By Wajahat Ali
30 October 2018
For some Americans — those who support a travel ban, a wall along the Mexican border and increased restrictions on refugees, all while holding on to the ridiculous belief that the world’s 1.8 billion Muslim hate America, despite the fact that it’s home to nearly 3.5 million of us — that statement probably inspires fear.
But it’s true: Nearly 100 Muslim political hopefuls have filed to run for elected office this year. Only a dozen or so ran in 2016.
In July, The Associated Press interviewed Muslim candidates about this record number. The reporting revealed that it’s precisely the bigotry and hate that has been directed toward Islam — including in remarks and tweets by President Trump — that has motivated so many Muslims to enter the political arena, where they now stand poised to advance policies that directly reflect their faith and also benefit all of their constituents.
Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, a former state representative and a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, would be the nation’s first Muslim woman in Congress. Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American and refugee from Kenya, is predicted to win in November, replacing Representative Keith Ellison in Minnesota.
A majority of Muslim candidates are not running with their religion on their sleeves, but instead as Democrats promoting unabashedly progressive platforms.
“It is important that people recognize I am someone who is a public servant working to create a better society, who just happens to be a Muslim refugee,” Ms. Omar told me in a phone interview. While she represents a district that is mostly Christian and white, she believes her constituents don’t care about her religion or identity as much as they do about whether she’ll champion their causes in Washington.
These Muslim political veterans and upstarts certainly aren’t the first to demonstrate that deeply held religious beliefs can inspire a commitment to social justice. But at a time when the hypocrisy of many who claim to represent the Christian religious right is especially glaring, they provide the latest reminder that being devout doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — go hand in hand with attacks on women, minorities and poor people.
“It’s not about just being out there and flaunting your faith,” Ms. Tlaib told CNN in an August interview. “I always tell people that I’m exposing Islam in such a pivotal way, an impactful way, through public service.” Ms. Omar beat her closest Democratic rival by more than 20,000 votes while calling for the cancelling of student debt, raising the minimum wage and increasing the number of refugees admitted to this country.
“It is part of my Islamic teaching to make sure we are charitable,” Ms. Omar told me. “A huge part of the Islamic faith is that you can’t sleep with a full belly if your neighbours and those around you aren’t sleeping with a full belly.”
Abdul El-Sayed — who recently lost his race for the Michigan governor’s nomination but started a PAC to support liberal candidates — echoed the sentiment. Dr. El-Sayed calls himself “openly, honestly and unapologetically Muslim” and told me he believes “privilege begets responsibility.” That Islamic value informs his progressive politics.
Nonetheless, both Ms. Omar and Dr. El-Sayed said critics have tried to use their religion against them. “Islamophobia comes with the territory,” Dr. El-Sayed said. They’ve each been hounded by the far-right activist Laura Loomer, who has been traveling the country “investigating” Muslim candidates running for office. This includes disrupting their talks and asking whether they support Hamas.
Ms. Omar refuses to be intimidated. “We say what we want to say,” she said. “They cannot continue to instill fear in us and stop us from achieving critical conversations.”
Unfortunately, many Christian Republican voters are still encouraged to fear Muslims. “Running on Hate 2018,” a report by the nonprofit organization Muslim Advocates, examined 80 campaigns using anti-Muslim messages leading up to the midterm elections and found that almost all of the candidates engaged in these tactics are Republican. The evangelical leader Franklin Graham has said Islam is an “evil” religion. After Dr. El-Sayed lost his race, a message appeared on the Twitter page of Corey Stewart, a Republican Senate candidate from Virginia, that read, “Michigan almost elected a far left ISIS commie.” It was quickly deleted and Mr. Stewart said that it was sent by someone with access to his account. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who has been indicted on a charge of campaign finance violations, said his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, was a national security risk because of his Palestinian Muslim roots and because his grandfather was involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack. (Mr. Campa-Najjar is a Christian and his grandfather died 16 years before he was born, but who needs facts? Certainly not President Trump, who warned last week, without any proof, that “unknown Middle Easterns” were among the “caravan” of Central American migrants walking toward the United States to seek asylum.)
These are reminiscent of the attitudes behind the anti-Catholic hazing of the 1950s that forced John Kennedy to assuage fears that he was “not the Catholic candidate for president” but instead the “Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.” But Kennedy won the presidency, and now a quarter of United States senators and six Supreme Court justices are Catholic.
Hana Ali, seeking a seat in the Tennessee legislature, is taking a cue from President Kennedy. She told me she’s running as a Democrat, a proud Tennessean and an American who also happens to be Muslim.
In Tennessee, she has seen firsthand the damage of the opioid crisis and the dire consequences of her state’s failure to expand Medicaid. She doesn’t have the built-in progressive network of a liberal Detroit or New York or the luxury to ignore Trump supporters. Instead, Dr. Ali, a physician, health care executive and proud immigrant, is knocking on doors trying to win voters over with a Democratic platform, one smile and hug at a time.
Win or lose, she told me, she wants her campaign to inspire her children and the next generation. “If this woman who lives in the middle of Tennessee can run for office as a Democratic candidate, then it opens up a lot of doors for a lot of Muslim women, future generations and communities who are watching from a distance,” she said.
Muslims are here, they’re running for office, and a few are going to Washington, where they’ll do something many members of Congress have failed to do for a long time: serve God by serving people.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, lawyer and contributing opinion writer.