Friday, September 14, 2018 5:00:00 PM
US Muslims Are More Politically Active Than Ever

IN HIS first presidential campaign, George W. Bush received 42% of the Muslim-American vote, compared with 31% for Al Gore.

The 9/11 attacks, and the wars that followed, changed that affiliation. Eight years later, Muslim-Americans overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama. This was a big change for a religious minority that tended to have conservative views: traditionalist Muslims and LBGT advocates are strange bedfellows. Donald Trump’s election, though, has brought a clutch of progressive Muslims into politics. Some are now heading to Congress.

America has 3.5m Muslims, around 1% of the population. Some say the number is closer to 5m and rising; the Census Bureau has not asked questions about religion since the 1950s, so it is hard to know for sure. Only about 100 Muslims filed papers this year to run for office. These few attract a disproportionate amount of attention, largely because of America’s views of their faith. Polling by the Pew Research Centre in April 2017 found that 44% of eligible voters think there is a “natural conflict” between Islam and democracy.

Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American lawyer, narrowly emerged from a crowded field in the Democratic primary in Michigan’s 13th congressional district, which covers Detroit. As she is running unopposed in the mid-term elections for the seat John Conyers occupied for more than half a century (until he resigned), she is all but guaranteed to become the first Muslim woman to sit in Congress.

She will probably be joined there by Ilhan Omar, a Somali immigrant who won a primary in Minnesota to fill the congressional seat of Keith Ellison, one of two Muslim men in Congress (the other is Indiana’s André Carson). Fayrouz Saad ran in the primary for Michigan’s 11th district; Deedra Abboud ran in the Arizona Senate primary; and Tahirah Amatul-Wadud ran in the primary in Massachusetts’s 1st district. Ms Saad, Ms Abboud and Ms Amatul-Wadud lost, but many predict a bright future for 34-year-old Ms Saad, the telegenic daughter of Lebanese immigrants.

All five women are progressive. “The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is the only gateway to political office for Muslims,” says Abdulkader Sinno of Indiana University. All five argue for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is charged with rounding-up undocumented migrants. They also want universal health care, free college and a minimum wage of $15.

Whereas older Muslims generally hold conservative views on same-sex marriage and abortion, young Muslims tend to be much more secular. Many of the women running for office eschew head scarves: Ms Omar in Minnesota and Ms Abboud in Arizona are the exceptions. According to Pew, 23% of Americans brought up as Muslims no longer identify with the faith.

Ms Tlaib is keen to take the focus away from her religion. She also does not want to be drawn into a discussion on a two-state solution for Israel, or on the absence of liberal democracy in Muslim-majority countries. Her district is the second-poorest in the country, she says, so her focus will be on the concerns of her constituents, in particular their civil rights and the ravages of economic inequity. The question she gets most often, she says, is whether she will sell out once she is a member of the House in Washington.

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