Wave of Muslim candidates across US look to reverse Trump policies
NEW YORK, United States – Omar Vaid, a movie set technician based in Brooklyn, New York, would probably not be running for Congress in November’s mid-term elections were it not for President Donald Trump.
But Vaid, 36, the Muslim son of immigrants from India, was so alarmed by Trump’s ban on Muslim travellers and a spike in race-baiting that he is making a stand as a Democratic candidate in the city’s only Republican-held district later this year.
According to Emgage Action, a Muslim advocacy group and its connected political action committee (PAC), Vaid is part of a trend. As many as 100 Muslim Americans have committed to running in 2018 races – many more than in previous cycles.
“Muslim friends in my area told me about the hatred they faced in their neighbourhoods, with people yelling: ‘Go back to your own country,’ so I became passionate about this,” Vaid told Middle East Eye.
His district straddles the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, home to a vibrant Arab-American community, and mostly-white Staten Island, which helped elect former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, before backing Trump, a Republican, in 2016.
To win, Vaid must defeat Max Rose, a US veteran of the Afghan war, in the Democratic primary in June before facing a Republican in November. Daniel Donovan, the Republican incumbent, faces a tough challenge from Michael Grimm in his primary.
“New York’s largest Arab-American population should not have a representative who so favours the travel ban and the rest of Trump’s agenda,” Vaid said of his right-wing Republican opponents.
To campaign, Vaid swapped his flannel shirts for the groomed look of a Washington lawmaker, with a promotional video in which he shoots basketball hoops and drives a forklift truck to burnish his blue-collar credentials.
He is an urban lefty, promoting universal healthcare and tighter gun control. Targeting mainstream voters, he barely mentions Islam beyond his own heritage and his calls to halt the travel ban and racial profiling.
Energised to campaign
Democrats like Vaid are energised ahead of the midterms, which often measure a president’s popularity. More women are running in House races than ever before, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
This may reflect antipathy to Trump among some women, Latinos, blacks, Muslim-Americans and transgender people who feel disparaged by a billionaire whose policies are tailored towards white-bread voters in middle America.
To some analysts, anything is possible. The recent bombshell that House Speaker Paul Ryan is stepping down hints at a Republican party in disarray, with Democrats vying to win control of one or even both houses of Congress.
There is no comprehensive breakdown of candidates for all national, state and local elections. The Federal Election Commission does not record candidates’ ethnicities, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) did not answer MEE’s queries.
Emgage PAC, however, has tracked Muslim candidates for more than a decade and notes a spike this cycle.
Wael Alzayat, the Syrian American behind the $200,000 fund that endorses both Muslim and Muslim-friendly candidates, notes a “marked increase in Muslims running for office” with some 100 candidates compared to the dozen-or-so of past cycles.
“We’ve never seen this degree of open hostility from a sitting US president. That galvanised more Muslims to step up,” Alzayat told MEE.
Muslim candidates echo the anti-Trump mantra across the US, from the Iranian-American entrepreneur Kia Hamadanchy in California, to the Indian-American progressive Sameena Mustafa of Illinois.
There are high hopes for Abdul El-Sayed, 33, the Egyptian-American doctor and Rhodes Scholar running for governor of Michigan. He recently tweeted: “Yes, I’m Muslim. We past that? Then let’s start talking about solutions.”
As well as those with immigrant roots in the Middle East and South Asia, the 2018 crop includes African-American Muslims, a more established force in US politics, like Marcus Goodwin, 28, a property trader vying for a seat on Washington DC’s city council.
They are all Democrats. Across the aisle, Saba Ahmed, a Pakistani-American Muslim who runs the Republican Muslim Coalition, cannot count a single GOP Muslim candidate this cycle – her group has retreated “behind the scenes” since Trump took the White House, she told MEE.
“It takes a lot guts to go up as a Republican Muslim because we do face a backlash – both from the Republican Party and the Muslim community,” Ahmed told MEE. She also suggested that Alzayat’s tally of left-leaning Muslim candidates is inflated.
It takes a lot guts to go up as a Republican Muslim because we do face a backlash
- Saba Ahmed, Republican Muslim Coalition
Like Vaid, candidates typically steer away from religion. Muslim women candidates eschew head-coverings, with such exceptions as Bushra Amiwala in Illinois and Deedra Abboud, who seeks an Arizona Senate seat.
Acting overly religious is risky. Abboud stirred a hornet's nest last year by posting relatively uncontroversial comments about the separation of church and state on her Facebook page, prompting a barrage of online fury.
“Get out stinking Muslim,” responded one web user, who was apparently unaware that blue-eyed Abboud is a convert who was born and raised in Arkansas. Other Muslim-American politicians report similar trolling.
Somali-born Minnesota state representative Ilhan Omar recalls “derogatory, Islamophobic, sexist taunts and threats” during her run in 2016. Hillary Clinton’s one-time aide Huma Abedin was probed for Islamist links and for spending her childhood in Saudi Arabia.
The most prominent Muslim-American politician, Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman and deputy DNC chairman, has repeatedly faced charges of being an anti-Semitic religious hard-liner. Even Obama, an avowed Christian, became the focus of some conspiracy theorists who claimed he was a Muslim.
For Abdulkader Sinno, an Indiana University scholar and editor of Muslims in Western Politics, this highlights the glass ceiling that will block most of this cycle’s Muslim candidates from winning office this year.
Despite well-established Muslim communities in such states as Michigan, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the country’s estimated 3.3 million Muslims only ever make a sliver of the electorate.
“Muslim Americans are becoming more engaged politically on all levels, and more of them are running for office,” Sinno told MEE.
“The problem, however, is that there is so much Islamophobia in the Republican party, and just enough of it among Democrats, that a Muslim candidate can only succeed in a heavily Democratic district.”
This is the paradigm that Alzayat’s PAC seeks to change. He wants to help Muslim candidates win over non-Muslim voters, and to persuade Muslim immigrants, who often hail from undemocratic countries, to turn out on polling day.
He does not predict a clean sweep of 100 new Muslim office-holders on 6 November; he is pinning his hopes on a couple of Muslim women candidates in Michigan, the US state with the most vibrant Islamic scene.
“The Muslim-American community is politically weak. We don’t have sufficient political power due to our low voter turnout and lack of coordination,” Alzayat told MEE. “We’re disadvantaged until we rectify this imbalance.”