Donald Trump’s travel ban triggered a nationwide backlash on the left — but in the eyes of many Muslims, you wouldn’t know it listening to the Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Now, Muslim operatives and activists are expressing alarm that their community has been all but neglected by the 2020 contenders as they focus on more prominent voting blocs. They say Trump has repeatedly antagonized Muslim-Americans — not only with the travel ban barring most people from several majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States, but with his singling out of Muslim members of Congress — and based on the campaign, he appears to be getting away with it.
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The travel ban was only discussed for fewer than two minutes during the first two primary debates in June and July, they note. They say it’s rarely mentioned in candidates’ stump speeches, either.
“This is an issue that they aren’t taking as seriously as they should be,” said Mohamed Gula, executive director of the Muslim advocacy group Emgage USA and a former staffer on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “Us being about 1 percent of the American population, to be ignored in that way, is definitely kind of putting a chip on our shoulder.”
Added Rabyaah Althaibani, a co-founder of the political consulting group Arab Women’s Voice: “It’s disappointing. I’m Yemeni and I don’t know a single Yemeni family that isn’t directly impacted by the Muslim ban.”
Activists also argue that the Democratic presidential contenders have not paid enough attention to Islamophobia and the recent spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. Nor are they mobilizing Muslim voters quickly enough ahead of the presidential election, they say.
Some Muslim activists think that the candidates might not be speaking more about the ban or other issues out of fear of alienating voters with Islamophobic beliefs or being linked to progressive Muslim lawmakers like Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Others believe it’s an oversight, or a result of advocates not shining as much of a light on the ban as they did when it was first announced.
“It’s no secret that when you look at the polling, there are significant numbers of Democratic voters and Republican voters who have fairly strong Islamophobic tendencies,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for the left-wing Justice Democrats and a past aide to Bernie Sanders. “I think the way to deal with that is to have strong leadership on the issue.”
Though Muslims make up a small percentage of the American population, a Democratic candidate could still benefit at the ballot box if they win the trust of Muslim voters. In 2016, Sanders scored an upset victory over Clinton in Michigan partly by performing strongly in areas with large numbers of Arab-Americans.
There’s also evidence that Muslim voters are becoming increasingly organized, and could play a bigger role in the presidential race than they have in the past. From 2014 to 2018, voter turnout among Muslims increased by 25 percentage points in the key states of Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Virginia, according to an analysis by Emgage. A record number of Muslim Americans also ran for office, and won, in last year’s midterm elections.
“I’ve been surprised at how little discussion there has been around Islamophobia and the Muslin ban, especially in the context of Trump honing in on attacks on Muslim congresswomen,” said Shahid. “A lot of these primaries are going to be won and lost in the margins.”
Shahid and several Muslims activists without ties to the Vermont senator said Sanders had done more than any other 2020 candidate to reach out to Muslim voters. They cited the fact that he passed a bill to end the United States’ involvement in the war in Yemen, has long been a critic of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, and quickly came to Omar’s defense when other Democrats accused her of anti-Semitism. Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is also Muslim.
Muslim operatives credited Elizabeth Warren for also swiftly defending Omar from attacks, and Beto O’Rourke and Jay Inslee for talking about the travel ban during the debates.
In a direct reference to Omar, O’Rourke said: “It doesn’t just offend our sensibilities to hear him say ‘send her back’ about a member of Congress because she’s a woman of color, because she’s a Muslim American. It doesn’t just offend our sensibilities when he calls Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals or seeks to ban all Muslims from the shores of a country that’s comprised of people from the world over, from every tradition of faith. It is also changing this country.”
In an interview with POLITICO, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said he has tried to change non-Muslims’ views of Muslims by, for instance, adding Muslim holidays to the school calendar and highlighting Muslims’ role in his city’s government.
“I started talking about the fact that there are 1,000 NYPD cops who are Muslim,” he said. “It’s a small thing, but people had no idea.”
Some Muslim Democrats were critical of not the 2020 candidates, but the media, for failing to pose questions about the travel ban and Islamophobia at debates and other events.
“Why aren’t they asking about the Muslim ban? They should,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who has endorsed Sanders.
Ellison added that Muslim activists who are disappointed with Democratic presidential candidates should not lose sight of the differences between the two parties: “By all means, demand more of the Democratic candidates. Insist that they address Muslim issues. But please don’t forget that … the only time Muslims come up among Republicans is when they talk about banning us.”
Linda Sarsour, a high-profile Muslim activist and surrogate for Sanders, said the 2020 candidates are doing far more to reach Muslims than presidential contenders of the past, though “there’s obviously much more work to do.” She said Muslim civic groups have also been stepping up their efforts to register voters ahead of the election.
The Democratic presidential candidates will have a chance to speak directly to Muslim activists at the annual Islamic Society of North America convention in Houston later this month. Gula said 20,000 people are expected.
So far, Sanders and Julián Castro have confirmed they are attending.
“Like many Americans, Muslim-Americans are wondering why their wages are flat. Muslim-Americans are wondering why the cost of prescription drugs keeps going up,” Omar told POLITICO. “But Muslim-Americans are also subject to explicitly racist policies from the current president of the United States — including a Muslim ban. We must be the party that affirmatively confronts the president’s open Islamophobia and bigotry. But we also need to connect Donald Trump’s racism and bigotry to his larger corruption. The president is openly demonizing Muslims and immigrants to distract from his own failure to govern.”