

There’s comedian Hasan Minhaj, who recently launched season four of his Netflix series Patriot Act; rapper Mona Haydar, who shot to fame in 2017 with her song “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)”; and Olympic medal-winning fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who in 2016 became the first Muslim American to wear a hijab in Olympic competition.

Another comedian, Negin Farsad, describes what she does as “social justice comedy.” When Donald Trump announced his Muslim travel ban, she hit the streets of New York to conduct a “faith test,” stopping random people and asking them to eat from a cold pile of bacon. Those who didn’t eat the bacon had to sign a Muslim registry.

She has also made a documentary comedy, The Muslims Are Coming!, in which she and the well-known comedian and commentator Dean Obeidallah lead a group of Muslim comedians on a tour of America’s south and southwest, and launched a “Fighting Bigotry with Delightful Posters” campaign in response to anti-Muslim posters on the New York subway. Her posters were delayed for years on the grounds they were “too political,” but eventually went up in 140 stations after Farsad successfully took the Metropolitan Transport Authority to court.

The aim of The Muslims Are Coming! was to create personal, unscripted interactions with people who, like around half of all Americans, don’t know a Muslim personally. To fight Islamophobia on a wider scale, though, Farsad says the portrayal of Muslims in the media and popular culture needs to change.

Research by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding has shown that up to 80 per cent of news coverage of Muslims on major TV networks in the United States is negative, and that the proportion of negative coverage increases when overall coverage declines. American Muslims, particularly those of Arab descent, are seen primarily through the lens of the religion, and often violence, on TV shows such as Homeland.

Before her career in comedy, Farsad aspired to be a politician and worked as a policy adviser on campaign finance. After a particularly awkward live interview on MSNBC in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Farsad says she implored the network’s talent bookers to bring her on to talk politics rather than religion. “Anything having to do with electoral politics: Citizens United, the electoral college, the popular vote — I could talk about so many of these things with a degree of authority. Why do you only trot me out to be Muslim?” Her weekly political affairs podcast, Fake the Nation, has nothing in particular to do with Islam, and in most of her feature films religion is only casually mentioned.

Farsad is not the first to argue that Muslims needs their Will & Grace moment, a major pop culture vehicle that can normalise them in the same way that sitcom brought the gay community into the mainstream in the early 2000s (even as it was criticised for perpetuating gay stereotypes). “If you think that [Will & Grace] didn’t have a role in getting marriage equality, you would be wrong,” Farsad says. “Will & Grace came into our living rooms and normalised the gay communities to the point where my mum would be like, ‘Oh, Jack is so fun.’ And that’s what you want.”

Given the Muslim-American community’s diversity, though, pulling out any single common thread is difficult, if not impossible. A 2017 study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center estimated the total US Muslim population at 3.45 million — a shade over 1 per cent of the total US population — of which 58 per cent were born abroad. Immigrant Muslims are likely to have higher incomes and levels of education, and US-born Muslims report higher levels of discrimination.

Pakistan is the largest single source country of adult Muslim immigrants, but even it comprises only 15 per cent, followed by Iran (11 per cent) and India (7 per cent).

But perhaps the largest single group is African-American Muslims, who make up at least 20 per cent of the Muslim population and possibly as much as a third — a proportion that has been steadily falling as more Muslims arrive from Asia and the Middle East. Two-thirds of African-American Muslims are converts, and their experience seems closer to that of the black community generally than to that of immigrant Muslims.

For Moses the Comic (real name Musa Sulaiman), an African American from Philadelphia who was born Muslim, the challenge is less about addressing a negative stereotype than about being heard at all. “The African-American Muslim, we don’t really have a presence within the traditional conversation about Islam,” he says. “When they need a Muslim voice, it’s always the Arab Muslim.”

Like Farsad, he’s tried to tackle this through popular culture, recently writing a Netflix pilot called It’s Always Sunni in Philadelphia. When we meet, he’s wearing a black t-shirt with a star and crescent — symbols widely adopted within the African-American Muslim community — and the words “Unapologetically Muslim.”

“I wanted to create something that shows African Americans being unapologetically Muslim and dealing with the day-to-day instances that people have: family, relationships and so on. What’s more of social importance for me is that we’re a part of the conversation because historically we haven’t been.”

This is despite a long rollcall of prominent African-American Muslims, ranging from Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X to Dave Chappelle. Islam has been described as the unofficial religion of hip-hop; many prominent early proponents, such as Ice Cube and Mos Def, have links to the Nation of Islam or one of its offshoots, the Five-Percent Nation.

Traditionally, the immigrant and African-American communities have rarely intersected, attending their own mosques in neighbourhoods separated by a significant socioeconomic gap. But there are signs that this isolation is also beginning to change.

