This election, America's 3.3 million Muslims are stepping up like never before to get out the vote. In the next 20 days leading to Election Day, EmergeUSA will share 20 stories about the people who are making sure our voices are heard. Through videos and photos we'll feature volunteers, community leaders, and EmergeUSA staff from across the country.
Our first feature is Remaz Abdelgader, 23. She's EmergeUSA's Virginia phone banking manager, an intern at the office of House Representative André Carson, and an aspiring human rights lawyer. Last year, Remaz unexpectedly ended up on stage at a Bernie Sanders rally when she asked him how he would address growing Islamophobia in the U.S.
"He called me up to stand next to him and express his concern. Although he didn't outline a policy that day, we followed up with him and his campaign invited me speak with voters about my experience as a Muslim American," Remaz says. "Whoever is elected, we have to remain engaged and work for policies that address our community. That is what democracy is about—elections, of course, but also all the organizing that happens in between."
At just 20-years-old, Mohammad Nadeem is the executive director of The Muslim Observer, a national newspaper he's transforming into an online media platform.
"In the Muslim American community, we have doctors, lawyers, and engineers but very few people consider becoming journalists. We've ceded that profession to others which means we're constantly being misrepresented. My mission is to make sure we start investing in telling our own stories to change the narrative, speak out, and give a voice to those who have been silent in our community.
I want to encourage other young Muslims to think more like leaders, to get inspired by more than what's trending on Twitter. People in my age group are some of the least engaged in the electoral process but we're going to change that. If we don't vote, we're giving up a chance to tell candidates who we really are. If Muslim Americans don't tell their own stories someone else will tell them for us."
Rashida Tlaib is the first Muslim-American woman to have served as a state legislature in Michigan—and only the second anywhere in the country. For six years, she represented the diverse constituency of Southwest Detroit, a region plagued by the unemployment and poverty characteristic of America's rust belt.
"I'm raising my two boys to be activists, teaching them that being a Muslim means giving back to the community. In our faith, once you're able to provide for the people at home, you have to go out and take care of your neighborhood as well. It goes beyond just Zakat.
For far too long we've isolated ourselves. We've chosen to talk just to each other and not anyone beyond our community because it was easier. But people want to know who we are. They want to see us marching with Black Lives Matter, fighting for immigrant rights with our Latino brothers and sisters, fighting for environmental justice. When young Muslims ask me how come more leaders aren't stepping up to condemn the Islamophobia of this election cycle, I ask them, 'What did you do when Mexicans were all called rapists?'
It is our duty as Muslims, as Americans, not to wait until our own community is under attack. We have to take action against injustice on behalf of everyone in our neighborhood, no matter their faith, the color of their skin, even their sexual orientation. Just like it says in the Quran, 'lift your hand for good.' It's not enough to talk. Lift your hand to combat poverty, to end violence. And this election, get out there and lift your hand to vote."
Imam Elturk is the leader of the IONA - Islamic Organization of North America and has long built bridges from the Muslim community to the wider public through interfaith activism and community service.
"The Prophet (peace be upon him) taught that the best of people are those who benefit others. Especially given the heightened Islamophobia of our times, volunteerism and other forms of civic engagement must be our top priority.
When we applied to construct our mosque in Warren, Michigan, we were fiercely opposed by city officials and residents just because of who we are. We fought for our right to have a religious center and we won. But during the public hearings the things that even city commissioners said were incredible: 'Not in our city!' 'Go build your mosque somewhere else!' 'Go back to your own country!' Then, shortly after that, an individual threatened my life just outside of the mosque. These are the kinds of experiences Muslim Americans have to endure.
The best way to change this is to build relationships. When the mayor of Warren— MayorJim Fouts—came to speak to our congregation recently, he said, 'I know an evangelical pastor who really loves Muslims.' I said, 'How so?' And he told us, 'The pastor is an old man and members of your congregation went to his home and helped him with his backyard.' So, you see? Through working together with people who didn't know you, people from other faiths or people who might have believed Islamophobic rhetoric, all the barriers come down."
Nabintou Doumbia studies Sociology and Africana Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit. She’s quick to tell you that she’s pre-law as well—just in case you were worried about her career prospects. But no one who's spoken with Nabintou for more than 2 minutes would be worried about her future. At 19, she organizes with the Detroit youth chapter of the Muslim American Society, advocates for therights of incarcerated women, and writes and performs poetry.
