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Democrats Need to Decide Whether They Care About Muslim Voters

Candidates have been cautious when it comes to openly courting American Muslim voters. Such hollow politics hail from an earlier era, and may cost them dearly.

Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

The year was 2000. Hillary Clinton was running for one of New York’s two Senate seats, and she had a choice to make. 

On the final weekend of October, with the general vote less than two weeks away, the Daily News published a piece highlighting campaign donations made by dozens of members of two American Muslim political organizations. “ISRAEL FOES GIVE HIL 50G,” the headline read.

Phone calls from reporters began flooding the Clinton campaign team’s lines. Among the claims being made was one that Agha Saeed, the president of the American Muslim Alliance and a Clinton donor, made comments supporting Palestinian armed resistance against Israeli occupying forces. Saeed, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, easily clarified the intent of his statements when contacted by The New York Times

“I support the peace process,’’ Mr. Saeed told the Times. “But people living in this country who are citizens have the right to criticize the Israelis. I insist upon having that right. If they kill people, we are going to criticize them.’’ 

But by the time Saeed had an opportunity to explain himself, it was too late. Clinton’s opponent, Republican Representative Rick Lazio, called the donations “blood money,” and, fearful of the blowback, specifically from the Jewish community, Clinton denounced Saeed’s comments and began returning upward of 100 checks from all Alliance members, not just Saeed.

Sixteen years later, Clinton found herself facing Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries for the presidency, and was dealt a surprising defeatAgainst the predictions of then-heralded mainstream pollsters, Sanders claimed the primary in Michigan by 1.5 points.

As analysts rubbed their eyes and took a closer look at Sanders’s Michigan ground game, they realized he had claimed a crucial bloc of American Muslim voters. His campaign had run ads in Arabic and made an effort to be visible and present in their communities through multiple campaign speeches in the area; on the trail, Sanders had repeatedly expressed support for Syrian refugees and had recruited young voters in the community as volunteers. Contrasting his anti–Iraq War stance with that of Clinton’s support, he ultimately convinced voters in Dearborn, a Michigan city with the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation, to choose him over Clinton by 20 points, with victories upward of 50 points in the districts where the population was 90 percent Muslim. After gaining the nomination, Clinton ultimately lost Michigan in the general election to Donald Trump by just 10,704 votes. Today, it is considered one of the key losses that helped hand the White House back to the GOP. 

Strangely, the Democratic Party still doesn’t seem to have learned its lesson. So far, in the early stages of the 2020 race, candidates have finally started to focus on other underappreciated groups, such as Native voting populations in swing states. And yet, three years into the sitting U.S. president routinely spewing Islamophobic rhetoric to the masses, the conversation around Muslim issues has only grown murkier, more dangerous, and—when it comes to the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates—unnervingly quiet.

Last weekend, the Islamic Society of North America held its fifty-sixth annual conference in Houston. Headlined by The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, every presidential candidate polling at 1 percent or higher was invited to speak at the event. Only Sanders and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro showed up.

At the forum, Sanders—whose 2020 operations are helmed by Faiz Shakir, the first Muslim manager of a major presidential campaign—became the first presidential candidate to speak out about the Indian government’s constitutional attacks on Kashmir’s autonomy, called for a more robust discussion and reaction to domestic terrorism, and decried the United States’ role in the Yemen conflict. The speech earned him a standing ovation and positive headlines over the holiday weekend.

While the content of Sanders’s speech appeared to hit the right notes and impress the 6,000-plus who packed the auditorium, the disturbing reality remains that he and Castro were the only two available options to attendees. Part of the low participation, as many campaigns will claim, can be blamed on the nature of the campaign schedule. But there’s also a larger trend at play. 

The Muslim Collective for Equitable Democracy conference, organized by the Muslim Caucus, was held in late July in Washington, D.C. Despite Congress still being in session, only Mayor Bill de Blasio showed up to the two-day forum. Senator Elizabeth Warren reportedly joined via livestream and Sanders, along with senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, sent a prerecorded video message.

One week later, on the second day of the presidential debates in Detroit, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez met with local Muslim leaders at a mosque, purportedly to engage with them in conversation about what their communities need most from the national party. At the event, Perez admitted, “we’ve got a lot of work to do,” and then proceeded to do very little work at all, according to those in attendance: Rather than engage them in discussion about what the Democratic Party could do for them, local organizers reportedly complained to one of the co-organizers, Perez simply listened to the concerns voiced to him, smiled, and left.

Between the first two Democratic debates this summer, just two minutes were allotted to discussing the Trump Administration’s travel ban on five Muslim-majority countries. This, after Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have been the targets of repeated verbal attacks from the president, culminating in the now-infamous “Send her back,” chant at a July rally in Greenville, North Carolina. The American Muslim legislators have been forced to regularly deal with death threats, and hate crimes have steadily increased since Trump’s election. Democratic leadership’s defense of their fellow party members has been tepid, at best, considering the severity of the threats.

Lama Alzuhd, vice chair of the Muslim advocacy group Emgage Action Michigan, told MSNBC in August that the inaction has come to symbolize what political leaders in the community have noticed as a long trend of hollow offerings from a party that claims to defend them but then shrinks from the task when the opportunity arises.  

“I think we’re at a point where if we don’t hear enough support for Rashida [Tlaib] and for Ilhan [Omar], people are going to stay at home,” Alzuhd told MSNBC. “We finally got people who look like us, who sound like us, who pray like us, who speak to our issues, who connect with us, on the ballot and in office, and yet we are receiving no support.”

The reason for the silence is complicated to combat but simple to name: Fearful of being painted as anti-Semitic in bad-faith attack ads by the GOP, national Democratic Party leaders are having a difficult time deciding how big of a demographic tent they want to build. Despite this trepidation from the only party they can realistically participate in, American Muslim politicians have fought for and earned seats in the land’s highest legislative body, while American Muslim voters have established themselves as a key voting bloc in several battleground states. According to Emgage, Muslim voters in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia—all important swing states—turned out for the 2018 midterms at a rate 25 percent above their 2014 numbers. 

The problem for American Muslims isn’t one of being able to assert themselves in the  nation’s political system. They’ve successfully accomplished that without the establishment’s help and will continue to do so. The issue arises in trying to convince those at the DNC to relax into the new era, even if only fractionally, and give their communities not just lip service, but actual consideration. 

Given the alternative on the 2020 ballot, Democrats may feel that they have this group’s vote locked up. But as Clinton and Perez found out in 2016, political loyalty is a two-way street, and demanding it without offering anything in return only works for so long.

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the “send her back” chant occurred at a rally in Greenville, not Greensboro, North Carolina. We regret the error.