At Masjid Muhammad in Washington, DC congregants are arriving for Friday prayers. Many are on their lunch break, still in their work clothes. They enter and sit silently, occasionally offering a quiet greeting to friends as they wait for Imam Talib Shareef to begin his service. He speaks at length about the benefits of technology, of the wonder of having a world of knowledge at one’s fingertips.

Before the service, Shareef tells me that the African-American and immigrant Muslim communities have remained aloof for too long, something he is working hard to address. A decade ago, Masjid Muhammad’s congregation was about 90 per cent African-American, but Shareef’s outreach efforts have helped to increase its diversity. One recent survey found thirty-six nationalities represented at Masjid Muhammad, he says, and non-African Americans now comprise around 40 per cent of its attendees.

More than 800 kilometres away, the city of Dearborn, Michigan, is a regular target for those who think that a Muslim takeover of America is imminent, or at least inevitable. Its population of 100,000 is estimated to be about half Muslim, with large Lebanese, Iraqi and Syrian communities, and it’s home to one of America’s largest mosques, the Islamic Center of America. In 2017, some of the city’s residents got so sick of frequent rumours that Dearborn was under sharia law that they launched a satirical campaign, “shawarma law, not sharia law,” to skewer the false stereotypes.

Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, who has led the centre for the best part of two decades, has seen the hate directed at Muslims rise and fall around the country’s political climate. He calmly notes that this is hardly unique to Muslims; in the United States, many minority groups have been marginalised as the “other” at some point, and Muslims are just the “topical other.” Still, he says, America’s Muslims can be more resilient in the face of this sentiment by more clearly defining their role within American culture and society, and better informing the rest of the country about their diversity and customs.

Built in 2005 at a cost of US$14 million, the Islamic Center is testament to the economic achievements of immigrant Muslims, particularly from Lebanon. When visitors walk through the front doors, below the ten-storey minaret, they are greeted with a gallery of notable donors, including Michael Berry, who was Michigan’s first Muslim lawyer of Arab descent and had a terminal at Detroit’s main airport named after him.

Al-Qazwini insists that economic success is not enough; he wants to see a “shift of consciousness” in which “making a huge amount of money is not sufficient.” For the sake of society, he says, “instead of constantly telling your children to be a lawyer… we need journalism, we need politics, we need education, professors. Thank God we are beginning to see a response.”

Sitting down with Hammoud and Aiyash, I can see very clearly the importance of Muslims running for public office.

Aiyash recalls when he was on the campaign trail and met an eighty-year-old woman at her house. After he introduced himself as a candidate in the senate primary, the woman immediately responded that she was prejudiced against Muslims. Aiyash could have moved on to the next house, confident she wouldn’t vote for him. Instead, they had a conversation during which she confided that she’d never spoken to a Muslim before, despite living just twenty minutes from Dearborn and ten minutes from Hamtramck, the first city in the United States with a Muslim-majority council. At the end, Aiyash says she asked for a campaign sign to place in her yard.

Hammoud has engaged in a similar way with state legislators, some of whom are as ill-informed about Islam as their constituents. He’s brought nearly fifty of the state’s 110 lawmakers to Dearborn to try the food, meet the mayor and tour the Islamic Center. During one of these visits, a conservative lawmaker asked him why Muslim men are able to beat their wives according to sharia law. “This is now someone who co-sponsors most of my legislation that I introduce,” Hammoud says. “So we’re able to shatter these stereotypes and build bridges of friendship.”

Kennedy says the success of the blue Muslim wave was as much about the organising that goes into campaigning as the electoral victories that followed. “To run for office as a Muslim not only engages your district, your neighbours and your community as a potential representative,” he says, “but also as a living, breathing example of the true face of American Islam. And that breaks down the ‘us versus them’ narrative that’s been so divisive, and shows that first and foremost we’re talking about Americans who care about the same issues as everyone else.”

For politicians like Hammoud, Aiyash, Tlaib and Omar, electoral success has depended on appealing to voters across racial and religious lines. Tlaib, for example, won a district that was predominantly black and white working class, with only a very small Muslim population. Omar’s constituency, while the most diverse in Minnesota, is still almost two-thirds white.

Their progressive stances, which have put them at the vanguard of the insurgency within the Democratic Party, formed in response to a perceived vacuum of authenticity among the party elite. When Tlaib and Omar arrived in Washington, DC for orientation in mid November 2018, they were soon posting selfies with fellow newcomers like Pressley, the first woman of colour to represent Massachusetts in Congress, and Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

“It’s about class and poverty,” says Aiyash. “If you’re a white person who’s poor, if you’re a Muslim person who’s poor, you’re still someone who’s dealing with lack of access to affordable car insurance, a lack of clean water, lack of good public schools, lack of transportation — something as basic as a safe sidewalk to walk on.” •

Reporting for this story was conducted as part of the Senior Journalists Seminar, an annual program for journalists from the United States, Asia and the Middle East run by the East-West Center, a US non-profit organisation that promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia and the Pacific.