One Trump Side-Effect: Democrats Are Reaching Out To Muslim Voters

September 17, 2016

Muslims are a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, making up somewhere around one percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

But a lot of Muslims live in key battleground states like Florida, Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, which makes them a small but important group.

That’s why Hillary Clinton’s campaign is trying to make sure they show up in large numbers on Election Day.

This week across the state of Florida, Democrats were making a major voter registration push tied to Eid, the Muslim holiday. Muslims lean Democrat, but they’re less likely to be registered than your average American.

So at a mosque in Orlando this week, Mohamad Shatara grabbed a clipboard as soon as prayers finished. Shatara is the regional organizing director for the Democratic Party in nearby Volusia and Flagler counties.

He asked worshipers if they were registered to vote and soon met an Arab man who had been a citizen for 20 years but had never voted.

“The Muslim community, more than ever we need somebody, we can’t have somebody that wants to throw us out. We need you,” Shatara told the man and, eventually, convinced him.

Some of this outreach is organic: Muslims are no doubt motivated by the Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has threatened to ban Muslim immigrants and monitor mosques.

Farooq Mitha, who was hired last month as the Clinton campaign’s national Muslim outreach director, says he has heard that echoed when he talks to Muslim voters.

“The number one thing I really hear about is the fear that Muslims have,” Mitha said, “The biggest concern that people have is domestic: Can I send my kids to school without them worried about getting bullied, for example, or am I safe to go pray at a mosque?”

Mitha travels the country to mobilize and organize Muslims. He also has state-level directors in Florida and Michigan. The campaign says Clinton spoke with her aide Huma Abedin early on in the campaign about creating a Muslim outreach director, and Clinton felt it was important – and thought a similar role during her time at the State Department was effective.

Mitha says his role and the emphasis on reaching Muslims is a sign Clinton wants to engage a community that historically has not been a part of campaign infrastructure.

But he has skeptics, like Democratic activist Ali Kurnaz.

“Muslims, I don’t think, want to vote for Donald Trump. But if we’re going to have to vote for Hillary Clinton,” Kurnaz said, “Then please, Hillary Clinton, you should offer us some substantial policy positions we can rally behind.”

Some Muslims, like Kurnaz, worry Clinton disregards Palestinian rights and is too hawkish in her foreign policy. Kurnaz was a Bernie Sanders delegate at the DNC.

Sanders was, in fact, hugely popular with Muslims. One of his biggest supporters was Keith Ellison, a Muslim congressman from Minnesota.

But these days, Ellison is traveling the country to convince Muslims to support Clinton.

“I’ve gone to Nevada, Nebraska, California, Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin,” Ellison said, “And I’ll respond to them.”

Ellison’s role is indicative of how Muslim outreach is changing.

In 2008, the New York Times reported that Ellison volunteered to campaign for Obama at a mosque in Iowa but Obama aides asked him to cancel it.

Then, two Muslim women were prevented from appearing behind Obama at a campaign rally because of their headscarves.

The Obama campaign tried to fix some of this messaging by hiring a Muslim outreach director: Mazen Asbahi, a lawyer in Chicago. But Asbahi was on the job just three weeks.

“It didn’t take long for the far right to try to do some negative research. They made a guilt by association attack,” Asbahi said.

Critics tied Asbahi to a somewhat controversial imam in the Chicago area (the two men had served very briefly on the same board of an Islamic investment fund). It was an accusation akin to the the kind of attacks people now use against Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Asbahi had to resign.

But Asbahi feels the country has changed and that 2016 is a different climate, a different culture, and a different candidate.

“The type of guilt by association attacks that were made about me – today, would be brushed aside,” Asbahi said.

And Ellison agrees.

“Seven Muslims addressed the delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Never before have we seen any. In neither 2008 or ’12 were any Muslims on the dais at all,” Ellison said.

The congressman points out that before this election, anti-Muslim rhetoric was coming from random “haters.” Now, it’s coming from the GOP frontrunner.

Ellison said he sees the party’s Muslim outreach as “the Democratic party saying, ‘Hold on. Wait a minute. This is not a phase.'” And continued: “You know, we must confront this intolerance.”

One side-effect of Donald’s Trump rise is that the Democratic Party is now publicly embracing Muslims.

And that is a clear change from the past.

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