How Muslim Americans pushed for political prominence post-9/11

US Muslims are voting, running for office and organising – carving out their own space – despite bigotry, activists say.

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were elected as the first US Muslim congresswomen in 2018 [File: J Scott Applewhite/AP photo]

After the 9/11 attacks, Muslim Americans were stigmatised, discriminated against and perceived as enemies in their own country, community activists have said.

Over the following 20 years, despite United States government programmes targeting their communities and the rise of social and political bigotry, Muslim Americans solidified their identity and carved a space for themselves in the mainstream political structure.

They became more visible and active politically. It was a way of confronting the challenges, akin to a self-defence mechanism, experts told Al Jazeera.

Moustafa Bayoumi, an author and professor at Brooklyn College, said while there were always Muslims in the US, the Muslim-American political identity was largely formed after 9/11 in response to the “explosion of bigotry”.

“Muslims in the United States realised that no one was going to protect them, but themselves,” said Bayoumi.

He said prior to September 11, 2001, there was hardly any general recognition of Muslim Americans as a group.

“Once you see that there’s an organised social hostility, then your identity gets formed in response to that – as a way of not just protecting yourself, but claiming a space for yourself,” Bayoumi told Al Jazeera.

Increased participation

Over the past two decades, Muslims emerged as a mainstream political force – as voters, organisers and candidates. That political ascendancy has been a continuing process, with the number of Muslim-American candidates and voters growing each election cycle.

From city councils and school boards to state legislatures all the way to the halls of Congress, more Muslim Americans have been seeking and winning public office.

Petra Alsoofy, outreach and partnerships manager at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a think-tank focused on Muslim communities, said Muslim Americans’ civic engagement has seen “huge improvement” over the past two decades.

She cited ISPU research that shows an increase in voter registration and overall political participation, including donating and volunteering for campaigns as well as the number of Muslim candidates.

According to a study by ISPU, Muslim-American voter registration went from from 60 percent in 2016 to 78 percent in 2020.

Alsoofy credited voter registration campaigns and community organisers for helping increase the number of Muslim voters. Another factor, she said, is Muslim candidates mobilising their own communities.

“They are really giving people the courage to see people who look like them and sound like them in elected offices,” Alsoofy said.

With Muslims becoming a voting bloc, politicians are acknowledging them. Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden released a platform for Muslim-American communities ahead of the elections last year.

He also addressed two Muslim groups as the Democratic nominee for president.

“As president, I’ll work with you to rip the poison of hate from our society, honour your contributions and seek your ideas,” Biden said at a virtual event for Muslim advocates last October.

“My administration will look like America, Muslim Americans serving at every level.”

Although Muslim Americans are not exactly serving at “every level” in the administration, Biden appointed the first Muslim federal judge earlier this year.

He also nominated Khizr Khan, the father of a US army captain killed in Iraq, as a member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In February, Sameera Fazili, deputy director of the National Economic Council, made headlines when she delivered remarks on Biden’s economic policies from the White House press briefing room while wearing a hijab.

Muslims in Congress

Keith Ellison was elected as the first Muslim member of Congress in 2006. Andre Carson followed in 2008.

Ten years later, Ilhan Omar – a former refugee from Somalia who wears the hijab – succeeded Ellison who ran successfully for attorney general in Minnesota, a statewide race. In the same election cycle, Omar was joined by Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, a daughter of Palestinian immigrants.

All four ran in heavily Democratic districts. Last year, Qasim Rashid, a Muslim-American lawyer and author, sought a congressional seat in a conservative-leaning constituency.

He said the incumbent, Congressman Rob Wittman, made Rashid’s faith a “centrepiece” in the campaign.

“He resorted to attacks tying me to terrorism and radicalism and extremism – just absurd, dangerous things that led me to getting threats,” Rashid told Al Jazeera. “And so, that’s a factor that unfortunately is just a reality today in politics.”

