Muslim voters vow to combat Islamophobia in midterms

“As a democracy, it is so important that we go out and we vote and we engage with our government,” said Engie Mohsen, policy program manager of Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), during a phone interview. “If we’re not at the table, then we’re on the menu.”

Mohsen is referring to the importance of voting for change in the current political climate. Indeed, the  Institute for Social Policy Understanding (ISPU) ISPU reports that Muslim voter registration has increased significantly from 60 percent in 2016, to 68 percent in 2017 and to 75 percent in 2018. “It’s clear that many Muslim Americans are choosing to vote (now) because of the historic threats facing the community,” said Albert Cahn, legal director of Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR) in New York, during a phone interview. 

Locally, longtime incumbent Peter King (R-NY), who is serving his 13th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, is facing a potentially tough challenge from Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley in New York’s 2nd congressional district in the upcoming midterm elections.

Shirley said that part of her reason for entering the race was in response to King’s support for the so-called Muslim ban. In 2017 King backed Republican President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13769 which blocked entry into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

“This is one of the reasons why I decided to run for Congress,” said Shirley in an email interview. “The time has come to give minority communities and under-represented communities a voice in Congress and democracy.” 

Shirley says some voters are horrified by King’s stance because they say it unfairly targets the Muslim community.

“There are pockets of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian Muslim communities that include natural born citizens who have family members who lived here, who are now being barred from returning to their homes based on their faith and religious beliefs,” she said. “In many instances, you would contact your congressional member, but in this case, your member is the one who sponsored and authorized the ban.” 

King’s office did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

Historical perspective 

Advocates for the Muslim community say anti-Muslim propaganda has increased in recent years. “It’s important to look at the historical perspective,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, director of National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), in a phone interview.

“It’s important to know the historical context that these attacks on Muslims are nothing new. But after 9/11 there has been more of shift to more recent policies of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment,” he said.

Hossam Gamea, outreach director of the Islamic Leadership Council, says various government programs work to isolate the Muslim community. “Surveillance laws, terror watch lists, no fly lists, and government programs like Countering Violent Extremism are designed to criminalize the practice of Islam,” said Gamea in an email interview.

Experts say such policies are expected to increase Islamophobia.

“Islamophobia is definitely very real,” said Meira Neggaz, executive director of Institute for Social Policy Understanding (ISPU). 

Neggaz, in a phone interview, says political rhetoric is a major factor in the spread of Islamophobia. “Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been going on for a long time, most notably post 9/11 and every single election cycle there has been a spike amongst certain populations of voters,” she said. 

Negative portrayal of Muslims in media

“The government, media and public, [are] three major players feeding into each other…it’s really [like] a circle,” said Mohsen, MPAC policy program manager.

The ISPU reports that U.S. media portrays Muslims to be more inclined to violence than any other group/ethnicity. The report shows that 52 percent of Muslim women strongly agree that being Muslim is correlated with negative stereotypes. 

The ISPU findings suggest that someone believed to be Muslim accused of  terrorism will receive seven and half times​ the media coverage than any other cultural group even though most American terrorist acts are carried out by white males.

“Phobia is an irrational behavior and in this case, those fears are because of the media,” said Dr. Nasar Shahid, chief coordinator of Project Democracyduring a phone interview.

“Roughly half of Americans know a Muslim personally and the other half don’t and that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for liking somebody,” said Neggaz from ISPU. “Unfortunately, if you know people you tend to just dismiss stereotypes. If you don’t know anyone, those stereotypes can fester.”