“When I started hearing stories of Islamophobic incidents happening here and there, it was a turning point for me. A lot of us hadn’t really encountered Islamophobia directly. It was just this thing we knew happens. Because of what has been said this election cycle though, things have become very scary. Islamophobia has become very real for a lot of us.
Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala, or God, has instilled within every individual a yearning for justice. As we grow up and we’re socialized that yearning gets hidden in many different ways, sometimes even taken out of us. What we’re trying to do is help youth regain that yearning. Through the programming that MAS Youth Detroit does we are reactivating God-conscious activism amongst Muslim youth.
I want to say to my peers that every single frustration you’re having with this election is valid. I understand why you might not want to vote. But we have to broaden our scope a bit. Policy can be more important than politicians. We need to weigh in on the people and local initiatives on the ballot below the presidential candidates. School board members, for example, are also very important. When we talk about issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, voting is a way to start affecting change. My push is that we care as much who is elected at the local level as who gets into Congress and who’s on Capitol Hill.”
Hassan Sheikh is the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of EmergeUSA. He and his wife,Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh who is also an activist—spend their waking hours in constant conversation about how to best engage the community and increase participation in civic life.
“In the lead-up to Election Day, we’ve been phone banking, registering voters, canvassing, holding candidate forums, and hosting debate watch parties. My wife works for the Michigan Muslim Community Council so many of our events have been co-sponsored. This election is unique because we have a big population of young Muslim voters here in Michigan who are very passionate and engaged. And they’re getting their families involved too. Because of this high involvement rate, Muslim Americans could make a significant difference in the election.
My wife and I are somewhat of a political couple. It’s a blessing. We can sit together until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning bouncing ideas off of one another about how to mobilize the community. It’s a 24/7 workshop. And it’s incredible to see the kinds of ideas and events we put together just by talking.
Moving forward, we need more open conversation about civic engagement between not just couples but also families and everyone in the Muslim community. Communication is the best avenue to generate better ideas, get events together, and mobilize and unify our community. Alhamdulillah, that’s something my wife and I have been doing constantly since we got married."
Four years ago, Dearborn, MI native Rahaf Khatib discovered she loves running. Now she’s participated in numerous races, marathons, and triathlons. This month, she’s on the cover of Women’s Running Magazine, the first ever hijabi featured on the cover of a sports magazine in the US.
“I’m a stay-at-home mom that never stays home. I volunteer and, of course, I’m a marathoner.
As an American who happens to be covered, I was honored to be featured on a national women’s running publication. It was an opportunity to say, ‘Hey! We exist too. We’re runners and doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, teachers, and everything else there is to be in this society.’ Just by having me on the cover, I feel like we’re breaking the invisibility barrier and smashing the stereotype. People in the running community come from every background and in different shapes and sizes. Our diversity represents the bigger picture of America. And, after all, we’re all crossing the same finish lines.”
In 2011, Mohammad Cheikhali participated in the first year of EmergeUSA’s youth leadership training. Today, he says the people he met through the program have become lifelong mentors who guided him through law school and helped shape his worldview.
“I work to push back against Islamophobic legislation that politicians try to get passed here in Florida. I passed the bar earlier this year so, as a lawyer, I’ve begun working with the community and our mosques to help get people engaged in the civic process. People need training in how to speak confidently to our elected officials. This election, Muslims are at a crossroads and we have to speak up.
We’ve never received as much hate as we’re receiving now. The people that hate us, the people that are speaking out against us, have never been more emboldened. If we as young Muslims aren’t emboldened in return we’re not going to be able to correct the false narratives politicians have put forward. As Muslim Americans we have the opportunity to stand up for the most American value there is—freedom of religion.”
Fiana, 21, is student body president at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, as well as co-founder of the university’s Social Justice League. If it’s not apparent from this first sentence, we’ll spell it out for you: behind the floral blouse and the radiant smile, Fiana is fierce.
“I have never seen students more engaged than now. It seems like every conversation is about the current election or social justice movements or the corruption of our economic system.
For Muslim students, things have gotten very intense. Our campus should be a safe space for us. Dearborn, Michigan is like the Muslim and Arab capital of the United States. But due to the rise in bigotry and hatred, students are feeling unsafe in their very own neighborhoods. We fear being attacked. Women fear having their hijab forcibly ripped off. Every other day it seems like you hear of another incident.
I believe working in solidarity with others can be a revolutionary act. In order to express solidarity with our entire Muslim community, we individually have to get out to the polls. We have to use our vote to fight against the forces that are trying to tear us down. The numbers matter. Increasing our turnout will force politicians to recognize that our people are a conglomerate of power—not a minority to be scapegoated. We’re going to show them that we’re out there and our voices can’t be ignored.”
