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Muslim political activism increased in last four years

Claire Sadar

President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team has announced that one of his first acts in office will be to reverse the Muslim ban, a travel and immigration restriction that outgoing President Donald Trump implemented via executive order just one week into his term in January 2017. The measure, which all but eliminated the ability of nationals of seven Muslim-majority nations, as well as Syrian refugees, to travel or emigrate to the U.S., was the logical conclusion of a presidential campaign cut through with Islamophobia.

Particularly at the start of Trump’s term, Muslim Americans and their allies were justifiably fearful of the violent and repressive consequences that his presidency would have on their community. However, instead of adopting a lower profile, a significant contingent of American Muslims decided to organize politically and even undertake campaigns for local, state and national office. Many directly attribute their decision to run for office to the Islamophobic rhetoric of Trump and his supporters. In 2016, there were 23 first-time Muslim political candidates who registered to run for office. That number jumped to 79 in 2017, 143 in 2018 and a record 168 in 2020.

Muslim politicians have become increasingly visible nationally, particularly with the election of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to the House of Representatives in 2018. Jetpac, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that was founded in 2015 with the goal of building “a strong American Muslim political infrastructure and increas[ing] our community’s influence and engagement,” created a public service fellowship with the goal of training a new cadre of Muslim candidates on the ins and outs of running for office. When the call for applications went live a few days after President Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, Jetpac was inundated with more than 100 applications in 24 hours.

Despite the interest in and visibility of Muslim political candidates, the majority of their campaigns have not ended with a win. Even defeats create opportunity, however. Mohammed Missouri, the executive director of Jetpac, said that every campaign, win or lose, is essential for pushing the envelope of Muslim political engagement.

“We don’t define success necessarily just by short-term victories. It’s actually getting people on the ballot and running super solid campaigns, essentially building an infrastructure for future people to run. … It’s not just about winning the election, it’s about pushing the issues, so whoever does end up winning actually cares about our community and engages with us. We are one of the most diverse communities in the country and around the world, so literally every policy affects us,” Missouri said.

Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League said, “We’ve moved from just talking about interpersonal Islamophobia … to talking about all of the broad issues that Muslims face.” That includes a wider awareness of and pushback against structural and institutional repression. The Muslim Justice League was formed shortly after the federal Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) effort was introduced as a pilot program in Boston in 2015. Ahmad believes that the public, and particularly progressive organizations, are becoming more receptive to the idea that CVE is harmful rather than helpful, “partially because of the moment we are in, and partially because Muslims have said it again and again.”

Local efforts

In Metro Boston, the two most visible Muslim candidates running for office in the 2020 election cycle were Ihssane Leckey, who was running to be the Democratic candidate for the Massachusetts 4th Congressional District, and Nichole Mossalam, who was running for state representative in the 35th Middlesex District. Both were both ultimately unsuccessful in their bids for office. However, slightly further afield, in Concord, Wakefield and Walpole, three Muslim women were elected to the local school board, town council, and planning board, respectively.

Muslims are not only slowly making inroads in elected office, but in all levels of political participation — from record voter turnouts across the country to positions as advisors and staff members for non-Muslim elected officials and candidates. Afnan Nehela, currently the communications director for state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, was motivated to become involved in politics about a year ago when she heard that there has never been a Muslim elected to the Massachusetts Legislature. She found that there is a lack of diversity in general, not only among elected officials, but among people working at all levels in the Legislature.

“I am seeing more and more how important it is for someone from my community to be involved in this type of work,” Nehela said. “Many times I will be in a meeting or briefing and a question will be asked, and I will be the only one who is able to give feedback based on my experience growing up in America as a Muslim. And if I was not there, that feedback would not be shared. For me, that’s absolutely powerful.”

The election of Joe Biden and the defeat of Trump had many in the Muslim community in particular breathing a sigh of relief. All of the activists we spoke to were interviewed prior to the election, and while none thought that a second Trump administration was equivalent to a Biden victory, they all stressed that no matter what the outcome, their work was far from over.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Massachusetts branch is currently conducting focus groups with local Muslims to see how the last four years have affected them and what kind of issues they would like to see addressed in the next four.

“Whatever happens four, eight, 16 years from now, it will always be the center of my mission within CAIR to ensure that each individual Muslim’s politics and each individual’s desires and freedoms are respected and heard by their government,” Nazia Ashraful, government affairs director for CAIR-MA, said in an interview.

Ahmad of the Muslim Justice League stressed that “Islamophobia, anti-Muslim rhetoric, anti-Muslim policies are a staple of both the Democratic and Republican parties. So regardless of the outcome, we are not going to be surprised if there is more surveillance and more policing. … CVE in particular is something that is appealing to both sides.”

Missouri of Jetpac added, “As far as the work is concerned, our goal has been from day one, and will continue to be, to increase Muslim representation, no matter who wins. The plan will be the same, which is to make sure in our community to increase voter participation and continue to increase it every single year until it is as high as it possibly can be, in all elections. Not just every four years for presidential elections, but actually getting people engaged in the most local of elections.”