In 2000, George W. Bush actively courted the Muslim-American vote and was rewarded with the presidency. Overall, he took 70 percent of the Muslim vote. In Florida, where the election was ultimately decided, he won 60,000 Muslim votes, according to the American Muslim Alliance. Had Gore made the effort, the White House might have been his.
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“At the time, Muslim voters identified with GOP family values and felt the party was stronger on civil liberties,” said journalist Dena Takruri in a report from Tampa, Florida for AJ+, an online news site affiliated with Al Jazeera. “That quickly changed after 9/11.”
Suddenly, America was engaged in two wars in the Middle East, which gave rise to anti-Muslim sentiment, increased surveillance and even incidents of violence at home. In 2004, Muslim Americans began to decamp to the Democrats, with three-quarters saying they planned to vote for John Kerry. By 2008, upwards of 85 percent of Muslims voted for Barack Obama.
It’s likely that a majority of Muslim Americans would have favored Hillary Clinton anyway, but when Donald Trump announced last December that he would impose a ban on Muslim immigration, he thrust the community into an uncomfortable spotlight and all but exiled them from the Republican Party.
Paired with the mass killings in San Bernardino and Orlando, Trump’s rhetoric has helped fuel an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes, the biggest since shortly after 9/11. But it also seems to be mobilizing the community to vote in even larger numbers, which may tip the balance in the tightly-contested Florida race.
Just as Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants and an American judge of Mexican descent appear to have been a catalyst to record Latino registration and early voting, his stance against Muslims could inspire new voters to cast a ballot against him. In July, more than 300,000 new Muslim Americans had registered to vote, according to the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations.
“The Muslim community definitely feels a sense of urgency around Donald Trump’s presidential election bid,” Laila Abdelaziz, government affairs director for Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, told Takruri. “They’re definitely not voting for him They feel their civil rights are under attack. So Muslims really understand that a lot is at stake for them.”
Last night, at the Arab American Association of New York in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood on the south west corner of Brooklyn that has a large Arab population, dozens of volunteers crowded into several rooms and surrounded tables filled with phones and community-donated snacks that had been dropped off all day. Joining them were members of the social justice organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Together, they called over 4,000 Muslim voters in various swing states, contributing to an effort expected to result in record turnout.
“We’ve never dealt with a more blatantly Islamophobia candidate of our history,” Zara Rahim, a spokesperson with the Hillary Clinton campaign who is involved with Muslim-American outreach, told Haaretz. “It reminds [Muslim-Americans] of places they fled from or came from.”
As Bush did in 2000, the Clinton campaign has actively courted the Muslim vote. “This is the first time there has been a specific Muslim outreach program with specific resources dedicated to supporting our goals,” Rahim said. The campaign has worked closely with community leaders in heavily Arab areas, such as Dearborn, Michigan. “We’re making sure they understand the implications of not voting, what’s a stake.”
Clinton famously lost the Michigan primary to her rival, Bernie Sanders, who appeared to win a majority of the Muslim vote. In light of Trump's anti-Muslim platform, Muslims were now clearly flocking to Clinton. Her campaign however has faced criticism for the democratic candidate's messaging about the community, referring to them first as allies in the fight against terrorism rather than citizens with normal concerns about, say, healthcare and jobs. Clinton's hawkish foreign policy stance in the Middle East makes many uneasy. Still, as a voter told Takruri in Tampa, “she realizes that Muslims are people and that we’re not terrorists.”
Rahim reports that “we are seeing a higher engagement with Muslim-Americans than any other election.” Some of that is thanks to the implementation of a Muslim version of “Souls to the Polls,” a reference to the communal early voting trips organized by black churches on Sundays, in which "Get Out the Vote" efforts have taken place in mosques on Fridays, an important day of prayer for Muslims. “We’ve seen for the first time Imams stopping in the middle of prayers to say, ‘you better go out to vote!’” said Rahim.
If the effort pays off, the Muslim vote could swing the election in Florida. After being a target of Trump’s rhetoric for the past year, Muslim Americans are planning to stand up to him at the polls. “We’re no longer letting this election be about Muslims without Muslims," said Rahim.