It was just a few months ago that a GOP activist in Minnesota introduced a resolution calling on the Republican Party there to “minimize and eliminate the influence of Islam.”
The resolution contained the typical BS talking points idiots on the right spew, such as Muslims want to destroy America. (Tell that to the 5,000 plus American Muslims currently serving in the U.S. armed services and the families of those Muslims buried in Arlington National Cemetery.) The resolution even seeks to ban Muslim leaders, religious or otherwise, from ever delivering a speech or invocation at a Republican convention or event.
Now before you dismiss this as the rantings of a madman, think again. The Minnesota state GOP chair, Jennifer Carnahan, refused to denounce the resolution when asked about it by the local media because she “did not want to prematurely judge the situation.” And even her statement responding to the resolution seemed to be dog whistle politics saying that the Minnesota GOP welcomes anyone “who shares our values.” Add to that, two GOP Minnesota legislators claimed in January that Muslims were trying to “infiltrate” the Republican Party and one of the current GOP candidates for governor, Phillip Parrish, recently refused to even meet with Minnesota Muslim community leaders saying that “Islam is not a faith.”
I think you get the idea: the Minnesota GOP—just like the Republican party’s national leader Donald Trump—demonize Muslims in the hopes it attracts votes. That’s why it’s truly inspiring that one of the three leading Democratic candidate for Minnesota governor, Rebecca Otto, announced on Monday that her running mate as lieutenant governor would be Muslim American Zarina Baber. If the Otto/Baber ticket wins, Baber will make history as the first Muslim woman in U.S. history ever to hold statewide office.
Just the thought of the Minnesota GOP anti-Muslim bigots freaking out over a Muslim lieutenant governor brings me an inappropriate amount of joy. But Baber is not just a Muslim; she holds many of the traits that Trump has lashed out against. She’s also an immigrant (from India), a woman, and brown. Baber is a quadruple threat to Trump and many in his base.
Baber, though, was not chosen simply because of her faith. She has truly earned her place on the all-female ticket with Otto, the current Minnesota state auditor who first won statewide election to this position in 2007 and has since been reelected to that post twice. Baber began her political activism decades ago by volunteering on the campaign of the late progressive icon, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. For the past 25 years, Baber has worked as an information technology professional and a health care advocate. She established a free health clinic that has been operating for over 20 years, sits on the board of the nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights and is a founding member of the National Democratic Muslim caucus. When does she sleep?!
In announcing Baber as her running mate Monday, Otto explained that Baber’s background is perfect to help tackle one of the top issues she is campaigning on: Implementing a single-payer healthcare system in the North Star state.
But there’s clearly another reason why Otto chose Baber. In Minnesota, the Muslim community is growing in political strength. Estimates are that Muslims make up over 200,000 of Minnesota’s five million residents. And in the past few years the community has become far more politically engaged, much of it in response to the type of the anti-Muslim hate that Minnesota’s GOP and Trump have spewed.
There has been an effort for years to organize the Minnesota Muslim community, after all the first Muslim American to ever be elected to the U.S. Congress is Keith Ellison who hails from the state. And I’ve personally been to Minnesota various times in the past for events where Muslim leaders urged members of the community to register to vote.
But it was the open bigotry of Trump together with his Muslim ban that made it clear to all in the Muslim community that the stakes were too high to simply sit by idly. That’s why in the midst of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, various Muslim organizations united in Minnesota to launch an “unprecedented mobilization effort” to not only register Muslim American to vote, but to encourage them to get involved in politics and even run for office. And in November 2016, history was made with the election of Ihlan Omar to the Minnesota state legislature, the first Somalia Muslim refugee to ever be elected to that position in the United States.
That’s why when Baber was announced as Otto’s running mate you saw her flanked by Muslims on stage. And while Baber doesn’t wear a hijab (the simple head covering), another Muslim woman on stage standing directly behind Baber during the announcement by Otto was. That might not seem like a big deal, but back in 2008 then candidate Barack Obama’s presidential campaign staff removed two women wearing hijabs from standing directly behind Obama during a rally because they apparently had concerns about them being featured in press photos. (An Obama campaign spokesperson apologized later that day for the incident.)
What we are seeing in Minnesota with the Muslims community is simply the story of America on display. Minority groups that have been demonized in the past to score political points—be they Black, Jewish, LGBT, Latino, etc.—have found that engaging in politics can be an effective way to push back against the hate. It makes politicians aware that there are political benefits to appealing to these minority communities. And in turn, it sends a message to the politicians spewing hate that they will suffer electorally.
If Baber wins that won’t end anti-Muslim bigotry in America or even in Minnesota. But it will be a big step in the right direction for the American Muslim community as we—like other minority groups that came before us—hopefully begin a new chapter in our American story.