The 2012 election was a victory for Muslim Americans in the sense that 85 percent of Muslims voted for the winner, President Barack Obama. However, this election also revealed that although Muslims are voting, they are not organized to the degree in which their own issues reach a level of national prominence. Muslim Americans haven’t reached the point where they can advocate for policies that benefit themselves.
This year, minority groups went to the polls and made a difference. Efforts from the Obama campaign markedly reached out to Latinos and women. National organizing efforts brought together Asian Americans politically through groups such as APIAVote. The African American community stood behind the president in his re-election bid as Black leaders spoke up and organized.
Yet the Muslim community fell behind. The challenges go beyond external anti-Muslim sentiment that can be seen in political rhetoric, hate crimes and media biases. There are immense hurdles within the community itself that Muslims need to overcome in order to become an influential political entity in this country.
The 2012 cycle did yield the re-election of Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim American congressman. But there were no new elected officials with a Muslim heritage on either national, state or local levels. The lack of participation from the community and the lack of new elected officials demonstrate a cynicism that many within the Muslim community feel towards the electoral process.
“There is also a lot of hesitancy in our community, that the politicians will come, take their money and vote and leave,” said Imran Siddique, a board member at Emerge, a non-profit that organizes Muslims in Florida.
Mohammed Hameeduddin, the mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey, believes many elected officials do not take the Muslim community seriously, which feeds the pervasive cynicism.
“A lot of Muslim organizing is unfortunately about photo ops, instead of doing the work we really need,” Hameeduddin said. “Politicians usually only meet with a Muslim leader, not with the community itself.”
Hameeduddin gives the example of celebratory Eid dinners, where officials drop by, get ushered in by Muslim leaders, speak for 5 minutes, and then promptly leave. This façade gives Muslims some exposure to the candidates, but not enough to push elected officials to make policy decisions and stances on behalf of Muslim American interests.
But the responsibility doesn’t just fall on Muslim leaders or public officials. Zeba Iqbal, who spearheaded the “Election 2012-American Muslims VOTE!” campaign, points to the need for self-determination, and the myriad of internal issues that plague Muslim political organizing. One issue is lack of data regarding community involvement.
“We don’t track our funding or the hours that we volunteer,” Iqbal said. “Our finances are very fragmented. We should be more conversant with data. We don’t know our own statistics about our own community. For example, is our population 2 million or 2.5 million? We don’t even have that data."
A wider problem is the community’s fixation on overseas issues, rather than domestic policy concerns.
“We haven’t carved a niche in our political sphere about the environment or economic issues,” Hameeduddin, Teaneck’s mayor, said. “Instead, oftentimes the community is focusing mostly on what is happening in the Middle East. Guantanamo Bay may be important, but it does nothing really in terms of our everyday living.”
Aziz Poonawalla, a news and political blogger at Patheos.com, agrees. He points out that for some Muslim Americans, the idea of democracy is a foreign concept, one that was not the predominant political ideology back in their home countries.
“We sometimes have these illusions that we are apart or separate from the rest of society,” Poonawalla said. “We are affected by domestic issues just like everyone else so we have to be involved, be part of the process."
Yet as Muslim Americans become increasingly a part of the fabric of American society, the "us versus them” mentality must come down. It has to come down among Muslims, as well as among Americans who see Muslims with fear and misunderstanding.
The empowerment of the Muslim community depends on investments of time and resources, and that includes cultivating relationships with their elected officials from both sides of the aisle, Democrat and Republican.
“Maintaining bi-partisanship is important in the long run,” Siddique, of Florida-based Emerge, said, “We don’t want the community to be exclusively with one party, because once you become (identified with) one party, your vote can get taken for granted.”
Only with such investments can Muslims wield strategic influence over the outcome of elections, especially to get anti-Muslim officials voted out of office.
“We also need to make sure they know that if you make xenophobic statements about us, we will run you out,” Hameeduddin said.
In 2012, Muslim Americans did celebrate one key victory that was brought about by the community's involvement. Florida Congressman Allen West, who gained attention for expounding Islamaphobic rhetoric, lost his seat by less than 2,000 votes. Emerge, a non-profit group that works in civic engagement for the Muslim community in Florida, organized Muslims to stand behind West’s opponent, Patrick Murphy, through volunteering, donating money and getting out the vote. The group’s model could serve as a blueprint for races in other parts of the country.
“We put a lot of time into that race and it wasn’t just about raising money,” Siddique said. “It was about knocking on doors, coordinated with people around the country to also hold fundraisers, and he ended up winning.”
Emerge’s success sets a hopeful precedent for the future of Muslims and politics. The Florida race worked both ways, with Murphy reaching out to the Muslim community even before his run and maintaining that relationship throughout his campaign. Muslims came out and organized, with 36 of the 38 mosques in Southern Florida actively engaging in the campaign.
“We got into the community and now we don’t have that barrier to overcome anymore, and I personally thought that was the biggest accomplishment, having the mosques on board,” Siddique said.
Muslim groups in five other states – New Jersey, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Oregon – are looking to replicate Emerge’s model.
Siddique believes now is the time for Muslims to own their stake in American politics and build their national impact.
“It is up to people to take it into their own…We need the community to stand up.”