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American Muslims See Campaigns For Office As Way To Fight Prejudice

American Muslims, who bear a tremendous brunt of prejudice in the United States, increasingly combat discrimination through collective or individual civic participation. Sometimes that involves running for political office.

According to “American Muslim Poll: Participation, Priorities, and Facing Prejudice in the 2016 Elections,” a report from The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, American Muslims report the highest number of incidents of religious discrimination but still remain involved in their local communities. But the study also determined overall American Muslims are the “least likely [religious group] to be politically engaged.”

Reema Ahmad, an organizer and political advisor who works with local Muslim communities, informed The Atlantic that she has counted three dozen Muslims running for local office in the Chicago area so far.

In August, 33 year-old Muslim community activist Ilhan Omar became the nation’s first Somali American lawmaker after winning the Minnesota statehouse race. She unseated 22-term Rep. Phyllis Kahn.

As with most public Muslim figures, Omar was not spared from smears and accusations meant to characterize her as a kind of Manchurian candidate. There were those who said her hijab represented adherence to the Sharia bogeyman. Others contended the oath she took on a Quran instead of a Bible was an example of disregard for the U.S. Constitution.

Months after her astounding electoral win, Omar faced what many Muslims around the U.S. continue to experience: violent anti-Muslim discrimination.

In December, Omar was threatened by a cab driver who called her ISIS and threatened to remove her hijab. “I wasn’t really sure how this encounter would end as I attempted to rush out of his cab and retrieve my belongs,” she later wrote on Facebook.

Abdulrahman Mohamed El-Sayed, or Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist, physician, and public health advocate, faces the same struggle. El-Sayed is running for governor in Michigan.

If El-Sayed wins, he’ll be the first Muslim to be elected governor in the U.S.

El-Sayed resigned from his position as executive director of the Detroit Department of Health & Wellness Promotion in order to run for governor. He told a crowd of supporters in February that there are people who think they can make the U.S. great again by telling individuals who look like him that they don’t have a place here, and that they ought to sit on the sidelines.

“We are not sitting on the sidelines. We must act. We cannot wait until our children are poisoned or their schools are shut down,” El-Sayed declared.

The reaction to his campaign announcement has been formulaic, including Sharia-fearmongering.

The campaign’s Twitter account, which operates like any political campaign’s social media account, faces a barrage of Islamophobic insults directed at El-Sayed.

When the campaign page published a denouncement of genital mutilation, he was accused of lying or practicing “taqiyya.” A harmless photograph featuring El-Sayed and his campaign staff was met with a question about “a free burka.” Even comments about half of Michigan children lacking proficiency in math and science received an acerbic insult.

For example, one commentator alleged that Muslim kids from “[third] world Muslim countries” with low IQs “flooding” the country were why fewer Michigan students are ready for college.

Time and time again, regardless of what message the El-Sayed campaign shares, there is a deeply unsettling response aimed at insulting his Muslim identity, the fact that he is an Arab, and language disparaging Muslims and Islam in general. Unfortunately, for American Muslims who bravely wade through political waters, this is no new phenomenon.

Systemic discrimination and its manifestation in the workplace, educational institutions, and the larger political sphere prevents a number of marginalized communities from participating in civic engagement. Yet, despite hurdles, there are American Muslims, who believe engagement can challenge institutional discrimination.

Campaigns like the run pursued by El-Sayed boldly confront the prejudice vehemently expressed when Muslims pursue positions of power.

Should El-Sayed win in 2018, he would have to address the disastrous mess left behind thanks to Rick Snyder and his administration. But it is unclear how much support he may receive from the Democratic Party itself.

Laura Poitras. Photo by Stephan Kambor Wiesenberg on Flickr.
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Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at