A record number of American Muslims are running for Congress, state, and local office this election cycle, motivated into action in large part by President Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric and policies, a new report by the Associated Press found.
More than 100 candidates ran for office over the past year, more than ever since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to Jetpac, a 501(c)(3) organization working to increase American Muslim civic engagement. Roughly 40 of those candidates made it past their primaries and face elections in November. For comparison, about a dozen Muslim-American candidates ran in 2016.
“I never had any intentions to run for office, actually. I was supposed to go to medical school,” Michigan state Senate candidate Abraham Aiyash told ThinkProgress. But years of corruption in the state legislature, coupled with Trump’s xenophobia, motivated Aiyash to throw his hat in the ring.
“I saw a need to have leadership that was accountable,” he said. “I call this my generation’s Vietnam moment.”
Of the estimated 40 current candidates (Jetpac is still working on identifying others), nine are running for Congress, 18 are vying for seats in the state legislatures, and 10 are running for statewide offices, like governor, mayor, and city council. There are also several running for school boards and local planning boards.
Aiyash, a Democrat who is running on a progressive platform, said his district includes parts of Detroit and Hamtramck, an “immigrant hot bed” that “sees the value of diversity and embracing people instead of just tolerating them.” He cited education, environment, and government accountability as key issues that resonate with Michigan voters.
More than a dozen of the 40 Muslim candidates highlighted by Jetpac are women. Fayrouz Saad and Rashida Tlaib, running in Michigan, Ilhan Omar, running in Minnesota, Deedra Aboud of Arizona, and Tahirah Amatul-Wadud of Massachusetts, may become the first Muslim women elected to the U.S. Congress.
Women are also making inroads at the local level. A candidate for Tennessee’s 45th state House district, Hana Ali has not been fazed by the fact that more than 60 percent of her state voted for Trump in the 2016 elections. Part of her district includes Sumner County, where 70 percent of voters cast their ballot in favor of Trump.
“Yes, Trump is still very popular in our state,” Ali, a Democrat, told ThinkProgress. “But here’s the thing. When you talk to families about the health care issues, when you talk to them about the issues that affect their everyday life, local politics is something that is very different from what is happening in Washington, D.C.”
Ali, a former physician who currently works as a health care executive, said Tennessee is bluer than most people realize — many Tennesseans are just afraid to admit it.
“Every door that we knocked and we asked them if they wanted to have a yard sign or not, every person, their first initial response was, ‘you know, I think I’m the only Democrat in this subdivision and I would not like to give it away,’” she said. “But they didn’t realize that they were probably the tenth door in the row to say the same thing. People feel alone but they don’t know that there are many of us.”
Perhaps because voters are so focused on health care (Ali’s key priorities include Medicaid expansion and addressing the growing opioid epidemic), Ali said, no one has ever confronted her about race or her religion.
“We have lived in the community for almost 12 years. People know my name. They know me from school because both my kids attend public school,” she said.
For Aiyash, however, although there is a significant Muslim community in Michigan’s 2nd Senate district, the campaign has had some ups and downs.
“I knocked on a woman’s door … the first thing she asked me was, ‘Are you Muslim?’ I said, ‘yes,’ and she said, ‘well, I’m prejudiced,’” Aiyash said, adding that through conversation, he has been able to win over hearts. “She ended up asking me for a yard sign to show her support.”
Another Muslim candidate running in Michigan is Abdul El-Sayed, a Democrat vying for governor. Though El-Sayed and Aiyash do not look alike and are running for different offices, Aiyash said he is routinely mistaken for El-Sayed.
“We certainly have people who are going to say what they’re going to say,” he said, referring to prejudice and racism. “I’m optimistic that that line of thinking doesn’t dictate what we want from our politics.”