Wittman has repeatedly denied attacking his opponent’s faith, but one of his campaign advertisements slammed previous tweets by Rashid that criticised increasing the military budget hyping up the threat of terrorism by Muslims.

“Rashid alleged America is to blame for terrorist attacks, mocked the deaths of Americans killed by extremists, raged against rebuilding our military and promised he’d be a congressman like AOC and Bernie Sanders,” the advertisement said.

Keith Ellison, now serving as Minnesota’s attorney general, was elected as the first Muslim member of Congress in 2006 [File: Alex Wong/Getty Images via AFP]

When all was said and done, Wittman won decisively, but Rashid received nearly 187,000 votes – significantly more than previous Democratic challengers in the district.

Rashid said Islamophobia should not be prohibitive to Muslim Americans seeking office.

“We can overcome that – through organising, through education, through relationships, through investments in the community by being involved in the community and by earning and winning that trust, winning those hearts.”

Diverse communities

Rashid stressed that while Muslims are perceived as more visible on the national stage today, they are as old as the country itself – with a large portion of enslaved people brought to the US from Africa believed to be Muslim.

More recently, Muslim sports icons like basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and boxer Muhammad Ali have dominated their respective fields. Malcolm X was a major figure in the struggle for African-American rights until his assassination in 1965.

“There was no America – ever – without Muslims,” Rashid said. “The foundation of America’s infrastructure and its roads and bridges were built by African Muslims.”

Activists have been pushing to disrupt the stereotypical image of Muslims as Arab or South Asian immigrants emphasising that African Americans constitute a large part of the Muslim-American population.

Muslim-American communities are indeed pluralistic – immigrants, native-born, Black, white, Latino, working class and white-collar professionals encompassing a range of nationalities, sects and ideologies.

“As a result of the post-9/11 policies, there has been a racialisation of Muslim as brown, foreign, other, immigrant, refugee,” said Darakshan Raja, co-director and founder of the Justice for Muslims Collective, an advocacy group.

Raja spoke of a shift in political perceptions and activism among Muslim Americans.

She said a new generation of organisers is moving away from being defensive and trying to prove that Muslims belong to a more confrontational approach of demanding universal justice.

“We have a youth generation now that is far more radical and progressive in what they are demanding,” Raja told Al Jazeera. “So there’s no more of a dominant way of engagement with the government that is appeasement or that is apologetic or that is begging to be treated as human beings.”

What’s next?

As Muslim Americans move forward and continue to push away from the scope of the national security lens placed over them, advocates say their communities are looking beyond the post-9/11 era.

Bayoumi, the professor, said Muslim Americans will be tackling challenges common to other communities in the country – access to healthcare and economic issues.

“At the same time, I think there’s going to be a lot of questions regarding immigration and refugee issues,” he added, referring to the current pushback from right-wing politicians about the resettlement of Afghans and the Syrian refugee crisis a few years ago.

Bayoumi added that he hopes that Muslim Americans will play a part in the rethinking of US foreign policy and military engagements in Muslim-majority countries.

“We have to move towards the United States having a lighter military footprint in parts of the Muslim world where they currently are,” he said. “And I think it would be certainly a strength if the Muslim-American community were able to be to be part of a successful advocacy movement towards ending the war on terror.”

Raja said Muslim communities face an internal challenge centring on their own diversity.

“We still have work to do about how we really honour the fact that we are a multi-racial, multi-class, community, an incredibly diverse one,” she said.

Alsoofy, of ISPU, echoed Raja’s comment. “Internally within the American Muslim community – just like it’s happening in the rest of the country – [we] need a conversation around making sure that we’re inclusive of every voice,” she said.

She added that another continuing effort is shaping the perception of Muslim Americans – shifting from responding to stereotypes and condemning terrorism to representing their own stories and struggles as part of society.

“We’re able to share more about who we are as people beyond just the headlines … We’re able to see American Muslim doctors talk about a pandemic; we’re able to talk about poverty within the American Muslim community in a normal way without having to hear that we’re showing a negative story about ourselves,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera