A Muslim American political renaissance?
A record number of progressive Muslim Americans are vying for governmental office across the US.
By: Khaled A Beydoun
Shortly after winning her hotly contested primary for US Congress, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib immediately packed her bags and headed northwest, landing in Minnesota to work on another campaign. For this longtime community-organiser-turned-politician, celebrating her landmark victory took a backseat to doubling up on history, eying the goal of sending two Muslim American congresswomen to Congress.
With the August 14 Minnesota primary looming, Tlaib joined Ilhan Omar, who like Tlaib, made her own bit of history by becoming the first Somali American legislator in US history. Tlaib joined the Omar camp in the final hour of the campaign, adding her momentum and voice to her friend and progressive political ally, inspired by the goal of entering Congress and the history books together.
That vision became reality on Tuesday evening, with Omar winning soundly over five other Democrats in the field. She took nearly half of the vote (48 percent) and succeeded another Muslim, Keith Ellison, in Minnesota’s fifth congressional district. Yes, a Muslim woman from Michigan travelled to Minnesota to help another Muslim woman fill a congressional seat vacated by a Muslim man, in a circuit of collaboration that is poised to deliver these two historical figures into the US House of Representatives come January 2019.
Tlaib and Omar may be the most visible and leading symbols of the Muslim American political renaissance unfolding right now in the US, highlighted by a record number of Muslim Americans vying for governmental seats across the country. But they represent the beginning of a renaissance that is sure to continue in the coming years, and well beyond the reign of Trump.
More than a Muslim-lash Against Trump
While stumping in Minnesota, Tlaib referred to Omar as, “a Muslim woman like me,” but articulated that their affinity superseded faith. “Our connection is more about our shared values: We both want to lift up underrepresented communities and voices, for the benefit of all Americans.”
Not surprisingly, much of the reports following Tlaib’s primary win and those pouring in after Omar’s victory centre squarely on their ethnic, racial, and most incessantly, their religious identities as Muslims. But the meaningful ties that bind the two political trailblazers are more personal and political. Omar came to the US as a refugee from war-torn Somalia in 1995, gravitating to the Twin Cities along with waves of Somalis seeking haven in the North Star State. Minneapolis, dubbed “Little Mogadishu” because of its sizable Somali population, mobilised Omar to be an advocate for immigrants, and a mouthpiece for those that needed an advocate. Similarly, Tlaib’s immigrant parents settled in Detroit, finding a home in the city’s blue-collar and gritty southwest section, living within a thriving Arab, Latinx and African American community that shaped her cross-community resonance, and intersectional political messages.
Detroit and Minneapolis were kindred settings, where the hurdles of navigating life in America for women of colour, the ubiquitous racism and xenophobia looming in the streets and beyond, and the perils of poverty can break a person early on in life. Or, in the case of Tlaib and Omar, these circumstances conditioned a commitment to social justice that inspired them to serve the most vulnerable and disrupt the machinations that embed the status quo.
Therefore, the Muslim American political wave led by Tlaib and Omar, and rounded out by a racially and regionally diverse cast of progressive candidates including Abdul El-Sayed in Michigan, Tahirah Amatul Wadud in Massachusetts, and Deedra Abboud in Arizona, who is vying for a US Senate seat, and many more who have competed this election cycle, is inspired mostly by a progressive vision for America. While this record number of Muslim Americans contending for political seats across the country was popularly dubbed the “Trump effect” or a reaction spurred by the Muslim Ban, that framing overlooks the more potent drivers pushing Muslim Americans to run for office – a robust commitment to progressive values, the language of social justice, and a near collective shift towards the democratic socialist philosophy ushered in by Bernie Sanders.
More than ‘Muslim Candidates’
The unprecedented wave of Muslim Americans running for office comes during a moment of intense Islamophobia in the US, trumpeted from the highest office in the land and supported by a Supreme Court that upheld the Muslim Ban in June. This was the landscape Muslim American candidates were forced to navigate while campaigning, oftentimes exposing themselves to Islamophobic attacks on the ground and on social media. Despite the media’s fixation on the religious identity of Tlaib and Omar, El-Sayed and Abboud, and the scores of other Muslims running for state and national seats as a response this hostile landscape emboldened by Trump, many of these candidates framed their religion as part of more robust and richer identities, and tied to political missions that sought to address state-sponsored subordination of immigrants, African Americans, the poor, the under-resourced and employed, centring intersectional priorities instead of their faith.
These Muslim candidates were physicians and social justice leaders, mothers and policymakers, black and brown, from poor and middle-class backgrounds, Ivy League educated with higher degrees to holders of bachelors’ degrees from local colleges. Their disparate experiences and distinct journeys, as people, were bound by a converging commitment to represent the interests of marginalised peoples of all races and religions, ethnicities and backgrounds. Islam was the most outward link that united these candidates, but deeper scrutiny reveals that political philosophy, anchored by a consensus commitment to better education, accessible healthcare, raising the minimum wage, an explicit disavowal of racism and bigotry of all stripes, and other core baselines of the progressive agenda, is the most meaningful thread.
Therefore, this Muslim American political renaissance that is taking place in real time, right now, is a green wave driven more by shared values, not shared religion. Marking a Muslim American shift that is pointedly progressive, spearheaded by politicians – like Tlaib and Omar – that are far more than the first Muslim American congresswomen.However, this promises to be only the beginning of this renaissance, with scores of wide-eyed Muslim American progressives buoyed by the momentum these candidates have generated, eager to follow in their footsteps in coming elections.