By Petula Dvorak, The Washington Post (
Sarah Cochran, Virginia state director for Emerge USA, talks to Remaz Abdelgader, a George Mason University student and Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer, about how they can get more Muslims to vote in next week's Virginia primary. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)
Through the driving rain, past the flood watch, the stalled cars and the tornado warnings, they pushed onward Wednesday night to get to the mosque in Northern Virginia. They had a Super Tuesday mission, and time was running out.
“Abstaining from voting is also a vote,” read one of the talking points in their action plan.
“If Muslims do not vote, openly Islamaphobic leaders do not pay a price,” said another one.
Even the kids who just finished Arabic class — like the girl whose pink hijab matched her Hello Kitty backpack — knew that something big was happening in Virginia next week, and the adults at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, better known as ADAMS, were talking about it.
“My dad said he don’t know who he’s voting for yet, but he said he’s going to vote against Trump no matter what,” one of the girls declared.
Guess what, Donald Trump? Your bigotry has inspired Muslim American voters like no presidential candidate has done before.
“We’re organizing phone banks, we are getting people registered to vote, we’re telling them how important their voices are,” said Abdul Rashid Abdullah, who was helping run the civic engagement meeting at the mosque in Sterling that rainy night.
The mosque does not take an official position on candidates or political parties or make any endorsements. Their civic engagement committee and get-out-the-vote efforts are non-partisan.
But Abdullah, 43, who works in IT and lives in Herndon, said there’s no doubt why Muslim voters are especially energized this election cycle and why election folks are seeing more interest from Muslims in participating in next week’s Super Tuesday primary than they’ve ever seen before.
It’s called Islamaphobia. And it’s real.
Reports of hate attacks against American mosques tripled last year compared to previous years, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations.
And in Northern Virginia, where one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Muslims have lived with few incidents for decades, the shift in attitude is palpable.
In Fredericksburg, a mosque that has been in the city for almost three decades was met with threatening shouts and open hate at a meeting about its expansion.
Another mosque received a fake bomb. And yet another got threatening calls.
One Virginia school system shut down for an entire day when parents mounted a fierce and menacing backlash when they learned their kids practiced a few lines of Arabic calligraphy as part of a world geography lesson.
I talked to women who have walked in their communities for decades wearing hijabs who are now threatened and harassed in public.
It’s tempting to blame all this on ISIS and frightening terrorism attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. But it wasn’t like this, even Sept. 11, Muslims say.
In fact, hate attacks against American Muslims spike during election cycles. Wonder why?
This round of Islamaphobia has been fueled by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric calling for a “total” ban on Muslims entering the United States — hate speech that has helped make him the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. But it’s also been bolstered by leaders who have remained silent.
“This rise of Islamaphobia? It has inspired our activism,” said Remaz Abdelgader, a 22-year-old George Mason University student and Bernie Sanders campaign volunteer.
Abdelgader, who lives in Alexandria, said she got weird looks here and there for her hijab, but never experienced outright discrimination.
But she was in a crosswalk recently, and a man took a sharp turn toward her in his car, nearly running her over, she said. He rolled down his window and told her to go back to where she came from and that next time, he’ll get her.
“And I was like, ‘Oh. It’s real. And it’s on’,” she said. And she threw herself into political activism, campaigning and doing voter registration drives.
The Muslim population is relatively small in the United States — about 3.3 million, according to a report last month by the Pew Research Center.
But American Muslims have the potential to be a powerful influence at the ballot box because one of their major population concentrations happens to be in one of the country’s battleground states — Virginia.
About 2 percent of the state’s population is Muslim, one of the higher concentrations in the country, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
“I tell people, some of these wins in the primaries are won by a small margin,” Abdullah said. “And if all of us Muslims vote, we can be the ones to make that difference.”
In the past, Muslims haven’t been a dominant force in U.S. politics.
“Our community is in its political infancy,” said Saif Inam, a policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
Like many immigrant populations, the first wave of people were hard-workers, more focused on survival, Inam said.
In old-world thinking, some Muslims believed it was improper to vote for a non-Islamic government. And so the first generation was largely silent. Even their children weren’t noticeably political active, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when most Muslims wanted to blend in and avoid calling attention to themselves.
And then Trump began his anti-Muslim rampage, suggesting that all Muslims in the United States be placed on a special registry and prohibiting newcomers from joining them.
Suddenly, American Muslims were paying attention and speaking out.
There are parallels to the LGBT movement, said Sarah Cochran, “which is funny for me to say, being a Republican.”
Cochran is the Virginia state director for Emerge USA, a group working to bring Muslims and Arabs into the political process.
For too many years, a majority of LGBT folks countered discrimination and hate by living quiet, closeted lives. Now the attitude is, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
This awakening is little bit of where the Muslim population is headed.
Cochran said it’s been a tough road, getting politicians to come meet with mosques and the Islamic community. “Sometimes, they’re still worried about backlash,” she said.
This may be the year that Muslims are done with that.
“I’m American first, then I am Muslim,” Cochran said.
And more leaders need to see that.
“Sometimes, we see America treating us like we’re a cancer,” said Ibrahim Moiz, a Fairfax lawyer who is outspoken in his Northern Virginia Muslim community about adapting Islam to modern U.S. living.
Moiz was quoting a recent Ted Talk by Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington.
“Today we hear people actually saying things like: ‘There’s a problem in this country, and it’s called Muslims. When are we going to get rid of them?’ ” Mogahed said. “So, some people want to ban Muslims and close down mosques. They talk about my community kind of like we’re a tumor in the body of America. And the only question is, are we malignant or benign? You know, a malignant tumor you extract altogether, and a benign tumor you just keep under surveillance.”
Wrong. American Muslims are part of the lifeblood of this country, and this election year they are going to insist that Americans get used to it.