One thing I can say about being Muslim American: We’re good at building mosques. I’ve visited mosques of every shape and size, sometimes multi-million-dollar facilities that cater to form as well as function. Well-executed fundraising drives have made it possible to build outstanding facilities, even in localities where Muslims are few and far between. In many parts of the country, they’re not just our houses of worship, they double as cultural hubs and, often, as refuges from the derision many Muslim Americans have sensed in the years since 9/11.
In the different places I’ve lived, I’ve been grateful to have access to mosques as a canopy of self-protection, but I’ve also worried that they can become bubbles of self-segregation. Our political engagement is often defensive, not proactive or strategic, and it isn’t very effective.
If Muslim Americans want politicians to take us seriously as a constituency — if we want policy outcomes that reflect our priorities and an end to scapegoating and harassment — we need to start building political capital the way other minority and immigrant groups do.
Nearly every immigrant or minority group has had to overcome some form of oppression or scrutiny while fighting for acceptance and equality — Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans all have their immigrant narrative. African Americans still contend with the legacy of slavery and American Indians with colonialism. In some ways, for immigrant and minority groups, it’s less a story of the American Dream and more the story of the ability of different groups to sink, float or swim, and Muslim Americans are taking our turn trying to overcome this hurdle.
Where perhaps at one time we were misunderstood but largely ignored, since 9/11 we’ve been a convenient scapegoat for politicians who encourage Americans’ xenophobia by telling us to fear “radical Islamic terrorism.” We’ve responded with interfaith dialogue and now almost rote condemnation of despicable violent acts such as last year’s shootings at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub — expressions meant to emphasize the message that Islam is a religion of peace. But that often fall short of changing Americans’ perceptions of our faith.
Despite a January study from UNC Chapel Hill finding that terrorist acts committed by Muslims amounted to “one-third of 1 percent” of 2016 murders in the U.S., then-candidate Donald Trump won the White House in no small part by exploiting Islamophobia. Hillary Clinton opposed Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban, of course, but still “othered” Muslim Americans by addressing us primarily in the national security context, saying, in her third debate with Trump, “We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines.” It was a statement that, as Ismat Sarah Mangla explained for Quartz, imputed “special knowledge of terror attacks” to Muslim Americans that we don’t have. As Mangla notes, we’re simply trying to “live unsensational lives, serving as doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, artists and journalists.” Our citizenship isn’t “contingent on how ’useful’ “ we “are in the war on terror.”
If we want this dynamic to change, we can’t just inveigh against President Trump’s hostility or wait around for sympathetic politicians to press our case. We must build mechanisms for mobilizing as a voting bloc. We need to develop institutions like EMILY’s List, the fundraising organization that promotes Democratic women candidates; J Street and AIPAC, Jewish American advocacy groups that lobby on Israel policy; and Latino Victory Fund, a political action committee that backs Latinos running for office.
When we Muslims want to build an Islamic center, we come together. Activists bring together Muslim immigrants with American-born Muslims, blue-collar and upper middle class Muslims, devout and not-so-devout Muslims to acquire land, raise funds for construction, and develop staff and programming. We often work successfully with leaders of other faith communities to immediately integrate our mosques into the fabric of local congregations. Why not replicate this approach in the context of partisan politics? Muslim Americans have made scattered forays throughout the country: In the Dallas area, where I live, the Muslim-American political group Good Citizen Committee has exerted its influence in recent local elections through its voter registration and mobilization efforts.
But to achieve broader impact, we’ll need build a nationwide, professional political strategy apparatus. We’re a small percentage of the electorate, but we have the wherewithal to make this happen — according to Pew Research, 20 percent of Muslim American households have income of $100,000 or more per year; by 2050, Pew projects, we’ll be the largest religious minority.
In 2016, however, Muslims were still aggregated in the “other” category in exit polls and even Pew’s tabulation of “Presidential vote by religious affiliation and race” (in which 62 percent of “Other faiths” chose Clinton over Trump). We’ve got a ways to go in terms of being counted — and courted — as a stand-alone constituency.
Last year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations polled Muslims shortly before Election Day and found that 86 percent of eligible voters said they would vote in 2016. Any turnout close to that would far surpass Americans’ overall voter turnout. An informal survey of Muslim Americans in Dallas, which has a relatively large Muslim community, found, however, that Muslim turnout for local and midterm elections is likely somewhere under 20 percent, greatly diminishing our influence in down-ballot races.
Muslim American contributions to political campaigns and issued-based lobbying is similarly not robust. One estimate showed that in a 10-year period ending in 2012, Muslim American/Arab American PACs invested just over $500,000 on candidate- and issues-based advocacy. Compare that figure to the estimated $18 million invested in the same period by Jewish American PACs.
In exercising our clout, Muslim Americans don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Other marginalized groups, in overcoming obstacles, have already fought for and shown the way forward. Greater voter participation and more proactive resourcing in elections have the potential to further policy priorities favored by Muslim voters. Investments such as these would not only strengthen the Muslim community’s position, but make insulting and harmful rhetoric about Muslim Americans a negative, not a positive for aspiring politicians.
Our system rewards communities when we use our resources to amplify our voice in the political process. And, in turn, America is rewarded when minorities, formerly on the outside, become invested in that process.
Salem is a former executive director of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.