By Darakshan Raja
“Politicians did not create the record-breaking voter turnout, it was Black and Brown organizers.”
– Lela Ali, Director of Policy and Programming with Muslim Women For (MWF).
MWF organized tens of thousands of Muslim voters in the South, specifically North Carolina.
The 2020 national election offers a historic moment for celebrating the power of Black, Brown, Indigenous, youth, and working-class organizers who mobilized their communities into a formidable political voting bloc that was able to defeat President Trump at the polls. Despite the backdrop of a pandemic, as well as voter suppression and intimidation tactics, a staggering 148 million Americans cast their vote in the 2020 presidential elections. According to the Associated Press, President-Elect Joe Biden received more than 75 million votes – the highest number of votes any presidential candidate has ever received.
While the election was still far closer than many Americans hoped it would be, several political constituencies that are historically overlooked played an integral role in turning out in record numbers to swing the vote against Trump. One of these is the Muslim voting bloc.
With a historic Muslim voter turnout in 2020 and an enormous organizing effort by Muslim organizations to get out the vote, it is critical to document the role of the Muslim vote in this election during a time of heightened structural Islamophobia and voter intimidation and suppression. Here I discuss how Muslim organizations and communities invested in electoral organizing for the 2020 presidential elections and created impact at the local level. This investment supported a historic number of Muslim candidates who ran for and won political office. I also offer suggestions on how this electoral organizing infrastructure can be deployed for building Muslim political and grassroots power in the country moving forward.
However, real challenges remain in the form of structural Islamophobia, War on Terror policies, a return to neoliberal leadership under Biden, and the possible resurgence of a strengthened Trumpism that heavily deploys Islamophobia, national security, and xenophobia to whip up its base.
We now know that the Muslim vote played a critical role in defeating Trump. While Muslims are a small minority in the United States (less than 1 percent of the population), Muslim-Americans are a critical voting bloc within key swing states across the country and contribute to the demographic shifts that are turning hardline Red states Purple and Blue.
While data on Muslim communities must always be taken with a grain of salt (accurate data is difficult to gather, not least due to fears of being surveilled, and data based on self-reporting has its own limitations), we know that Muslim voters turned out in historic numbers in the 2020 presidential elections. According to the Council of American Islamic Relations’ exit poll, 84% of Muslim-Americans voted in this election, or a little over 1 million people. Sixty-nine percent voted for Joe Biden and 17 percent voted for Trump. AP’s 2020 election exit polls found that, among all faith groups, Jewish and Muslim faith-based communities voted in the highest numbers for Biden.
It is important to underscore that this record turnout of Muslim voters took place during the backdrop of a pandemic, a rise in hate violence, and an Administration that passed numerous anti-Muslim policies like the Muslim Ban. In 2016, an estimated 400,000 Muslims had voted in the general election. In 2020, more than twice as many voted.
It is clear that Trump’s policies and rising Islamophobia has contributed to the politicization of Muslim communities and increased Muslim political participation. However, we must not discount another critical factor: Muslim community investment in civic engagement and electoral organizing infrastructure in the past four years.
Civic Engagement Infrastructure and Campaigns
For the 2020 primaries and the presidential election, Muslim civic engagement organizations invested heavily in getting the Muslim vote out through both nonpartisan (C3) civic engagement efforts and partisan efforts on behalf of a candidate. Emgage, MPower Change, CAIR National, and other groups anchored the national One Million Muslim Votes Campaign. The My Muslim Vote Campaign, led by MPower Change, has been mobilizing voters across the country through in-language voter outreach and education for years.
In local communities, Muslim organizers who have been at the forefront of responding to assaults by the Trump administration ran robust Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns and turned out the vote across the country, including in key swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Even in states that eventually went to Trump (Texas, Florida, and Tennessee, for example), it is important to note the electoral organizing efforts of Muslim organizers.
This work was supported by Muslim community donors, as well as funder collaboratives like the RISE Together Fund. In my conversations with organizers, some noted that they saw an increase in individual Muslim donors for GOTV efforts, and an increase in engagement among Muslims who had never previously engaged as donors or active volunteers in civic engagement campaigns.
