As the 2020 US presidential elections are heating up, American Muslims across the country are overwhelmingly backing Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential candidate. The largest Muslim civic engagement organization, Emgage Action recently endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders for the President of the United States and has started to work with his team.
In their statement, Emgage Action stated, “More than any other presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders has built a historically inclusive movement: one that is grounded in the belief that all humans are equal and worthy of a dignified life. We are proud to stand by his side.” Mohammad Gula who is the National Organizing Director for Emgage spoke at a Bernie rally, declaring, “Bernie sees me for who I am. he sees us for who we are”. Emgage, the Muslim Caucus of America, the Arab American Political Action Committee and many other Muslim leaders and organizations have all publicly announced endorsements of Bernie for president.
Sen Bernie Sanders and Sen Corey Booker were the only 2 candidates for president who attended the national gathering of the Islamic Society of North America in Houston in September 2019. Many Muslims felt slighted that Joseph Biden who was also in Houston at the same time and campaigning did not accept an invitation to attend.
A national survey of American Muslims conducted by Emgage Action as part of the endorsement process showed overwhelming support for Bernie Sanders as the presidential candidate with over 75% of the respondents identifying him as their top pick. A survey by the Council of American Islamic Relation conducted in January 2020 also indicated that Sanders had a commanding lead of Muslim Democrats with 39% of the vote prior to the Iowa caucuses, and with Senator Biden in second with 27%,
Other prominent Muslim Americans are supporting Bernie due to his stances on economic and social justice issues. Both Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women U.S. Congressional representatives and Keith Ellison, former US congressman and current Attorney General for Minnesota were early in endorsing Bernie Sanders. They have been actively campaigning for him.
Rep Omar opened for a Bernie Sanders Rally in St Paul, Minnesota in preparation for Super Tuesday, saying, “we believe in eradicating poverty, we believe in not letting a child go hungry, we believe the lives of people matter … regardless of where they were born… we believe in Medicare for all… this election is about a lot more than Trump, I don’t want to just defeat Trump, I want us to fight for a better future… I want you to vote for the person who will make sure you get that better future — Bernie Sanders!”
However, many seasoned and senior Muslim community leaders are not all enthralled with Bernie. In Michigan, community leaders such as Dr. Mahmoud al-Hadidi, president of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, felt that endorsing far-left candidates is a mistake: “The far-left progressive socialist candidates are less likely to unite the country and win the election. There are more likely to create a division and this can result in the far-right winning moderates over in the election. The American Muslim Community is diverse politically and no one organization speaks on our behalf.”
Farooq Mitha who is one of the co-founders of Emgage has been working with Joseph Biden on a personal level. In a statement, Mitha stated, “Vice President Biden had a track record of getting things done. Right now a country needs a leader that will be ready on day one to address our many challenges and can concurrently unite our country” Kizer Khan, the Gold Star father also has endorsed former Vice President Biden and has coordinated conference calls with him.
Fatima Shamma, a former immigration director for New York City has been organizing meetings to garner support for Michael Bloomberg. Senator Elizabeth Warren also has a Muslim outreach coordinator, Iram Ali, and has developed talking points specifically to address American Muslim community concerns and win the Muslim vote. There is definitely some heterogeneity of political thought present, although mostly on the democratic side of the political spectrum.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council issued a report entitled Muslim Outreach Among Presidential Candidates. Here they documented the level of Engagement by presidential candidates earlier in the election season. Senator Bernie Sanders had the most Muslim staffers. Vice President Joe Biden had at least 3 Muslim advisors. It seems that most of the candidates recognize the importance of the Muslim vote in key swing states.
But is this importance justified? The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) has shown that the Muslim vote has increased although still is quite low compared to other groups (https://www.ispu.org/american-muslim-poll-2019-key-findings/) . During the 2018 elections, up to 73% of eligible Muslims were registered to vote, up from 60% in 2016. Although 83% of Muslims reported the intention to vote, only 59% actually showed up to vote, coining the term “inshallah voters.” Young Muslim voters aged 18 to 29 had the lowest voter participation of all in 2016: 63% compared to age-matched peers at 85%. The authors of the report concluded that a lack of engagement and community education were major contributing factors.
Emgage published a detailed review of Muslim votes in swing states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia in the 2018 election based on their extensive GOTV (get out the vote) work. (https://www.emgageusa.org/2018-midterm-muslim-voter-turnout/). Although Muslim voter turnout increased by 25 percentage points (25% turnout in 2014 to 50% turnout in 2018), there were still proportionately more general voters voting in almost every state compared to Muslim voters. For example, in Michigan, there were 75,000 registered Muslim voters in 2018 and only 50% turned out to vote despite having a Muslim candidate for governor, Abdul El-Sayed and a US Congressional representative, Rashida Tlaib. In contrast, 57% of the general population came out to vote in this off-presidential cycle election. This data shows that Muslim voters are still lagging when it comes to voting, prompting large organizing efforts for the 2020 election.
It is hoped by many Muslim leaders, whether they personally support Senator Sanders or not, that an endorsement of Senator Sanders will drive up voter registration and participation by American Muslims. He has great appeal to Muslims because of the extensive outreach to the American Muslim community. There are also many shared core values regarding social justice, economic equity and health care access. And finally, his foreign policy emphasis on equal valuing of human rights across the world is welcomed by many American Muslims. Whether this increasing participation and support for Senator Sanders will result in another record Muslim turn out remains to be seen. There is still a lot of room for growth in Muslim political power.