Abdul Muhsin is a Miami-based entrepreneur and activist. He has been #woke since the age of 13 when a police officer shot and killed a black teenager near his family’s home in East Orange, New Jersey. “My quest for social justice began then,” Abdul says, “and has never stopped.”
“When you study the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) you begin to understand the comprehensiveness of Islam. The truth of our religion going back to the situation in Medina 1400 years ago is that wherever there is injustice, whoever is facing it, it is incumbent upon Muslims to stand up and make peace. We cannot isolate ourselves. Our responsibility as Muslims is not just to Muslims but to humanity. It is necessary for us to reach out, build coalitions, and work with others in the community for the better good.
Solidarity is the key. When right minded people come together we affect change—no matter who the leaders are. If you as a leader are wrong, we right minded people will let you know. Every person in this country has a right to exist under the law. That’s right thinking. You can’t be exclusive. You can’t say that Mexicans are not allowed and Muslims are not allowed. We need leaders in the country who understand inclusiveness. If a leader cannot accept all who live in this country we the people cannot accept them."
Vetnah is a Bronx native living in Orlando, Florida. She’s an Islamic preacher, community organizer, mother of three, and—let’s be real—a fashionista. This election season, Vetnah became the first Muslim female state director for a presidential campaign in U.S. history.
“I practiced Dawah, or Islamic teaching and outreach, for 13 years in Florida. As I taught in mosques and Islamic centers up and down the state, I found that there was a real absence of civic and political mobilization in our community. To fill in the gap, I switched careers two years ago and became a community organizer. I wanted to serve as a conduit between Muslim constituents and lawmakers. I’ve been working to expand voter participation and civic engagement ever since.
I can’t express how momentous it was for a campaign to be cognizant of Muslims. This election cycle is crucial to the Muslim American community. The spotlight is on us and we need to rise to the occasion. We can’t fear being noticed. Retreating from Islamophobia will only perpetuate our victimization. If we sit back questioning whether we can really make a difference, we’ll be letting doubt dictate our future.I call upon Muslim Americans to thread the needle and weave our contributions into this nation’s fabric. The only way to make a change is to participate in the democratic system. We’ll only get a seat at the table by becoming politically and civically engaged.”
You might call Parvez Ahmed a renaissance man. He’s professor of finance at the Coggin College of Business, the first (and only) Muslim member of the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, and a frequent commentator at interfaith events. On these and many other fronts, Parvez is guiding his city through the growing pains of becoming a more cosmopolitan and inclusive community.
“America has never been a perfect society. Our founding documents make clear that we will always be on a journey towards a more perfect union. What makes the American experiment unique in world history is that people from different cultures, religions, and races are together on this journey with a common goal. To be on that journey, every citizen has to be plugged into the process. Complacency is simply not an option.
No matter how cynical this election has got you feeling about our system—whether it’s because of the general lack of tolerance shown towards people of color, religious minorities, or the LGBTQ community—we cannot give up. The only way we make change possible is through engagement.
My message to my Muslim brothers and sisters is to reflect on the verse of the Holy Qur’an where God says, “I will not change the condition of a people until they change that which is within themselves.” In the context of this election, this verse means that we must take it upon ourselves to look into the issues and candidates, and vote for what will be best for a our country. This isn’t just a civic duty, it is an obligation for all of those who consider themselves people of faith. To serve God, we must serve humanity.”
Asha Noor is a community organizer in Detroit, Michigan, where she works for the Campaign to Take on Hate, a national non-profit that does exactly what its name suggests. Asha has been #woke since middle school when, in the wake of 9/11, she saw everyday Muslim Americans blamed for atrocities they had nothing to do with.
"I'm black and Muslim, and my parents are immigrants, so I've always known that my identity is different from the status quo and I've viewed it as a necessity to organize for disenfranchised communities. As Muslim Americans, it’s part of both our religious and civic duty to make sure no one is marginalized, othered, devalued, or dehumanized. Empowering others is the most Islamic thing we can do.
This election cycle has been a very challenging time but it has also woken people up. It’s given us an opportunity and we've taken it. It’s galvanized people to join in on the grassroots level and organize within our community and in collaboration with other minorities. We’ve registered more people than ever to go out and vote. We’re addressing Islamophobia and racism by creating community safe spaces, hosting film screenings, holding town hall meetings, and a myriad of other programs that help us make sure we're more politically engaged.
Ultimately, we’ll come out of this election more ready than ever to take on hate.”