Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Muslim groups unite for voter drive, outreach to confront Islamophobia

Opening mosques to the public and a nationwide bus tour are among groups’ plans amid spike in bias attacks

An alliance of U.S. Muslim groups said Monday it is launching a national bus tour and voter registration drive to respond to what it calls an alarming rise in anti-Muslim attacks that it says is driven by Islamophobia in 2016 presidential campaign rhetoric.

Alleged bias attacks directed at mosques rose markedly in November after deadly attacks in Paris and California were linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Reported bias crimes against mosques in the United States tripled for 2015 compared with the year before, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The bus tour and voter registration are parts of the One America initiative by the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that seeks to engage Muslims in political life. 

"USCMO leaders and members understand the magnitude of the challenge facing our nation, and our community and will not allow either Islamophobes or un-Islamic extremist groups like [ISIL] to define American Muslims or to decide our fate," said the USCMO’s secretary-general, Oussama Jammal.

U.S. Muslims have repeatedly condemned violent attacks like those in Paris and California, but many say they remain targets for hate crimes. The USCMO hopes One America will help change that.

“People haven’t been listening,” said Kristin Szremski, a spokeswoman for American Muslims for Palestine, at a news conference announcing the campaign. Activists hope signing up more Muslim voters will help amplify their voices and increase their involvement in civil society.

“Our voices will be united, and we will be heard,” she said. “We want our youth to be safe, and exposing them to this type of activity is a path to empowerment.”

The voter registration drive, which seeks to sign up a million new voters over the next year, isn’t limited to Muslims. Robert McCaw, the government affairs director at CAIR, said the effort seeks to bring in Americans of all creeds and political persuasions. 

He said that he hopes these voters cast ballots while conscious of the stances of 2016 candidates but that the effort doesn’t endorse any person, party or platform. The get-out-the-vote effort will simply inform citizens of candidates’ positions, he said. 

“We’re not looking to register 1 million more Muslims. We’re looking to work with interfaith partners to register 1 million more Americans,” McCaw said. “This is going to be more of an interfaith and community project. When you look at the toxic political climate in the United States, minority community members take the brunt of many political attacks now more than ever. We have to join together so we’re heard. The best way is to go to the polls.”

The effort by the USCMO also includes a nationwide bus tour aimed at introducing Muslims to their compatriots and a national open mosque day, which is intended to “increase interactions between American Muslims and citizens of other faiths and backgrounds,” the group said in a press release. It hopes encouraging non-Muslims to visit mosques will build understanding and goodwill. 

In November the issue of a backlash against U.S. Muslims came to the fore when GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who leads in polls of Republican voters, called for a national database to track Muslim Americans and a temporary ban on foreign Muslims’ entering the country.

Both proposals drew widespread condemnation from rights groups, many Democrats and fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. But they didn’t slow the Trump campaign’s momentum.

Speakers at the news conference Monday emphasized that they believe it was Trump’s rhetoric and that of other politicians who echo his views that have caused Muslim Americans deep distress and inspired people to carry out acts of hate.

Some of the speakers accused the U.S. news media of complicity in giving a platform to Trump’s views while failing to provide more complete context — for example, that Americans are far more likely to be killed or injured by a random act of gun violence than they are to be victims of an attack carried out by ISIL.

Szremski said language like Trump’s takes a psychological toll on Muslim Americans, including children. She related an anecdote of a young girl who said she heard that “Donald Trump wants us to leave” and asked her mother “whether the Army will come in the middle of the night and make us leave.”

“This is the impact of this unbridled Islamophobia, and it is being filtered through the television to our children,” Szremski said.

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