Moreover, there was mentorship available for newer Muslim organizers who had no experience in running campaigns. For example, leaders like Reema Ahmad with the Movement Voter Project and an expert in GOTV efforts, alongside key funders, supported Muslim grassroots efforts for electoral organizing. The investment by Muslim communities in this GOTV infrastructure alongside movement funders is important to highlight.
The following examples offer a snapshot of some local electoral organizing efforts: Justice For Muslims Collective (JMC), a grassroots power-building organization that is led mainly by Muslim women and works to dismantle structural Islamophobia in DC, Virginia, and Maryland, led a GOTV campaign to call almost 90,000 Muslim, Arab, and South Asian voters. As a small grassroots group, JMC utilized this GOTV opportunity to engage low-propensity working-class voters in order to learn more about the issues that matter to them, and specifically engage Muslim youth in these efforts. Unsurprisingly, issues such as Islamophobia, racism, responses to COVID19, government surveillance, police accountability, and healthcare were the key issues that Muslim voters in Virginia wanted the President to address.
Muslim Women For, a Black and Brown Muslim women-led grassroots organization that builds power in the South, engaged in a robust GOTV campaign to reach 18,000 Muslim voters with texting campaigns, calls and worked with 19 local mosques in North Carolina, which contributed to a record-breaking turnout of more than 75% of the Muslim vote in the state. Over 33,000 Muslims voted in North Carolina. The presence of groups like this, and a strong Muslim voting bloc, contributed to a major win: in November, Nida Aziz Allam joined the Durham County Board of Commissioners as the first Muslim woman to win any position in public office in North Carolina.
In Georgia, the Georgia Muslim Voter Project works to register new voters and educate Georgia Muslims about civic engagement. According to their website, since the group’s founding in 2015, they have registered 2000 new voters, made 22,000 phone calls, knocked on over 1000 doors, worked with 50 different mosques and planned a 2020 election GOTV campaign to send 60,000 texts. As the entire country looks to Georgia’s runoff senate elections in January 2021, which will determine control of the Senate, Muslim voters in Georgia are an important voting constituency.
In Wisconsin, Muslim communities played a key role in moving the state Blue, and in Pennsylvania, the long-history of power built by African-American Muslims was absolutely critical in doing the same. In Minnesota, Rep. Ilhan Omar was re-elected in a landslide victory. The civic engagement infrastructure that she built alongside the powerful Somali Muslim community in the state helped mobilize voters against Trump in Minnesota.
It’s also important to give credit to the Arab-American organizers that worked extremely hard to get out the vote in Michigan. In 2016, Michigan was one of the swing states that helped Trump win the election. The canvassing and civic engagement infrastructure that helped re-elect Rep. Rashida Tlaib, as well as her own canvassing for Biden, helped contribute to Biden’s win in Michigan in 2020. Tlaib received 220,000 votes herself, winning by a landslide victory.
Any mention of efforts to mobilize the Muslim-American vote must include work to fight voter suppression efforts and the rights of Muslim prisoners. Pillars of the Community is a faith-based criminal justice advocacy group led by Black Muslims in Southeast San Diego that works with incarcerated individuals in California who are eligible to vote. This work is critical to ensure incarcerated community members aren’t left behind as the local ballot often includes important propositions on issues like expansion of jails, voting for prosecutors, and getting rid of voter disenfranchisement for returning citizens from prisons.
These are just a few of the many initiatives across the country led by Black and Brown Muslim communities.
Muslim-American Local and State Electoral Power
The maturation of Muslim civic engagement campaigns can be seen most clearly at the local and state level. Jetpac, an organization that seeks to build a stronger American Muslim political infrastructure and increase the Muslim community’s influence and engagement partnered with CAIR and MPower to track Muslims who ran for office.
According to their joint report, a record 168 Muslims were on the 2020 ballot across 28 states and Washington, DC, and 60 were elected to public office. Forty-seven Muslim candidates ran at the state-level and won seats, with at least six who made history as the first-ever Muslims to have been elected to a state office in that particular state. The same report noted that Muslim-Americans were running in high numbers in the following states: Minnesota (27 candidates), California (22 candidates), New Jersey (22 candidates), Michigan (19 candidates), and Massachusetts (9 candidates).
