This Labor Day weekend, the largest gathering of Muslim Americans in the country will take place in Houston, Texas, at the annual Islamic Center of North America (ISNA) convention. Past conventions have attracted several thousand to north of 10,000 attendees. But this year’s may be the biggest turnout yet—with well-known special guests like Daily Show host Trevor Noah (no, he isn’t Muslim—at least not yet!).
There’s even a Trump administration official scheduled to appear on a panel celebrating interfaith initiatives—Sam Brownback, the former GOP governor of Kansas who now serves as the U.S ambassador for international religious freedom. But frustratingly missing will be all but two of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
Now this is the first time ISNA, which is not partisan, ever tried to organize a presidential forum. And it did so with the help of a well-connected activist, Wael Alzayat, a former Obama State Department official who is CEO of Emgage, an organization that seeks to increase Muslim American activism in U.S. politics.
As Alzayat explained, a few months ago, the conference organizers invited the top 10 Democratic candidates per polls at the time. However, only two agreed to attend: Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro. While Alzayat is “thrilled” Sanders and Castro are attending, he expressed disappointment that others were not going to make time to address the group.
These two candidates attending the ISNA convention is a big step forward, especially given that in the past some Democrats rejected campaign donations from Muslim Americans, and at a 2008 Obama campaign event, two women wearing hijabs were removed from sitting behind the podium in view of cameras. (The Obama campaign publicly apologized.)
And in late 2018, Speaker Nancy Pelosi even dismissed the views of the two Muslim American women who had just been elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, by telling a pro-Israel group funded in large part by Sheldon Adelson not to pay “attention to a few people who may want to go their own way.”
Sanders has long been beloved by many in the Muslim community. Indeed, the Muslim and Arab communities were credited with playing a big role in his 2016 primary victory in Michigan over Hillary Clinton.
And Castro’s reason for attending, as explained to me by Liza Acevedo, his deputy press secretary, captures a sentiment that resonates with many in the community: “At a time when our president continually scapegoats and vilifies the Islamic faith for political gain, candidates should show up and speak directly to these communities about their plans to support them in the years ahead.”
Trump has made demonizing the Muslim community one of his go-to moves. In the 2016 campaign, he ratcheted up hate (and hate crimes) with his many bigoted comments. And since in office, he imposed his mini-Muslim ban, which has caused great hardships to people from countries like Yemen. Heading into 2020, he has made demonizing Tlaib and Omar a cornerstone of his campaign. Trump’s call to “send them back” is something just about every Muslim American has heard from bigots, even those born here like me.
And Trump’s smear that Tlaib and Omar as American Muslims hate “all” Jews is a despicable lie designed to divide the Jewish and Muslim communities that have seen, in the time of Trump, an increased amount of interfaith relationships. For those reasons alone, the 2020 Democrats should have been at ISNA to make it clear to the Muslim community and the country that they stand with us against Trump’s bigotry.
Add to that, Muslims are increasingly becoming a part of the Democratic Party. In 2016, 76 percent of Muslims voted Democratic, the highest percentage of any faith group. There are now the most Muslims ever, three, serving in Congress, and they are all Democrats.
Plus in recent years a countless number of Muslim Americans have won elections as Democrats from town councils to the first statewide Muslim officeholder with the 2018 election of Keith Ellison as the Minnesota attorney general.
But there’s another hardball political reason these Democrats should be there: It could help them win key early primary states. There are delegate-rich states holding primaries in early and mid-March that boast sizable Muslim populations, such as Michigan, Virginia, Ohio, California, Illinois, and Texas.
Beyond that, there are even growing Muslim populations in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Did you know the very first mosque ever built in America was in Iowa?!) In fact, as Pew notes, the Muslim population is growing nationwide and by 2040 is expected to be the second largest faith group in the country, behind Christians and moving ahead of Jews.
And something lost on many is that the biggest component of Muslims in America are African-Americans, with estimates ranging that they represent anywhere from 20 percent to one third of the total community. Consequently, in the early primary state of South Carolina, where 60 percent of the Democratic electorate is black, the Muslim population there could play a key role in a close primary battle.
How does this change so that the Democratic candidates and party leadership embrace our community further? Alzayat’s prescription is more participation by Muslim Americans in all areas of politics, from voting to volunteering on campaigns to raising funds to running for office.
If the Democratic Party leaders and 2020 candidates continue to ignore the Muslim vote, they could find that post-Trump, the GOP might make inroads in our community. We could very well see successful Muslims doctors, engineers, and business people choose the GOP’s platform of lower taxes over a political party that takes them for granted.