To millions of Muslim American voters, the 2016 election is an emergency, a historical pivot that could lead to a Donald Trump presidency enshrining further racism against them into law and immigration policy, or a term for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Muslim Americans, especially young Arab Muslims, had been enthusiastic supporters and surrogates for Clinton’s erstwhile rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom Clinton beat in the primaries. In Michigan, Sanders took the Arab vote by a margin of 59 percent to 39 percent. With Clinton’s nomination last week, Muslim Americans of all backgrounds have a stark choice, just like everyone else.
James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, had been a Sanders appointee to the Democratic platform drafting committee, along with Cornel West, an outspoken advocate for Palestine who has since endorsed Green Party Candidate Jill Stein. Zogby has followed Sanders in calling for Clinton’s election over Trump, emphasizing that he must not become president. Still, many Arab and Muslim Americans I’ve spoken to on the campaign trail have expressed skepticism about Clinton, suggesting she has an challenge capturing the same kind of fervor Sanders did.
Zogby, however, predicts that the Arab and Muslim vote will go overwhelmingly to Democrats, led by Secretary Clinton. He also heartily endorses the Democratic ticket this year.
“I’m going to be encouraging Arab Americans to vote Democratic. That’s where our allies are, and that’s the context in which we’ve built our coalition. That’s the coalition we belong to, and I can’t abandon that coalition. That’s the coalition in which we grown and we gain strength. To me, it’s not a question of do I vote or not. I will enthusiastically vote for Democrats,” he said.
Zogby described a pattern in 2016 emerging that goes back almost 30 years to the primary of 1988, when Jesse Jackson, who had spoken out about Palestinian rights, lost a primary election to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The Dukakis camp didn’t include Palestinian rights, just as Clinton’s hasn’t. That is an issue that has turned some Muslim Democrats off of the candidate.
Muslim civil rights issues have come to the fore this year, with Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration, later revised to include only part of that year’s platform. Clinton, this year, has done the same. Muslim issues have come countries with ties to terror groups, a list sure to include Arab and Muslim majority countries.
Muslims themselves have taken center stage, literally, in the last week, after Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen Muslim-American soldier, challenged Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention, saying he had sacrificed nothing. Trump shot back, suggesting that Khan’s wife, Ghazala, who stood silently by her husband’s’ side during the speech, was not “allowed” to speak. Zogby said that Trump’s willingness to defame the Muslim parents of a Muslim-American soldier, Humayun Khan, would only further assure that Muslims vote for Clinton.
But there are Muslim members of the Democratic party who don’t plan on voting for Clinton, outraged over her stance on Palestine, which sides with Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative government. Sanders had distinguished himself in a Brooklyn primary debate by using the word “disproportionate” to describe Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, and suggested that he would be a neutral arbiter between the two sides. Palestinian flags and posters peppered the stands where Sanders delegates sat in the Wells Fargo Arena during the Democratic Convention last week.
One Sanders delegate from California, Majid Al-Bahadli, 49, an Iraqi American who came to the U.S. in 1991, said he had been a delegate for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Although Obama has thrown his backing behind Clinton, Al-Bahadli said he will not be voting for the former New York Senator.
“I did not vote for Clinton and I am not going to. Not now, not later. She is against the Palestinians,” Al-Bahadli said.
Al-Bahadli said a Democratic superdelegate took his sign reading “I support Palestinian Rights” from his hand as he tried to get it into the view of cameras. A gif of the move has been shared on social media as an example of the DNC silencing dissent on Palestine.
“I don’t trust her,” Al-Bahadli added, referring to Clinton. “She needs to show some physical evidence [of support]. Have us involved in her campaign and maybe she should consider some Muslims in her cabinet.”
Zogby said that capturing that enthusiasm Sanders had found will be a challenge for Clinton.
Zogby said that gauging the voting patterns of Muslim Americans is harder than that of Arab Americans, since Muslim Americans are composed of other ethnic groups, including African Americans, Arab Americans and Pakistani Americans. In 2000, Zogby said, Arab Muslim Americans broke for Bush, while African American Muslims voted for Gore. A Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) poll found in February that most Muslim voters would be voting for Clinton, and that Islamophobia was an important issue for them.
“I think it’s not unique to my community or to the Muslim community, there’s a lot of Americans who are going to feel that they simply are very afraid of Donald Trump, and they’re not overly enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton. That said, I think that I am going to be encouraging Arab Americans to vote Democratic,” he said. “That’s where my allies are.”
But challenges lie ahead, Zogby said, especially in pitching Clinton to younger voters, who split for Sanders by heavy margins across ethnic and class lines.
“It’s not going to be an easy sell. It’s one we’re going to have to work at. I think it can be done. I think there’s a compelling case to make,” he said.
The Democratic Party has been the party of religious minorities since northern Catholics, lead by the Kennedys, fully took control of the Democratic Party in the 1960s from southern Protestants, who then went on to fill the Republican fold. To Zogby, that coalition is still the one that offers Arab and Muslim Americans the best chance of having their voices heard.
“The case is number one to keep Donald Trump out of the White House. Two, that is where our allies are. We will not get a hearing on civil liberties, on anything we care about outside of that coalition that we work with,” Zogby said. “The candidate may not agree with us, we may not agree with the candidate, but that is where the coalition is. It is grounded in civil liberties, peace and human rights community that are part of that Democratic party coalition.”
The task up to the Clinton campaign is to try to control the narrative and win over the constituency Trump has built.
“Give them a sense of confidence that real change can come. That you understand the dislocation, that you want to give them a sense of confidence that the future can be better. That you’re fighting for them, and Hillary has a big job. She’s got to do that,” he added.
In the meantime, Muslims on Twitter have worked outside of the constraints of party politics to challenge Trump themselves, using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow, in response to Trump’s criticism of Khan’s wife choosing not to speak during her husband’s address about their dead son.
“I’m a female Muslim lawyer,” wrote Sumbai Naqi. “4 generations of women writers, doctors, lawyers in family Don’t dare say Muslim women don’t speak! #CanYouHearUsNow”
The Twitter campaign was promoted by CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a non-partisan Muslim rights lobby, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).
In a campaign marked by personal jabs, Malika Dee, tweeted a photo of Trump gesticulating at a podium while standing next to his wife Melenia, who was silent.
“Please don’t project what goes on in your own household onto us! @realDonaldTrump #CanYouHearUsNow”