As the U.S. Muslim population continues to grow, only two Muslim Americans currently hold seats in Congress, André Carson and Keith Ellison. But, now, seventeen years after 2001, a record number of Muslim Americans are running for political office. This election cycle, over ninety Muslim-Americans have run for national or statewide office. Some notable names include Abdul El-Sayed (who lost the Democratic primary for governor of Michigan on Tuesday August 7), Deedra Abboud (D-AZ), Tahirah Amatul-Wadud (D-MA), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN). On Tuesday, Rashida Harbi Tlaib (D-MI) won the Democratic primary in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. With no viable Republican challenger in November, she is set to become America’s first Muslim and Palestinian-American congresswoman in January. Tlaib’s predicted victory is a spark of hope for a marginalized community seeking positive representation and participation in a nation that has failed them.
The successful campaigns and candidacies of Muslim Americans have unsurprisingly spurred hate and heavy criticism. Islamophobic attacks on social media and calls on Muslim Americans candidates to denounce outlier opinions held by other members of the Muslim community have become commonplace. Some government officials, like Graham Fountain, the Commissioner for Okaloos County, Florida, have even peddled in conspiracy theories, claiming Muslims are running for office to establish sharia law in the United States.
Though Islamophobia has long existed in the United States, over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, both he and other members of his administration have unabashedly promoted negative images of Muslims, through both rhetoric and policy. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), hate crimes against Muslim Americans and anti-Muslim bias rose in 2017 by 15 percent and 17 percent, respectively. Some Muslims have even begun to internalize and accept negative stereotypes about themselves.
Despite this hostility, Muslim American candidates have cited it as driving their involvement in politics. Instead of being apologetic for their religion or culture, these candidates have shown that Muslim Americans can (and should) be included in the American political narrative.
According to a Pew Research Center study (2018), people who personally know a Muslim are generally more likely to have positive views of them and their religion. In the United States, only 45 percent of adults stated that they know someone who is Muslim compared to other religious groups in the country. In another Pew Research Center survey (2016), a majority of Americans expressed clear reservations about Islam’s place in U.S. society, with 25 percent believing half or more U.S. Muslims are anti-American. 44 percent believe there is a natural conflict and incompatibility between the tenets of Islam and the principles of democracy.
While most American Muslim candidates are proud and unashamed to be Muslim, they are not simply running on a platform of identity politics. Public representation, nevertheless, matters, and can aid in the fight against Islamophobia. In an administration that has normalized racism and white supremacy, Muslim Americans have taken it upon themselves to be the representation their communities and country need and deserve.