These Candidates Are Courting the Muslim Vote

There actually are a few places in America where pols court the Arab American vote. It’s nice, but it hasn’t translated into real power.

10.15.14 9:45 AM ET

Typically news stories about American politicians and the Muslim community run along the lines of: “Republican Official Demonizes Muslims.”   For example, recently we were treated to Oklahoma Republican State representative John Bennett calling Muslim Americans a “cancer” that must be cut of America. 

And over the last few years we have seen Republican officials fan the flames of hate toward Muslims by championing anti-sharia legislation. Of course, even the proponents of these laws admitted there were no instances of Muslims trying to impose Islamic law. But hey, why let facts get in the way of good ole demonization of a minority group for political gain?! 

So it may come as a shock to some—and really freak out others on the right—to discover that in various places across the United States, politicians are actually courting support from the Muslim community in terms of both votes and money.  And the kicker is—some of the candidates are even Republicans.

This is actually not a surprise to me.  Over the past few years I have witnessed a change in the way elected officials have approached the Muslim community.  A few years ago, Muslim organizations were lucky to have a representative from the local mayor’s office attend a dinner.  Now these events are attended by not just the mayor, but also numerous elected officials including members of Congress.

And now the Muslim community is actually seeing politicians actively pursue their support in places where there’s a sizable Muslim population. For example, in Michigan, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer, who is in a tight race against GOP Governor Rick Snyder, will be holding a campaign event Thursday at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.  (Just so it’s clear, Arab and Muslim don’t mean the same thing. Muslim refers to religion while Arab is an ethnicity and in fact more than 60 percent of Arab Americans are Christians.  But there is an overlap on many key issues of concern.)

Jim Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, shared with me the evolution of the way Arabs and Muslims have been treated by politicians in Michigan. In 1985, the mayor of Dearborn distributed fliers about the growing “Arab problem.”  Then, there were only about 750 Arab American registered to vote.

Flash forward to 2014. Now there are more than 14,000 registered Arab and Muslim American voters. Consequently, politicians actively seek the community’s support, and the newly elected president of the Dearborn City Council, Susan Dabaja, is Arab American.

We are seeing a similar development in Brooklyn, New York, home to more than 35,000 Arabs and Muslims.  As Linda Sarsour, President of the Muslim Democratic Club of Brooklyn explained, during the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary contest, every major Democratic candidate appeared at their candidates' night.

Sarsour noted that Republicans have also attended the Brooklyn Muslim community’s events.  Adding that even if they don’t agree on the issue, because the community is so large, “We never hear Republicans in New York spewing the same type of anti-Muslim rhetoric we see from others in the GOP.”

The same can be found in Virginia, again a state with a large Arab and Muslim community.  There, the GOP's U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie tweeted out a photo in July at a Muslim event wishing the Muslim community a happy Eid. 

And in contrast to Oklahoma, where Bennett’s hateful comments about Muslims were actually backed up the state GOP chair, when a Virginia state Republican official made anti-Muslim remarks in August, he resigned after being pressured by fellow Republicans. 

But it’s not population growth alone. It’s about the community finally understanding that politicians will respond if you can offer votes and money. One group that has truly been effective in organizing the community on this front is the Florida-based Emerge USA. This grassroots organization came into its own in 2012 when it was instrumental in turning out voters and raising money to defeat GOP Rep. Allen West, one of the worst anti-Muslim members of Congress.

Laila Abdelaziz, Emerge’s Tampa Bay coordinator, explained to me that after the success of defeating West, more candidates have sought out Emerge’s support. She noted that electing candidates is not the only goal; ultimately it’s changing policy.

That is the true challenge.  One Muslim American leader who wanted to remain nameless expressed his concern with the Muslims he refers to as  “photo-op Uncles.”  These are Muslims who are simply happy to get a photo with a politician but won’t press them to make changes on policies of concern to the community, such as when the NYPD was spying on the New York Muslim population, or questions pertaining to the Middle East.

And what of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Many Arab Americans don’t feel a need for candidates to pass a litmus test on the issue, even those running for federal office.  There’s a grasp in our community that we lack the influence to counter the pro-Israel lobby, which extends beyond AIPAC and includes the also powerful Christian right. While for others, the issues most concerning are not thousands of miles away but right here in the United States, such as jobs and health care.

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To be honest, when you peel away the Middle East conflict, our concerns are very much akin to most other minority groups’.  It’s about countering bigotry and discrimination, ensuring that we have the same as opportunities as others to secure jobs and education, which explains why groups like Emerge, CAIR, AAI often team up with the NAACP and ACLU.

And like other minority groups, we have liberals and conservatives.  That is why I’m dumbfounded by why the GOP would demonize Arabs and Muslims to the extent we see. Prior to 9/11, there were many Arabs and Muslims who identified as Republicans, in part on social issues and because many are financially well off. But in recent years we have seen few Arabs or Muslims become active in the GOP because of the drumbeat of anti-Muslim bigotry.

At this point we’ve evolved from being shut out of the political process, to now having a kid’s seat at the table because politicians want our money and votes. But if we ever want more, then we will have to follow the model of other minority groups and demand it or elect more from our own community to positions of power.