Julian Castro and Bernie Sanders tell gathering of Muslim Americans that they will counter rising anti-Muslim rhetoric.
As campaigning for the United States presidential election in 2020 picks up, challengers hoping to oust US President Donald Trump have highlighted his anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies.
The campaign strategy comes at a time of increasing hate crimes, for which Democrats and other Trump opponents blame the administration.
Over the weekend in Houston, Texas, two candidates—Democrat Julian Castro and Bernie Sanders, an independent US Senator from Vermont—appealed to American Muslim voters and groups at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention.
“The fact is, as I know, that Muslim Americans for generations have been part of the fabric of our American family,” Castro, from Texas, told the convention’s attendees.
“They have helped make America the great nation it is, and we need to fully embrace it.”
Sanders accused the Trump administration of ratcheting up anti-Muslim rhetoric at a time when hate groups and hate crimes are both swelling.
“We must speak out at hate crimes and violence targeted at the Muslim community and call it what it is: domestic terrorism,” Sanders said.
With recent estimates putting the country’s Muslim population at around 3.45 million, voters from the religious minority are playing an increasingly significant role in electoral politics.
Earlier this year, a study published by the Emgage advocacy group found that in four key states, American Muslims voted in the 2018 midterm elections at a rate that was 25 percent higher than during the 2014 midterm vote.
John Esposito, Director of Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, a research project focusing on Islamophobia, said Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened a pre-existing network of anti-Muslim groups and actors often called the Islamophobia industry.
“We have studies that show that millions upon millions of dollars … went to these anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant groups,” he told TRT World. “But we didn’t have a president, or members of a president’s cabinet, making the kind of statements that have [now] been made.”
Anti-Muslim figures in Trump administration
Since coming to office in January 2017, Trump has introduced a travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries, among others, and slashed the number of refugees admitted into the country to an all-time low of 30,000.
Trump has also elevated well-known anti-Muslim figures in his administration.
In March 2018, Trump appointed John Bolton—a former director of the anti-Muslim Gatestone Institute—to the role of national security advisor.
Late last year, Trump placed Charles Kupperman under Bolton to serve as deputy national security advisor.
Rights groups condemned the appointment, citing Kupperman’s time on the board of directors at the anti-Muslim Center for Security Policy advocacy group between 2001 and 2010.
Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed hardline anti-Muslim views and has been celebrated by ACT for America, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Last week, Muslim American lawmaker Ilhan Omar- one of the first two Muslim female legislators in US Congress- received an apparent death threat.
In a letter the US representative posted online, an anonymous person vowed that Omar’s “life will end”, adding: “You will not be returning to Washington.”
Threatening an attack on Omar at the Minnesota state fair, the assailant claimed: “They say we can’t get the Somali Stink [sic] out of the clean Minnesota air, but we’re going to enjoy the adventure.”
Writing about the incident on social media, Omar, who is of Somali origin, said: “I hate that we live in a world where you have to be protected from fellow humans. I hated it as a child living through war and I hate it now.”
The death threat comes just weeks after Trump targeted Omar and fellow Muslim legislator Rashida Tlaib over their planned trip to Israel and the Palestinian territory.
At Trump’s urging, Israel blocked Omar’s visit and placed restrictions on Tlaib’s trip, in which she visited her grandmother in the occupied West Bank.
In late July, the California-based Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism (CSHE) published a study that found a nine percent increase in hate crimes in 30 cities around the US.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) latest hate crimes tally, released late last year, found a 17-percent increase in hate crimes in 2017, including a rise in religiously-motivated incidents and anti-Arab crimes.
In one such incident, 14 bullets were fired at a home the US city of Indianapolis last week in an incident that local authorities suspect could have been motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.
Speaking to local media, the homeowner—it remains unclear if they are Muslim—said the incident followed a previous act of vandalism in which a yard sign expressing solidarity with American Muslims was destroyed last year.
“We stand with American Muslims,” the sign read, according to the local outlet RTV6 Indianapolis.
The Council for American Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organisation, called on local authorities to investigate the shooting incident as a hate crime.
“There is a toxic atmosphere of othering promoted by our nation’s top elected and public officials that often leads individuals to act on their biases,” said CAIR National Communications Coordinator Ayan Ajeen in a statement on the group’s website.
“Because of this, we urge local, state and federal law enforcement authorities to treat these incidents as possibly bias-motivated attacks.”
Engie Mohsen, a policy programme manager at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said: “The persecution of one faith is an attack on the freedom of religion of all Americans.”
Speaking to TRT World via email, Mohsen said that decreased funding for resources on the “protection, reporting and prosecution of hate crimes” has contributed to “a deficit in tackling the issues impacting American Muslims”.
“It’s difficult to fight a problem when we are in the dark about so much information,” she added.