WASHINGTON – Political activism among Muslim Americans might be on the rise, driven by Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“It’s really forcing us to politically organize,” said Essma Bengabsia, an 18-year-old Muslim New York University student from New Jersey who calls the anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric a “blessing in disguise.”
It may be impossible to say how Muslim Americans will affect the outcome of the November election. Muslims make up only about 1 percent of the country’s population, according to the Pew Research Center.
But in New Jersey, they account for 3 percent of the population, and in a closely fought state-by-state battle, they could affect the outcome. “Right now is a very critical time in laying the foundation for American Muslim activism,” Bengabsia said.
Muslim Americans are less likely than other Americans to vote or describe themselves as members of a political party, said Jocelyne Cesari, director of the Islam in the West program at Harvard University.
But she said since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Muslim community leaders have been encouraging fellow Muslims to become more engaged politically. That’s especially true when it comes to foreign policy, where Muslims fear being perceived as anti-American.
The rise of Trump to the top of the Republican Party’s presidential ticket, however, may be changing Muslim reluctance to engage in politics. Dina Sayedahmed, 21, from Hudson County, N.J., said Trump’s rhetoric, which she calls “openly insulting and humiliating [to] so many different communities,” makes it “crucial that the Muslim community comes together.”
The search for unity within a Muslim population that is wildly diverse — black, Arabic, South Asian and North African — has given rise to small groups such as Bengabsia’s Muslim Network and the New Jersey Muslim Voter Registration Project.
Jim Sues, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said one result has been an increase in voter registration among Muslims.
Although it’s unclear how many Muslims have registered to vote — religion is not recorded on voting rolls — statistics from heavily Muslim voting districts suggest that registration is up.
For example, 10,957 new voters have registered in the state’s Ninth Congressional District since January. The district includes the city of Paterson, believed to have the second-highest Muslim population in the nation. Overall, the state’s voter rolls have grown by 114,638 in the same period, to more than 5.5 million, as of May 31. More than 400,000 of those are in the Ninth District.
“It has not been hard to register people to vote,” said Jimmy Small, a teacher who is active in the New Jersey Muslim Voter Registration Project. “Not in the past six months or so.”
That, he and others say, is in no small part because of the harsh rhetoric of the political campaign. Small said a student told him that as a Muslim, Small will be kicked out of the country if Trump is elected.
“Down South, my cousins, they don’t even wear headscarves because of how scared they are,” said Fatima Abdallah, 19, from Fairview, N.J. “Islam for us is a way of living, and we can’t even feel comfortable with that.”
Bengabsia said she worries that Trump doesn’t understand the consequences his words have.
“I was born in Brooklyn; raised in Jersey,” she said. “America is my home. But because of the words he’s saying … it’s actually threatening my well-being.”