Can Muslim politicians survive in today’s USA?

US voters seem to fail to see past the faith of Muslim American politicians, regardless of candidates’ background.

Deedra Abboud
Abboud is a convert who was born and raised in Arkansas [Astrid Galvan/AP]

New York City, US – Deedra Abboud, a Muslim American Democrat who is running for an Arizona Senate seat next year, stirred a hornets’ nest in early July.

The headscarf-wearing politician wrote on her Facebook page about the separation of church and state, spurring a barrage of criticism.

“Get out stinking Muslim,” read one post on her page.

Her Republican rival, Senator Jeff Flake, and others, came to Abboud’s defence. But many of the online trolls could not get past the headscarf to see that blue-eyed Abboud was a convert who was born and raised in Arkansas.

“I went in with my eyes wide open. I knew exactly what would happen and what would come out of the woodwork,” Abboud, 45, told Al Jazeera.

In a toxic political climate that teaches people to “demonise our fellow Americans”, voters are more focused on Abboud’s faith than on her policies for defending gays, immigrants and the right to have an abortion, she said.

Abboud has only a slim chance of winning in a traditionally red state that helped Donald Trump become president. The attack on her was just the latest example of the uphill struggle Muslims face at the ballot box.

“I track about 30 or 40 Muslim candidates in the US and every one of them is subject to such attacks,” Abdulkader Sinno, an Indiana University scholar and editor of the book Muslims in Western Politics, told Al Jazeera.

After winning a seat in Minnesota’s state legislature, Somali-born representative Ilhan Omar revealed how she endured “derogatory, Islamophobic, sexist taunts and threats” from a taxi driver in Washington, DC in December.

The most prominent Muslim American politician, Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman and deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has repeatedly faced allegations of being an anti-Semitic religious hard-liner.

Voter registration at a mosque in Queens, New York City, during the 2016 election [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
Voter registration at a mosque in Queens, New York City, during the 2016 election [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

Huma Abedin, an aide to 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was scrutinised for having links to the Muslim Brotherhood and for spending her childhood in Saudi Arabia during the campaign.

More prominently, former president Barack Obama, an avowed Christian, was painted by detractors as a foreign-born Muslim. By 2015, about 29 percent of Americans believed Obama was Muslim, and Republicans were more likely to buy the fallacy.

According to Sinno, about 70 percent of Americans are less likely to vote for Muslim candidates. Such politicians as Ellison and Omar can only beat those odds by targeting sympathetic districts and pushing religion to one side.

Voters do not see Ellison only as a Muslim, but as an African American with an English name who has become a powerful voice at the progressive end of the Democratic Party, said Sinno. Being a man helps too, he added.

The same goes for Indiana congressman Andre Carson, who became the second Muslim American congressman in 2008. Omar was elected to the state legislature, meaning her voters came from a small district that is dominated by Somali Americans and city-dwelling liberals.

None of this is true for Abboud, added Sinno.

“She wears her religion not just on her sleeve, but on her head. At an unconscious level, voters only see her as a Muslim rather than as a white woman or a lawyer,” Sinno said.

The candidate agrees, in part. The headscarf is a “trigger”, but Muslims are only one sidelined group in a political scene that also penalises women, black people and others, Abboud said in a phone interview.

“Islam is the flavour of the month, but we’re not the only flavour on the menu,” she said.

Q&A: The man running to be US’ first Muslim governor

Zead Ramadan, 50, also played the demographics game – and lost.

The Palestinian American coffee shop owner ran in a Democratic primary vote for the city council in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City in 2013.

Despite his record of public service, Latino, black and white voters showed little enthusiasm for his Arabic-sounding name, he said.

The candidates’ manifestos and experience were trumped by identity politics, he said. This boded badly for Ramadan, as the district’s 10,000 registered Muslim American voters did not turn out on polling day, he added.

“They mostly come from fake democracies, autocracies or monarchies. The vein of democracy is not very robust in their history. It will take a generation or so to come out and vote after immigrating to the US,” Ramadan told Al Jazeera.

This may be changing. The estimated 3.3 million Muslim Americans make up only a sliver of the electorate, but efforts are under way to increase turnout in elections and to run for local and national office.

The Arab American Institute and other groups registered voters at mosques during last year’s campaign.

Muslims could play an outsized role in voting as they are clustered in Florida, Ohio, Michigan and other battleground states, organisers said.

Emerge Action, a political action committee, is raising money to get more Muslims into office. Last year, it funded online videos against Trump, who called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering” the US.

Organisers expect to see more candidates like Abboud run the gauntlet.

There are high hopes for Abdul El-Sayed, 32, an Egyptian American doctor, sports champion and Rhodes Scholar who is running to be Michigan’s governor in 2018.

Outside the US

Muslim politicians outside the US have to overcome similar challenges.

Last year, voters chose Sadiq Khan, an observant Muslim, to be London mayor – the first elected Muslim mayor of any major European city.

During the campaign, he defended himself from claims of holding “extremist views” and has since come under Twitter attacks from Trump.

Khan was buoyed by London’s demographics, where an estimated one million Muslims make up about one eighth of a population that is more liberal than elsewhere in Britain, said Sinno.

Muslims are, however, generally under-represented in European politics, much like in the US.

The inverse holds true for Christians in some Muslim-majority countries.

In May, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of Jakarta, Indonesia, was sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy after Muslim groups organised mass rallies during his tumultuous re-election campaign.

Purnama, an ethnic-Chinese Christian who is popularly known as “Ahok”, was jailed after he criticised his political rivals for using a verse from the Quran against him.

The case was widely viewed as a challenge to Indonesia’s secular institutions.

According to Sinno, the “dynamics are similar” between East and West. Muslim hard-liners in Indonesia provoked public anger to bend democracy to their will, much as Republican-aligned Evangelicals push a pro-Christian agenda in Washington.

Oddly enough, this is exactly what landed Abboud in trouble in the first place. When she discussed the division of church and state under the US constitution, trolls branded her a Satanist adherent of a “filthy death cult”.

“I believe that the wall between church and state is being torn down – and we need to fortify it. I don’t want to live in a theocracy; I don’t think any American wants to live in a theocracy,” said Abboud.

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera