There are more than 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, but Muslim Americans hold just two of the 535 seats in Congress. And the Muslim community’s voter participation pales in comparison to the general public’s.
The rise of Muslim candidates coincides with the growth of the predominantly immigrant population and a partisan shift that has played out over a generation. In a 2001 Zogby poll of American Muslims, 42 percent said they voted for Republican George W. Bush in the previous year’s presidential election, while 31 percent said they voted for Democrat Al Gore. By last year, just 8 percent of voting American Muslims in a Pew poll said they voted for Trump, while 78 percent said they voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
While Clinton’s campaign never garnered broad enthusiasm from Muslim communities, Trump’s campaign — which called for the monitoring of mosques and a ban on Muslims entering the United States — delivered a jolt on election night that some American Muslims likened to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“It woke everyone up,” Nawabi said.
Now, Muslim candidates are running for a wide range of offices across the country, from local school boards to the U.S. Senate. Some are making their Muslim identity central to their campaigns.
“When you put someone in a corner and they’re in survival mode, they have a tendency to come out and speak more prominently about their beliefs,” said Nawabi, who considers himself an “unapologetic Muslim” who can quote the Koran from memory and moonlights as a “freelance imam.”
In Michigan, where 13 Muslim candidates are running for office, physician Abdul El-Sayed is hoping voters will elect him to be the first Muslim governor in the United States and has used his religion in campaign ads against Republican front-runner Bill Schuette, whom Trump has endorsed.
“Donald Trump and Steve Bannon would love to see a right-wing radical like Bill Schuette elected in Michigan,” reads a Facebook ad for Sayed, who faces a Democratic primary in August. “You know what would be sweet justice? If we elected a 33-year-old Muslim instead of Bill Schuette. Send a message and help elect the first Muslim governor in America.”
A half a century ago, a small population of black Americans embraced Islam as a pathway to political empowerment and civil rights, and today their descendants are members of the U.S. military, police officers, city council members and career civil servants.
But in the immigrant community, the experience is newer. About two-thirds of American Muslims are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and activists say a cultural fear or mistrust of government can accompany those who have fled authoritarian regimes, hindering participation in the political process.
“A lot of people feel like, ‘I’m just going to make my money, put my head down,’” said Nawabi, whose family arrived in San Diego as refugees from Afghanistan when he was a toddler.
They feel political involvement “puts a target on their backs because that’s what it meant where they came from,” he said.
A small number of Muslim and Arab advocacy groups, such as e the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Emgage (formerly called Emerge USA), and the Arab American Institute have spent years training young political activists, tracking rising politicians and running get-out-the-vote campaigns, particularly in immigrant communities after the 9/11 terrorist attacks set off an anti-Muslim and anti-Arab backlash.
But Trump’s policies have intensified the push for political activism in the diverse community. There was the travel ban, which sought to prohibit entry to people from several Muslim-majority countries, as well as refugees. There were Trump’s calls to monitor mosques and his appointments of Cabinet members and political advisers who have disparaged and mocked Muslims. There were the comments and tweetsthat cast Islam as inherently dangerous and called Muslim patriotism into question.
Emgage, a nonprofit organization geared toward promoting Muslim political engagement, polled registered Muslim voters after the 2016 presidential election and found that 53 percent felt “less safe.”
“But the response has been increased civic participation,” said Wa’el Alzayat, the organization’s chief executive. “I’m one of the people who, looking at the long-term impact of this, is optimistic.”
A sizable generation of American-born Muslims and Arabs are in their 20s and 30s, their school years shaped by 9/11, and their comfort and familiarity in the American political system far surpassing that of their immigrant parents.
“They’re ready,” said James Zogby, a longtime Democratic operative and president of the Arab American Institute, who has provided funding and mentorship to several candidates. “Both communities separately have reached a level of maturation.”
Nawabi, a self-described “typical millennial” and avid surfer, was never interested in politics until Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) captured his attention during the 2016 presidential race. But it was the day after Trump won the election that Nawabi decided he needed to act.
That morning, he walked into the local Islamic school where he was then teaching, imagining how his students’ parents might be “trying to explain to their kids that there’s a bigot, a racist, in the White House.”
But when he got to the classroom, he realized his second-graders were already thinking about it.
“They were talking about where they were going to move now that Trump was president,” said Nawabi. “That really affected me.”
Before long, he had become an assembly district delegate for the California Democratic Party, a win he attributed to his ability to mobilize 200 Muslim voters. He gave sermons at mosques attended by mostly immigrants about the importance of seeing themselves as part of the American political system, and he launched a Muslim American Democratic Club in San Diego.
“The Republican Party has completely thrown our community under the bus,” he said.
He added his name to the ballot for city council.
The call to action among American Muslims has yielded a diverse array of candidates. They include former Obama administration officials and longtime political activists, but also physicians and lawyers, women’s rights advocates, a molecular biologist and a former Planned Parenthood manager.
The flurry of candidacies makes for a lot of potential “firsts.”
Asif Mahmood, a 56-year-old pulmonologist, would be the first Muslim insurance commissioner in California. Deedra Abboud, 45, in Arizona, or Jesse Sbaih, 42, in Nevada, could be the country’s first Muslim senator.
And any one of four Muslim women — Nadia Hashimi, 40, in Maryland; Sameena Mustafa, 47, in Illinois; or Fayrouz Saad, 34, and Rashida Tlaib, 41, in Michigan — could be the first in Congress.
Muslim political activists and community leaders say they’ve noticed more young Muslims showing up to political events ranging from legislative hearings and school board meetings to women’s marches and civil rights rallies.
“I think you see this invigoration of the younger generation who is like, ‘We need to stand up and share our narratives and share our stories. We can’t stand on the sidelines,’ ” said Abdullah Hammoud, 27, who won election to Michigan’s state legislature in 2016. “There is this fire lit under them. They see their rights being stripped away, day in and day out.”
Several also have dealt with backlash. “Sorry no room for Muslims in our government,” one man wrote last year on Abboud’s campaign Facebook page. Kia Hamadanchy, the 32-year-old son of Iranian immigrants who is running for Congress in Southern California, said he occasionally has to delete online comments, including one that said, “He wants to behead you all.”
Nawabi says a few people have asked him why he has a beard, whether he speaks English and even whether he’s a terrorist.
Still, many Muslim candidates are wearing their religion as a badge of honor.
“As a Muslim immigrant from the great blue state of California, I’m a triple threat to Donald Trump!” Mahmood posted on his campaign website.
“The child of Palestinian immigrants . . . the first female Muslim elected to the Michigan Legislature,” Rashida Tlaib, running for Congress, wrote on hers.
Some candidates and political activists say that even if no Muslim candidate wins a seat this year, the blue Muslim wave still will have accomplished something. The American public will grow more accustomed to seeing Muslim candidates, they say, and Muslim youth will see candidates who look like them or share their values.
Many, they hope, will be inspired.
Under Trump, Zogby said, “Running itself becomes making a statement.”
Jorge Ribas in San Diego contributed to this report.