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Muslim Americans aim for high turnout, new influence in 2020

The hope is that energizing more Muslim voters can make a difference in close races and illustrate the community’s political power.

WASHINGTON — In the 2016 presidential election, Mohamed Abukar didn’t like his options, so he didn’t vote. This year the 26-year-old Michigan resident has already cast his ballot — and urged others to follow suit.

“It’s your civic duty” to vote, Abukar said as his balloting was livestreamed by Thasin Sardar, a trustee of the board at The Islamic Center of East Lansing who wanted to encourage community members to vote.

Muslim American groups and activists have organized with a heightened sense of urgency this fall, setting up phone banks, virtual town halls and rallies aimed at maximizing voter turnout, especially in battleground states. Many hope that in states with notable Muslim populations, such as Michigan, energizing more of them can make a difference in close races and illustrate the community’s political power.

This election may end up being considered the one “that served to start to crystalize American Muslim political consciousness,” said Youssef Chouhoud, who teaches political science at Christopher Newport University.

But even after historic gains for Muslim candidates since President Donald Trump took office, including the first two Muslim women elected to Congress in 2018, it’s not clear to what degree Muslim American voters can have the influence envisioned by some advocates.

That’s in part because — despite Trump policies such as a travel ban affecting some majority-Muslim nations and Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s outreach efforts — Muslims, like other religious groups, are not monolithic in their political behavior.

Biden addressed a Muslim voter summit this summer and won backing from leading Muslim officials, but he has yet to develop the close relationships in the community that his onetime Democratic primary rival Bernie Sanders enjoyed.

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Muslims also make up a relatively small share of the population, less than 1% of voters nationally in the 2018 midterms, according to AP’s VoteCast survey.

Even so, Muslim organizers see the potential to punch above their electoral weight this year in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Trump’s margin of victory was narrow four years ago.

Their message to their communities: Power comes from showing up at the polls.

Since Trump’s election, a growing number of Muslims have “recognized that every vote that we make is a down payment on the attention that every politician will have to pay to our community in the future,” said Abdul El-Sayed, a Michigan progressive activist who mounted an unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial bid in 2018.

“American Muslims recognize that the most effective way to defeat the rise of violent Islamophobia is by increasing our political representation, and our civic engagement,” said Mohammed Missouri, executive director at Jetpac, which trains American Muslims who want to run for public office.

“Muslim representation is still often neglected by policymakers,” Missouri added, but the momentum is forcing elected officials to listen.

Biden has vowed to overturn Trump's travel ban, which many have decried as anti-Muslim.

In July, the former vice president told a summit hosted by the Muslim advocacy group Emgage Action — whose political action committee has endorsed Biden — that he wants to win over Muslim voters affirmatively, “not just because (Trump’s) not worthy of being president.” Emgage is leading an outreach campaign that it says has resulted in over 1 million calls and 2 million text messages.

Farooq Mitha, Biden’s senior adviser for Muslim engagement, said his operation has held more than 150 organizing events since March and described Trump as an “existential threat to Muslim Americans.”

Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, boasts its own Muslim outreach coalition that has held virtual organizing events. Farhana Shifa Ahmed, a co-chair of Muslim Voices for Trump, said she sees the president as supporting religious freedom for the major Abrahamic faiths, including Islam.

“He is protecting us, protecting us from our own enemies and even eliminating the division between religions,” Shifa Ahmed said.

Mahmoud Al-Hadidi, chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, said he expects some Muslim Americans to vote for Trump even if they may not want to advertise it, citing issues such as the economy and law enforcement.

VoteCast’s 2018 data showed that about 8 in 10 Muslim voters backed Democrats, while two-thirds of U.S. Muslims either identified as Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party in a 2017 Pew Research Center survey.

One obstacle to boosting Muslim voter turnout is that some lack enthusiasm for either Biden or Trump. Others cite religious beliefs for not wanting to be involved in politics, said Raniah El-Gendi, programs and outreach director at the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

El-Gendi and others have been working to counter views that could keep some away from the ballot box. "Part of our faith is improving the environments and the societies that we live in,” she said. Many activists also urge Muslim voters to think beyond the presidential race to the impact other down-ballot races can have on their lives.

Abukar, the Michigan voter, recalled in a phone interview coming to the U.S. as a Somali refugee and said he prizes the country’s diversity. Today he feels a new sense of civic responsibility.

“I can’t sit back this time,” Abukar said. "I can’t just allow things to happen without at least putting in some effort.”

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Associated Press journalist Emily Leshner in New York contributed to this story. Fam reported from Winter Park, Florida.

Credit: AP
FILE - This combination of Sept. 29, 2020, file photos shows President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.