US Elections 2016: American Muslims urged to vote

Call comes from Islamic societies after Saturday's bombings threaten to worsen Islamophobia

Mr Jafar Iman, a 72-year-old retiree, volunteers at the Adams Centre in Sterling, Virginia, and hopes to get more fellow Muslims to register to vote. He believes the Muslim vote is critical in this election.
Mr Jafar Iman, a 72-year-old retiree, volunteers at the Adams Centre in Sterling, Virginia, and hopes to get more fellow Muslims to register to vote. He believes the Muslim vote is critical in this election.
Ms Nahid Jalali, a 47-year-old masters student, signing up as a new voter. She got her US citizenship just the day before she signed up. -- PHOTO: MELISSA SIM
Ms Nahid Jalali, a 47-year-old masters student, proudly holding a Virginia voter registration application receipt. -- PHOTO: MELISSA SIM

Holding up a sign for the voter registration table, Mr Jafar Iman, 72, a volunteer at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (Adams) Centre, called out to fellow American Muslims.

"In order to diminish Islamophobia, we have got to register ourselves, we have got to vote on Nov 8, this is the most important and critical election in the nation's history," he said, raising his voice above the din of worshippers exiting after Friday prayers.

Filling in one of the forms was Ms Nahid Jalali, 47, who had been granted US citizenship just a day earlier. Originally from Iran, the master's student had waited a year for it and hoped it would come in time for her to cast her vote for president.

Her concerns, she said, included "respect for all beliefs and freedom of speech".

"I hope we can continue respecting every group and every human being in this country," she said, while proudly holding on to her Virginia voter registration application receipt. "I'm 100 per cent Democrat," she later added.

There are about 3.3 million Muslims in the US, making up about 1 per cent of the total population.

For many American Muslims, Nov 8 is the time to stand up and be heard, especially when political rhetoric is causing division along racial and religious lines.

But with Saturday's bombings in New York City and New Jersey, many fear their voices may be drowned out in the prevailing anti- Muslim climate, especially with the election just over six weeks away.

"All elections are important but this one is more so," said Mr Waqas Syed, deputy secretary-general of a leading national Muslim-American organisation called The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).

This election, he said, has shown American Muslims that there is a price to pay for not getting involved in the country's politics.

"The price is that any elected official can say whatever they want against Muslims without any fear of repercussion.

"By voting, volunteering in campaigns and running for offices, Muslims can make their presence felt and respond better to those politicians who fan hate and mistrust against Muslims," he said.

Last December, after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, Republican nominee Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslims travelling to the US.

Prior to that, he had suggested establishing a database for all Muslims in the country and the closure of some mosques. After the bomb attacks in New Jersey and New York City, he suggested the need for racial profiling to keep the country safe.

Not only have Mr Trump's words made Islamophobia acceptable, experts say, proponents of Islamophobia have been hired by his campaign, including campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and foreign policy adviser Joseph Schmitz.

"On their own, these people might seem like insignificant crazies that we ought to simply dismiss. Now, however, they are a heartbeat and a vote away from the Oval Office," said Mr Nathan Lean, author of The Islamophobia Industry.

When it comes to violence against the Muslim community, recent incidents included mosques and Islamic centres being targeted and vandalised across the country, and a Muslim woman in Islamic attire whose blouse was set on fire outside a store in Manhattan.

"The rise in hate crime and attacks against American Muslims is undoubtedly a result of the current political climate and bigotry perpetuated by Trump," said Islamophobia expert Yasmine Taeb, a lobbyist for civil liberties and human rights at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Figures also show a spike when a terror attack occurs on US soil.

After the Dec 2 San Bernardino incident, for instance, there were a total of 53 attacks that month. The number made up a third of all the attacks last year, according to a study by Georgetown University.

"I feel sadly certain that the Muslim community will experience backlash of some sort" after the New York attack that injured 31 people, said Mr Lean.

There are a handful of Muslim groups that support Mr Trump but "this is certainly not a group that has any sort of significant support within the American Muslim community", said Ms Taeb.

If nothing else, Mr Trump's words seem to have prompted the Muslim community to come together like never before.

"The open anti-Muslim rhetoric has emboldened racists and bigots to come out in the open. But it has also helped Muslims to get politically active," said Mr Waqas of ICNA.

For example, the United States Council of Muslim Organisations announced last December its plans to register one million new voters.

At Adams Centre, Mr Syed Ashraf, co-leader of the Adams Civic Engagement team who organises the voter registration drives, said hundreds have signed up over the last two months, and he is expecting more to do so in the coming weeks.

"People are feeling their religious freedom is under threat, especially with all that is going on in this election, and it is driving people to get out and get engaged," said Mr Ashraf, who is a software architect.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2016, with the headline US Elections 2016: American Muslims urged to vote. Subscribe