In the last decade, the Council on American Islamic Relations received calls from many Muslims who asked whether it was Islamically permissible to vote. In the last two election cycles, CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, has not received a single such phone call, signalling that many have reconciled Islam and voting.
But as Muslim immigrants deepen their roots in the region and develop a culture of voting, the question has transformed from whether Muslims can vote to whether Muslims’ vote will count. Community activists and organizations say many Muslims are disillusioned by the government’s perceived disregard for civil liberties and rising Islamophobia. This limited political efficacy is heightened by limited information on how to vote and language barriers, prompting calls for masajid to step up civic engagement.
“While we do associate ourselves with this country, we do not associate ourselves with the politics of this country,” said Rizwan Siddiqi, the director of the Howard County Muslim Council and president of the United Maryland Muslim Council. “Our vote has a voice and it should make a difference.”
As roots deepen, a culture shifts
In the immigration wave of the 1980s, apathy and disengagement were often drilled into the psyche of Muslim immigrants from countries where democracy does not exist. Assuming America was the same, many did not develop a culture of voting.
CAIR’s government affairs manager, Robert McCaw, attributes the shift to an increasing number of Muslims educated in America who understand the democratic process and a growing number of religious scholars who appreciate the importance of civic engagement from a religious perspective.
“As the Muslim community has grown, so have the number of scholars that have been educated in this country who understand our democratic process,” McCaw said.
Since moving from Egypt in 1991 and becoming citizens, Abeer Gaber and her parents voted in school board, local and presidential elections. Gaber says seeing that their votes didn’t matter in Egypt pushed her parents to vote in America.
“We have a sense of responsibility to vote because we didn’t have that chance in Egypt,” said Gaber, an “I Am Change” fellow for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national Muslim advocacy organization.
Still, some immigrants may live in the United States, but their hearts are still tied to the politics of their home countries, Siddiqi said.
For Qadri Sameena, an immigrant from India, that tie strengthened her desire to be part of the democratic system. She sees voting as an extension of her Islamic duty.
“When Caliph Umar (ra) passed away, he appointed members to the community who would choose the new Caliph,” she says. “Multiple people should be part of the process.”
This sense of civic duty is being inculcated across generations, signalling hope for increased civic engagement in generations to come. Sameena’s daughter, Salwa Shan, a junior at the University of Maryland, agrees.
“[Voting] aligns with Islam’s goals of making sure you are a contributing member to society and are involved in what is going on in your community,” she said. “You have to be aware of issues as well as involved if you want to help benefit.”
“Post 9/11, Does My Vote Count?”
But gains in the increased acceptance of voting have been offset by limited information about how to vote and disillusionment about the voting process. “There’s something to be said about political efficacy when people need to be reminded they can and should vote,” Gaber said.
S. Qazi, a resident of Columbia, Md., says she is confident in her decision not to vote. “I don’t want to answer to on the Day of Judgement to Allah about not only idly standing by but also supporting politicians who have agendas against Muslims,” she says.
These concerns are common, says Zainab Chaudry, CAIR’s outreach coordinator for Maryland. “I tell people that we have to realize that if we don’t vote, we allow someone else to speak for us,” she says. “Failing to participate removes us from the table.”
In swing states like Virginia with sizable Muslim populations and more than 12,000 registered Muslim voters, voting is especially key. Candidates are increasingly recognizing the Muslim bloc. U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie, for example, tweeted out a photo wishing the Muslim community a happy Eid and attended a community event at ADAMS Center, a masjid in Sterling, Virginia.
Even when Muslim candidates run for electoral positions like Jay Jalisi, the Democratic nominee for Maryland’s General Assembly elections in District 10, Muslim participation in local meetings is very low. Of the 200 volunteers part of the Jalisi campaign, only one is Muslim, Jalisi says.
There are few quantified studies of Muslim voters and Muslim engagement in the voting process. Roughly 69 percent of Muslim registered voters plan to vote in Tuesday’s midterm elections and nearly half support the Democratic Party while 23 percent declined to answer, according to a CAIR poll released last Wednesday. The poll was based on six states with major Muslim populations, including Virginia.
Will masajid fill the information gap?
As centers of the community, masajid must do more to engage disillusioned and immigrant Muslims and provide critical information about the voting process at a time when disillusionment with the voting process is high, community activists say.
Siddiqi says he’s very disappointed with masajid’s role in voting. “Imams have hundreds of people in front of them during Friday prayers,” he says. “They should talk to them. They have more followers.The message is more powerful there.”
His council called more than 300 Muslims to organizing a voting rally last month. Around 120 people attended.
“There is no history of mosques and Islamic organizations participating in electoral politics,” says Jalisi, comparing Muslim involvement to other minority and immigrant groups.
Few immigrants are aware early voting is an option, SiddiqI says. He immigrated from Pakistan in 1994. Other than listserv reminders and brief announcements, Siddiqi says masajid rarely push for early registration or absentee ballots.
Masajid should organize regular voter registration drives, phone banks and help the community understand the electoral process, especially for immigrants whose language barriers prevent them from understanding how to vote, Chaudry says.
McCaw applauds masajid in Virginia like Dar al-Noor in Manassas, ADAMS Center and Dar al-Hijrah in Falls Church that set up phone banks to remind voters about Election Day. In partnership with Virginia American Muslim Civic Coalition (VAMCC), CAIR contacted around 14,000 Muslim households with registered Muslim voters in Virginia and plans to conduct post-election polling.
Another common concern is limited transportation to polling stations. By organizing community carpools, masajid can make voting a community-based movement, Chaudry says.
“We as a community really need to wake up,” Siddiqi says. “If we do not, we will always be left behind and Muslims will always be the underdogs.”
This story is written as part of the voting rights fellowship with New America Media.