Muslims in 2018 will have more voices in the US Congress despite Donald Trump's heightened nationalistic rhetoric.
On Tuesday, the day of the 2018 midterm elections for federal, state and local offices, congressional representatives and state governorships, voters around the country will get a chance to accept or reject Trump’s presidency and his Republican party.
Without delving into the details, Trump’s Republican party is set to keep or gain seats in the Senate, the upper chamber, and Democrats are poised to gain a majority in the House, the lower chamber.
The US will see a handful of Muslim-Americans rise through the ballot box to take roles as public servants, taking office after repeating an oath to protect and defend the US Constitution.
But Muslim Americans are increasingly finding themselves entering a system where the Trump administration is invoking the Bible at every chance it gets.
“Where does it say in the Bible that it’s moral to take children away from mothers?” the reporter asked.
“I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible,” replied White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a June 15 press conference, as the children of asylum-seeking Central American migrants sat in US federal custody, crying for their moms and dads.
CNN reporter Jim Acosta was seeking clarification on something else US Attorney General Jeff Sessions had said earlier that same day, in which he too endorsed a justification from the Bible for obedience to the state.
This full-throated endorsement of religion from a White House cabinet member got lost in the shuffle of other inhumane and obscene statements by the White House.
The Trump administration’s behaviour has become forgettably normal, but we’re starting to forget what normal even was. Normal—before Trump—was a White House that at least stood at a distance from a direct endorsement of religion.
This is the political space Muslim candidates will have to nagivate.
A rejection of fear and hatred?
There are more than 3.3 Muslim in the United States in the United States. For the first time, a handful is entering the country's political life as candidates, although they’ve long been citizens, voters and activists.
Muslims face the same challenges other minority religious groups have endured in the United States, but also others we’ve never seen before - largely due to Trump, or have at least become more mainstream under his administration.
It would make perfect sense for Muslim Americans to become cynical or discouraged by the task ahead. But these citizens have risen to the overwhelming task with a kind of optimism about America that is refreshing.
Whereas some of their fellow citizens have resigned themselves to the failure of the American experiment in representative government, some of the country’s newest citizens are ready to renew it.
Ilhan Omar, a Somali American woman, born in Mogadishu and now a Minnesota state house representative from Minneapolis, will likely win her election on Tuesday. In Michigan, a state Trump won in 2016, Rashida Tlaib is set to win a seat, which would make her the first Palestinian American in the US Congress. They’ll follow Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman, elected in 2006.
For the first time, in 2018, there will be two Muslim women representing their communities in the nation’s capital. And they’ll have won their races in an election where the president has decided to malign imaginary “unknown middle easterners” among a caravan of Central American migrants.
Some observers are even calling this election a referendum on Trump’s habit of spreading lies, hate and fear about foreigners.
Hana Ali, who is running as a Democrat for Tennessee state house representative, has been knocking on thousands of doors to speak with voters in her suburb of Nashville, the 45th district.
She said that building a relationship with her constituents wasn't a matter of explaining her religion to voters, but rather in addressing issues that matter to them.
As a trained physician, she wants to expand public health care to more Americans, and help to end the opioid addiction crisis that has brought so much misery to so many, including injured veterans of US wars abroad.
“Not a single person has ever asked me 'What is your faith?' The whole premise of my campaign, the whole premise of my candidacy, I have made sure that it is about public service. It is about serving my community,” Ali told TRT World.
For Tennesseans, the state government's decision not to expand Medicaid, the US public healthcare system, contributed to a decline in the quality of care to the whole state.
“We have had eleven rural hospitals in Tennessee that closed down. When we expand Medicaid we're going to include 300,000 Tennesseans and give them insurance and out of which 19,000 of them are veterans. These are veterans who have PTSD, these are veterans who have given the best of their lives to the country, and it's time for us to take care of them. This is the issue that people talk about; this is the issue that impacts people in their daily lives.”
Although Ali does not consider her religion to be what she's running on, she recognises that seeking elected office is a way to prevent the marginalisation of Muslims in American society.
“These are some uncertain times we are living in, and there is some drummed up paranoia about immigrants and drummed up hatemongering and fearmongering about ones who don't look like us. Muslim Americans have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves this question: If we do not stand up for ourselves right now, should we expect anyone else to stand up? And why would they stand up? We have to claim our spot in the political process,” Ali added.
Ali came to the United States from Pakistan two decades ago. After the 2016 election, she decided she had to do something
“I took this decision upon myself because I want our future generations to have a positive role model among Muslim women, especially for our daughters.”