A few of the wins are notable because of the progressive politics they represent: in Michigan, Abraham Aiyash, formerly training and political leadership director of Michigan United and a Bernie Sanders surrogate in 2020, won in the state House. Mauree Turner, who identifies as non-binary and Black, won an election for the state House in Oklahoma. In New York, Zohran Mamdani, a self-identified Democratic Socialist, won on a progressive platform and will serve in the New York Assembly. Many Black and Brown Muslim women also won positions across the country.
These wins cannot be overlooked. Indeed, they point to the power of building local civic engagement and electoral organizing power to successfully run and elect candidates who are attuned to local needs and who, rather than parachuting in, are embedded in the fabric of their communities. This offers us a direction for how local and state power built by disparate Muslim communities in partnership with local communities who are aligned around a progressive political agenda can support the creation of a national political vision. It also offers a snapshot of the many issues prioritized by different voting-blocs within Muslim-American communities across race, gender, class, geography and other identities.
Challenges to the power of the Muslim vote
Muslim communities still face formidable challenges around truly actualizing the power of the Muslim vote. The first includes the inaccessibility of voting for many in our communities. Mahnoor Hussain, Civic Engagement Fellow for Justice For Muslims Collective found in her electoral organizing efforts that more state resources must be invested in language and disability accessible voting tools to help bilingual and disabled voters navigate online registration systems, voting by mail applications, and early voting information. In particular, working-class Muslim voters, with limited access to smartphones and broadband internet, had difficulty receiving their ballot information.
Voter suppression and intimidation efforts against Muslim voters and the targeting of Muslims running for office are another concern for our communities. Because white supremacist hate groups have particularly targeted Muslim communities, especially Muslim women, many community members were concerned about anti-Muslim hate violence at the polls.
Moreover, right-wing groups regularly target Muslim candidates with disinformation campaigns that place the lives of Muslims running for office at risk. A well-known example is Rep. Ilhan Omar, who is often targeted by conservative activists, and most recently with public and false accusations of voter fraud. Others are less publicized. In one instance, Qasim Rashid who ran for state senate in VA, received lynching threats and had someone fire bullets at one of his campaign signs.
One of the leading challenges for Muslim communities in realizing the full power of our vote is the limits of electoral organizing and civic engagement campaigns organized around a religious identity that do not also include a clear, accessible, and cohesive articulation of political values and red lines, as well as a liberatory political vision that emerges from deep engagement across all Muslim-American communities. In my experience as an organizer, it is undeniable that many individual Muslims wish to see the struggle for justice and a liberatory world as integral to their religious identity.
However, as a religious community, we are still developing the capacity to translate contemporary struggles for justice into religiously grounded language, and as a political bloc, we lack a clear direction on what it means to practice this religious commitment as a political action. For example, how do we articulate a specifically Muslim responsibility to take political action to address oppressive policies around climate justice, economic justice, gender justice, workers’ rights, an end to wars, police brutality, mass incarceration, and other systems of oppression?
Furthermore, in building a liberatory Muslim political vision, we must begin by engaging the margins of the Muslim community. Muslim-Americans who don’t have citizenship or have been stripped off their right to vote due to incarceration are all key constituencies that must be engaged given the intense forms of state violence and exclusion inflicted upon their bodies. If the political vision for Muslim-Americans is built by the most privileged classes of our communities, it will by design sacrifice the rights of those most excluded and marginalized, and be short-lived.
Finally, in order for Muslim political power to be used effectively, more infrastructure is needed to engage Muslim voters around the year and outside of election cycles. Voting in candidates and making demands is the first step, but the follow-up work is critical. This includes using a diverse array of tactics to hold elected representatives accountable.
This work also requires Muslim-Americans to build intra-community solidarity and strategic alliances across groups. The systems that are harming Muslim-American communities have been and are being weaponized against other, often intersecting, communities. Finding linkages and identifying common strategic goals helps build local infrastructure and community-defense practices.
Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and Organizing the Muslim Vote
During the 2018 and 2020 elections, many Muslim civic engagement groups noted that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Trump Administration were reasons for Muslims to vote. Biden also appealed to the Muslim vote with a promise to fight Islamophobia.
It is true that the intensification of Islamophobia under the Trump Administration has played a key role in politicizing many Muslims. However, it is equally evident from the issue areas and narrative of Joe Biden’s Agenda for Muslim-American communities that the framework of Islamophobia isn’t expansive enough to name or include the broader War on Terror policies that have been institutionalized by the Democratic party as much as by the Republicans.
While the current Biden agenda for Muslim-Americans includes important issues for the community, there are serious omissions, especially around the War on Terror, that raise concerns about the compromises Muslim-Americans may be making to support the President-Elect, and whose lives are being bartered globally to build Muslim political power.
For example, the Biden agenda does not mention the repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the legal cover for the US government to bomb and drone any country in any part of the world under the War on Terror. It does not mention the PATRIOT Act, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, or ending the expansion of drone warfare and surveillance. Even though the repeal of the Muslim Ban is included as a demand, it is positioned as a religious freedom issue and as an aberration from American democratic values, rather than a policy that is part and parcel of the War on Terror, and an inheritor of many other such racist and xenophobic policies in American history.
What is missing in Biden’s agenda for Muslim-American communities points to the issues that aren’t even up for debate. These compromises have an unbearable cost for Muslim-Americans and, more broadly, Muslims domestically and around the world who bear the brunt of US foreign policy in the War on Terror.
This leads us to one of the key challenges and limits to Muslim voting power. In the end, the largest turnout of Muslim voters showed up for a candidate who didn’t even mention the global War on Terror in his agenda for Muslim-American communities. With the exception of a few stand-alone policies, there was no demand to seek justice or accountability for, or indeed the abolition of the War on Terror. While the War on Terror isn’t the only set of policies or issues that are important to Muslim communities, the expansion of this criminalization apparatus and the structural Islamophobia that undergirds it has resulted in the dehumanization of Muslim-American communities and has given our government the justification to expand militarization at home and abroad.
When millions of Muslim voters are being mobilized and asked to vote for candidates who are part of a broader government apparatus directly responsible for violence that has killed and uprooted millions of Muslims on a global scale, and led to the militarization of American cities and neighborhoods, should we not be able to place demands on the architects of this violence? If not, then we must question the power of our Muslim vote.
We have seen a powerful build-up of Muslim electoral power in 2020. We have also seen the limits of this power. There is immense potential for using the infrastructure that has been developed to mobilize Muslim communities into local political and organizing efforts. The models that are being built at the local level can shape a more robust and liberatory national vision of Muslim civic engagement without sacrificing the unique issue-priorities and demands of local Muslim communities.
Moreover, these same local campaigns are working to build intra-community solidarity and solidarity across communities targeted by white supremacist violence. We must take heed, though: the wins in this election cycle will also produce backlash. As we move forward, supporters of President Trump will remain a formidable political force and will use Islamophobia to target and scapegoat Muslim communities to whip up their base. Muslim communities in swing states and red states will be particularly vulnerable to increased targeting.
This will take place as the War on Terror continues to expand under President-Elect Biden. The current list of Biden nominees already points to a return of neoliberal leadership, and many individuals who previously led the expansion of drones and immigration enforcement are being named to his cabinet.
With Biden promising to end the Muslim and African Ban in his first 100 days of office, many Liberals will point to this as proof that Islamophobia is dead. Racial and ethnic diversity in Biden’s government will be used to pacify and silence progressive movements with the false idea that representation equals liberation.
In this environment, it will be even more important to support radical power-building efforts in Muslim communities and beyond, including the development of a more radical Muslim voting bloc that isn’t easily pacified or co-opted by political window dressing.
(This article expresses the views of the author, and not Justice for Muslims Collective.)
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Darakshan Raja is the co-Director of Justice For Muslims Collective, a grassroots organization that works to dismantle structural Islamophobia in the Greater Washington region. At JMC, Darakshan leads the organization’s power-building and civic engagement efforts. She co-led JMC’s Civic Engagement Campaign this year on get out the count for the Census and GOTV efforts.