The American Muslim condition is paradoxical. Muslims in the U.S. live in the best of circumstances and the worst of times. Most tend to be mainstream, moderate and middle class. They are educated and are well integrated into American society. In fact, they are seen as a model for European countries to emulate. But American Muslims also live in a sociopolitical climate in which Islamophobia is steadily on the rise.
Many talk show hosts play on their audiences’ fears by attacking Islam and Islamic values. The U.S. government continues to profile Muslims, spy on them and keep them at arm’s length. And anti-Muslim discourse has become a mainstream phenomenon.
In 2012, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich compared Islam to Nazism. Fellow Republican contender Herman Cain swore not to appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet if he was elected. Prominent social commentators such as Bill Maher often blame Islam for much of the violence in the world. More than half the states are considering anti-Islam legislation under the guise of barring consideration of foreign laws and court rulings. The FBI and municipal police departments such as New York’s routinely spy on Muslims and their institutions.
Yet the overall picture is mixed. Even as Islamophobia increases in the U.S., American Muslims are benefiting from political opportunities. There are two Muslims in Congress, and Muslims are being appointed as judges and are winning elections as mayors, city council members and state legislators. There are more Muslims in the legal and political arena, more Muslims working or interning with legislators and many more in federal agencies.
Despite this improved civic engagement, the community’s political influence has dropped precipitously. The 2016 election campaigns will likely heighten anti-Muslim sentiments. As in 2012, when Republicans used the controversy over the so-called ground zero mosque as a political mobilizer, there will be a lot of anti-Muslim sloganeering. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential contender for the Republican nomination, is already ahead of the curve by proclaiming, “Let’s be honest here, Islam has a problem.”
He is not alone. In February, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who recently announced his presidential bid, called President Barack Obama an apologist for radical Islam. Two years ago Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another official contender for the 2016 Republican nomination, claimed that the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was part of the “war on Christianity.”
Statements such as these could force the Democrats to make similar declarations, lest they look like apologists for Islam. While Democrats are now more receptive to Muslim money and Muslim votes, it was not always so. In 2000, for example, Hillary Clinton, then a candidate for U.S. Senate seat in New York, returned all the checks from Muslim organizations, totaling $50,000. Muslims in the U.S. must be prepared to hear a lot of Islamophobic rhetoric from both parties as the campaign season heats up.
According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there are 6 million to 7 million Muslims in the United States. In previous elections, the Muslim community voted as a bloc. Nearly 80 percent of registered Muslim voters picked George W. Bush in 2000, while nearly 90 percent supported Obama in 2008, according to an informal exit poll by the group. More than 85 percent of American Muslims voted for Obama in 2012. The community hoped to have positive political outcomes by helping a desired candidate win.
But times have changed. In 2016 the process will be more critical than the outcome. Regardless of who wins, little will change for Muslims. So instead of throwing their political and financial weight behind a particular candidate, American Muslims should focus on using the electoral process to have a lasting national influence. Here are five strategic options available to them.
First, Muslim scholars, activists and organizations should push back against Islamophobia in the public realm. As seen during the 2012 elections, Republican candidates will likely resort to anti-Islamic rhetoric to boost their foreign policy credentials. Muslims were shocked and awed by this deployment of hate last time. We must be better prepared in 2016. There is no place for discrimination and hate speech in a democracy. We should demand that all candidates keep the discourse clean. “Keep it clean” should be the official American Muslim slogan in this election.
Second, American Muslims must use their resources smartly. Rather than throw millions of dollars in donations to one or two candidates, they should target those who indulge in Islamophobic hatemongering. In 2012 American Muslims played an important role in defeating Florida’s Rep. Allen West, whose anti-Muslim bigotry was unparalleled. In the next elections, American Muslims should use their resources to identify, expose, shame and defeat such candidates. Targeting hate should be a key strategic goal.
Third, presidential elections are a great opportunity to bring certain issues into the national spotlight. American Muslims should use the two nomination contests to press candidates to highlight issues of religious profiling and due process on the campaign trail. Politicians often acknowledge Muslim concerns in private but are reluctant to raise them in public for fear of losing votes. Private pledges are pointless. Politicians should stand up for the Constitution and condemn racial and religious profiling, police entrapment and religious discrimination at all times. American Muslims can help shape the national discourse in this election.
Fourth, American Muslims must look beyond defending their own interests and advocate for equality for all under the law. They can do this by highlighting racial and class bias in the U.S. criminal justice system and by asking candidates how they would deal with issues such as police brutality against people of color. American Muslims must demand that politicians publicly reaffirm the fundamental equality of all, regardless of religion or race.
Finally, diversity is a reality in and strength of the United States. Unfortunately, some sections of society are nostalgic for the traditional American identity and often try to undermine this notion. American Muslims, who themselves are very diverse, should defend and advocate for diversity in governance and among government agencies. Toward that end, American Muslims should push for inclusive governance that reflects the diversity of our great nation.