Questioning Muslim loyalty
Politicians who are members of minority religious groups in the United States have had to counter claims by a white Protestant elite that they’ll be disloyal to the country or follow the orders of some foreign power.
For Irish Catholic Americans, a persistent slur was that they would take orders from the Pope, and not the voters. For Jewish Americans, nativist and Nazi groups considered them to be anarchists or communists, terrorist agents of foreign conspiracies. For Muslims, the lie from the right for decades has been that Muslims bring with them Sharia law.
Wajahat Ali, a New York Times columnist and Muslim American, said that the election of John F. Kennedy, the country’s first, and so far only, Irish Catholic president, revealed how religious and ethnic minorities overcame prejudice and won the public’s trust.
“When he [Kennedy] was running, he was maligned as a Catholic, and he finally had to say I am an American running for president who happens to be Catholic,” he told TRT World.
“Now you're seeing Muslims say, 'OK, this is how everyone else has done it. We're going to do it now. Why not us?’ And then one of them kind of cracks the ceiling...It follows the old American recipe. Muslims are turning themselves from the boogeymen into elected representatives,” he added.
But unlike Irish Americans or Jewish Americans, Muslims face a second hurdle their predecessors didn’t: negotiating around whiteness.
Muslims, for the most part, cannot disappear into the crowd of other white immigrants and must overcome a second barrier to acceptance.
Whether Muslims can succeed in getting that spot in American political life will show whether the US Constitution’s intention was something real, or just words on paper.
“The intention of the framers of the Constitution was to include language that would allow the full practice, the freedom of worship of different faiths, not just Christian faiths, although the framers were mostly secular. The inclusion of Muslims is the fulfilment of the original intention of the framers and is the realisation of the American dream...If indeed the American dream was intended to include liberty and justice for all,” he added.
Trump has alienated Muslims from the Republican party
The fact that Muslim candidates in 2018 are running almost all as Democrats is the result of the Republican party, Trump’s party, completely abandoning them as a voting bloc.
In the 2000 election, Muslims split between the centre-right and centre-left policies of Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. But over the last 18 years, the Republican party has shown hostility to Muslims, making sure they know they’re not welcome.
“The Republican Party only wants religious liberties and freedoms for white Christians,” Ali added.
Sanders’ endorsement of the Bible as a source of the president’s authority illustrates one of the obstacles Muslim Americans in 2018 must confront in their entry to American political life: the Trump administration’s embrace of religious identity politics.
Muslims are coming into political power when the constitution they’ll swear to uphold is under assault by the president himself.
I can’t recall any reporters thinking to ask President Barack Obama's Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the Biblical dimensions of Obama's drone policy or his record of deportations. But no Obama administration official had ever claimed that he was carrying out God’s will on earth.
Muslims are trying to make their way at a time when the party in power has abandoned neutrality in matters of religion. And in proposing an end to birthright citizenship and the ban on travel to the United States by residents of certain Muslim countries, Trump and his Republican party have made clear their hostility to multiculturalism.
Preserving the American dream is not a spectator sport, but it’s also not a task Muslims can accomplish alone. Protecting the rights of Muslims requires solidarity and cooperation across faiths, colours and cultures.
Mahdi Taakilo, a Somali American community activist in Columbus, Ohio, said that Trump’s election emboldening racists and nativists woke many in his community up to the high stakes of the new, dangerous era.
“They are already American, and those who don’t have a passport they are really trying to get it. They are trying to unite their voice. They are trying to unite their money,” said Taakilo, president of the charity group HAND, Helping Africans in a New Direction, as well as the publisher of The Somali Link, a Somali language community newspaper in Columbus, the capital of Ohio.
“There are so many elected officials who really sympathise with the Muslims. They do need to have a voice in Congress, but that’s enough. They need to have a friend. There are so many Christians and so many Jews who are friendly with Muslims, and the Muslims need to help get them elected. They will be the voice for the Muslims. Muslims cannot be the majority of the US Senate, but what we can do is we can make friends,” Taakilo told TRT World.
He stressed that the main thing Muslims need to do this year is to vote, and he’s encouraging everyone to do that.
“Right now the most important thing for Muslims is that they need to go to vote. The situation is getting weird,” Taakilo said.
“Everybody needs to vote. We are making sure that every Muslim can vote goes to vote. If she’s 90 years old, if she’s 100 years old, we’re going to make sure everybody votes.”