Frustrated With Campaign Rhetoric, Muslims Turn To Political Activism

Apr 3, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 3:40 pm

For months, the two leading Republican candidates have tried to prove they're tough on Muslims. Donald Trump famously introduced the idea of a temporary ban on Muslim immigration, and then, last month, the businessman-turned-politician said he believes "Islam hates us." Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has often insisted President Obama should use the words "radical Islamic terrorism" and, last week, Cruz issued a statement that called for patrolling Muslim neighborhoods.

This political rhetoric is horrifying many Muslims, but it's also had unintended side effects — encouraging them to get out to vote and work with other minority communities.

Muslims make up just one percent of the U.S. population, but, in the 1990s into the early 2000s, they were often loyal Republicans. But some Muslims now say they don't see a place for them in the current party.

"This election's coming across as a pick-your-poison election," said Minhaj Husain, who lives in suburban Waukesha County — solidly Republican terrain just outside of Milwaukee. Husain says, in his view, the Republican Party has deteriorated in recent years.

"I used to be a big Ron Paul supporter, big libertarian," said Husain, but then he adds — there's no room for someone like Paul in the current Republican party.

So, this cycle he intends to vote for Bernie Sanders.

His wife Asma Sukhera, 36, said she's appalled, not just by what some GOP candidates are saying, but, by how many fellow Americans seem to agree with them.

"More people are latching on to this ideology of separatism, banning Muslims ... building a wall, these ideas are so anti-American, and so against everything that we grew up believing in," she said.

Sukhera is not alone. That sense of disbelief is common among Muslims in the Milwaukee area. (Voters in Wisconsin head to the polls Tuesday for the state's primary election).

"I think I had a more ideal image of living in America," said Afnan Musaitif, 27. Musaitif was born and raised in Wisconsin. She says Milwaukee is her home, but it feels like some presidential candidates don't consider her an American. She said Cruz's comments about patrolling Muslim neighborhoods was particularly "absurd."

"It pits Muslims as a whole as a problem," she said. "It makes it sound like Muslims live cultish, off to the side, like we have this weird lifestyle and they have to spy on us to make sure we're under control. And, it's like no — we're just like you."

Musaitif says she became desensitized to anti-Muslim rhetoric in the years after the 9/11 attacks, but this campaign season has made her rethink how safe she feels wearing a head scarf in public.

"People are saying, 'oh well, (Trump) is speaking his mind, and he's honest, and that's why we like him,'" she said. "And, that's the crazy part ... It boggles my mind that someone would like somebody because they're speaking their mind but they have such nasty qualities about how they're speaking their mind."

Muslims say they're disappointed, frustrated, and exhausted, but not necessarily scared. They point out that non-Muslim friends and neighbors are at times their fiercest defenders.

Othman Atta, the executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, says the mosque has received hundreds of letters, and even checks from strangers, who merely want to let their Muslim neighbors know they're welcome in town.

Still, he worries about the psychological effects of this rhetoric.

His sister Janan Atta Najeeb does, too.

"As an adult we know it's a free country, people can be as idiotic as they want really, but it concerns me that maybe our children and the children of other Muslim families will feel marginalized, will feel that somehow they're less American than others, and people view them as less American," she said.

Atta says at home, he can make sure his kids don't feel marginalized, but he worries that Muslim kids are growing up in a hostile world, and that could have consequences.

"We don't want to see our children become sidelined or disenfranchised because that in my view is what will ultimately allow those who recruit for terrorism to kind of find people who are disaffected, who don't feel that they're part of society," Atta said. "And, that's what I think is going on in Europe, more so than you'll find here in the United States 'cause in the United States we tend to be much better at integrating."

In fact, in the Milwuakee area, Atta says the nasty rhetoric is actually having a positive side effect.

"It's encouraging more people to get involved, more people to vote," he said.

Muslim organizations have been holding voter registration drives. And, last weekend, Najeeb held a get out the vote training session at a Muslim conference in Milwaukee. Najeeb herself hopes to be a delegate at the Democratic convention for the first time.

Atta says Muslims are getting engaged and joining forces with other voters who feel similarly attacked and have a common goal this November.

"I think that is a great country, and we want to keep it great," said Atta. "And, that's why those individuals that marginalize others or disenfranchise others - we will stand against them — regardless of whether those people being excluded or marginalized are Muslims, or African-Americans or Hispanics or any other group."

Atta says he intends to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Wisconsin primary Tuesday; but come November he'll vote for any Democrat to keep Cruz or Trump out of the White House.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Among the communities in Wisconsin closely tracking the presidential candidates are Muslim voters. They were listening when Ted Cruz said he wants police to patrol Muslim neighborhoods. And they were listening when Donald Trump famously proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. Many American Muslims say this rhetoric is horrifying. And as NPR's Asma Khalid reports now from Wisconsin, it is motivating them to get out and vote.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: I meet Asma Sukhera in Waukesha County, just outside Milwaukee, and she tells me she's not just disappointed with the way GOP candidates are talking about Muslims, but...

ASMA SUKHERA: More people are latching onto this whole ideology of separatism, banning Muslims. These ideas are so anti-American and so against everything that we grew up believing in.

KHALID: She's not alone.

AFNAN MUSAITIF: I think I had a more ideal image of living in America.

KHALID: That's Afnan Musaitif. She was born and raised in Milwaukee. But she says it feels like some presidential candidates don't see her as an American.

MUSAITIF: It makes it sound like Muslims live off, like, cultish, like, off to the side. We have this weird, like, lifestyle, and they have to spy on us to make sure that we're under control. And it's like, no, we're just like you.

(CROSSTALK)

KHALID: I meet Othman Atta and his family at their house. We chat politics over hummus and falafel. His 13-year-old son Ameen says he might like to run for office one day himself. He loves politics but was puzzled when he heard Donald Trump say this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I think Islam hates us.

AMEEN: Kind of what I first thought was how would that make sense because there are Muslims, like, among America - like, we are Americans. So if he's addressing Americans when he says Islam hates us, he's addressing also Muslims.

KHALID: Ameen is struggling to figure this out. His dad Othman says at home, he can make sure his kids don't feel marginalized. But he says Muslim kids are growing up in a world where they hear awful things about Muslims and worries that could have consequences.

OTHMAN ATTA: We don't want to see our children become a sidelined or disenfranchised because actually that in my view is what will ultimately allow those who recruit for terrorism to kind of find people who are disaffected, who don't feel they're part of society, who feel disenfranchised. And that I think is what's going on in Europe more so than you'll find here in the United States.

KHALID: But, Othman says, the nasty rhetoric is also having a positive side effect.

ATTA: It's encouraging more people to get involved and more people to vote.

KHALID: He says here in Milwaukee, Muslims are talking about joining forces with Latino and African-American organizations because they have a common goal.

ATTA: I think that this is a great country, and we want to keep it great. And that's why those individuals that marginalize others or disenfranchise others, regardless of if those people being excluded are marginalized are Muslims or African-Americans or Hispanics or any other group.

KHALID: Othman, like just about every Muslim voter I met, intends to vote for Bernie Sanders on Tuesday. But come November, he says he'll vote for any Democrat that can keep Republicans Ted Cruz or Donald Trump out of the White House. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.