The political future of the American Muslim vote seems anchored in the Democratic Party after years of enduring Islamophobia and bigotry from the Republican Party. This year’s election cycle marked the return of American Muslims to national politics after more than a decade of political dormancy. In many ways it has already exceeded the political participation of the 2000 elections, when Muslims formed a sought after voting bloc in support of the Republican, George W. Bush. Led by a new generation that came of age after 9/11, Muslims have shifted their support to the Democratic presidential candidates seeking the outsized voting power of political minorities to help defeat an increasingly white, male and overwhelmingly evangelical Christian Republican party.
It’s not difficult to see what has accounted for this change. The Republican Party has pushed out almost any support it once had among Muslims. Whereas 50,000 Muslims helped deliver George W. Bush enough votes to contest the Florida election results in 2000. As Sami Al-Arian explained for Alternet, Muslims mobilized after Bush promised to end the practice of secret evidence, a pledge he reneged on after 9/11. Today’s Muslim voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, and increasingly leaning towards Bernie Sanders. Along with outright Republican hostility, the changing nature of the national debate over race and the increasing diversification of younger generations of Americans have emboldened American Muslims to be more vocal in their politics and engage with it at a grassroots level.
“A lot of people I talked to about Bernie Sanders, they would say, Bernie who?’” said Ahmed Bedier, founder of United Voices for America, a non-profit, and of the Facebook group Muslim Americans for Bernie Sanders. Bedier has helped with the Sanders campaign in his personal capacity, so as not to violate the political neutrality of UVA. “It wasn’t until May or June that I started paying attention to his message, which is a lot of the things I was working for, that we need a political revolution, that we need more people in the political process, more diversity in government.”
Political organizers like Bedier support Sanders for more reasons than his defense of Muslims. They too share the notion that the economic and political system is rigged to benefit the top 1 percent of society, and they have been motivated by the belief that two or more seemingly unrelated sociopolitical issues exist because they originate from many of the same systemic problems.
While the public has engaged in a well-publicized debate about the effects of the 1994 Violent Crimes Act on the black community, the 1996 Secret Evidence Act harmed the American Muslim community in much the same way. “They would arrest you and say the evidence is so secret and classified that we can’t tell you what it is,” said Bedier. “The Secret Evidence Act disproportionately impacted the Muslim community and we need to bring attention to that because it was used so many times to unjustly put people away.”
“I think younger Muslim voters see themselves in a natural alliance with other communities of color and in alliance with social justice issues,” said Dalia Mogahed, a researcher at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) who worked on a January poll of Muslim political and social attitudes. “For those reasons they identify with Bernie Sanders, they identify with his progressive politics.”
The poll (PDF) showed that among Muslims 18-24 years old, 78 percent supported Sanders. Among the 25-44 demographic, that number decreased to 44 percent support for Sanders. Overall though, Clinton was the most favored candidate, enjoying support levels of 40 percent of American Muslims polled, while Sanders came in second with 27 percent. There have been just three national polls looking at the political and social attitudes of American Muslims during the 2016 election cycle.
“I would say it’s about 85 percent Sanders and the rest Clinton, in the circle of people I know,” said Aisha Yaqoob, an organizer in the Georgia Muslim Voter Project. She said she learned about Sanders while listening to Congressional Dish, a podcast hosted by Jennifer Briney that strictly discussed the fine text of political policy. “I remember she had mentioned something very controversial and she had a clip from Sanders in the podcast and I had never heard of him until that clip and after that I thought I really liked what he said. And he announced about a week later that he was running.”
Yaqoob said she was initially a Clinton supporter but switched to Sanders a few days after he announced his candidacy. Initially attracted to his values, she said that as the campaign continued, his political messaging further reinforced her support. “His messages about equality, minorities being treated equally, reaching out to different communities, all of that put together made me realize Bernie Sanders was the guy I wanted to vote for,” she said.
The question now is whether Sanders can turn grassroots Muslim support for his politics into momentum at the polls. CAIR performed two sets of polls of registered Muslim voters, one before Super Tuesday and one after, to gain insight into the bloc’s voting trends. The polls showed a slight increase of support for Sanders. Prior to Super Tuesday, Clinton commanded 52 percent of the Muslim vote among all presidential candidates, while Sanders received only 22 percent support. The post-Super Tuesday poll showed Sanders’s support rising to 25 percent while Clinton’s support dropped among registered voters to 47 percent. While not as close a race as the ISPU poll presented, there was a marked change among Muslim voters.
“While statistically I cannot say there has been any major shift, it’s hard not to acknowledge the Sanders campaign’s stronger outreach to Muslim voters, his willingness to directly address and be associated with local Muslim leaders and activists in the primary states he is campaigning in,” said Robert McCaw, Department Manager of Government Affairs at CAIR. “It must have some effect, and did change the outcome in Michigan.”
The importance of Michigan to the Sanders campaign could not be overstated. It was his biggest win to date and partly the consequence of wooing Muslim voters. The state is home to the largest population of Arabs, who are majority Muslim, in the country. Dearborn, where Sanders beat Clinton by 20 points, is the largest concentration of Arabs in America. Sanders specifically appealed to the Arab and Muslim population, launching radio ads in Arabic, featuring a campaign poster which included an Arabic translation of his message, “Not me, us” and being the only remaining presidential candidate to speak in a mosque.
“It was so refreshing to see a presidential candidate go to a mosque, and at the point President Obama had never been to a mosque, and he went there and called upon all the other candidates to stop the scapegoating of Muslims. That showed true leadership,” said Bedier, who attended his speech at the Masjid Muhammad in Washington, D.C. in December. “After the San Bernardino incident, we felt this was something that helped change the tone of the rhetoric.”
The greatest challenge, however, will be what comes of the dramatic political shift the Muslim community is currently experiencing in America. Demonized by nearly all the Republican presidential candidates, it is now preparing to mobilize to prevent a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz presidency. But that is only the beginning, according to Wardah Khalid, a Middle East Policy analyst and political organizer.
“Honestly, the president doesn’t matter that much. And a lot of that is because his hands are tied, he’s surrounded by people, there’s lots of political pressure,” she said. “At the end of the day, who is going to stay in power longer? Its members of Congress. So the Muslim American community has a really long way to go and not just focus on the presidential elections.”
She recounted a Muslim county judge in Texas who focused her campaign on other minority communities like Latinos, Tejanos and blacks because Muslim voters weren’t as engaged in the local level elections. Even during the political jockeying that surrounded the Iran deal, ostensibly a political issue that should interest Muslims, she found herself wondering where all the Muslim lobbying groups were.
Nevertheless, the split between Muslim voters over Clinton and Sanders was a hopeful sign for her. “It’s been interesting watching people get divided between Bernie and Hillary,” she said. “People care about issues and they care about policies, they don’t care whether the candidate is male or female or if he’s Jewish or Christian. They care about important issues and I think people in the media and establishment are surprised by that.”