One week after Bushra Amiwala decided to run for office, her mom forwarded her an article about a Muslim judge in New York who was found dead in the Hudson River.
Although her father was unfazed — having for years predicted his first American-born child would run for president — Amiwala’s mother feared the political arena: You have to lie to be a politician. You will be attacked for wearing a hijab. You won’t have time to get married and will struggle to remain true to yourself.
Historically, immigrants have had a tendency to avoid public civic life, activists say. But in an era of immigration raids, presidential travel bans directed at mostly Muslim-majority countries, slurs against Muslims in elected office — and President Donald Trump’s racist tweets on Sunday about four female lawmakers — more members of the community are getting politically involved in more visible ways.
Emgage, a group that encourages civic involvement by Muslim Americans, found that voting by Muslim Americans went up by 25 percentage points between 2014 and 2018 in the four key states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia. In the general population, that figure was up 14 percentage points.
“Back in the day, we didn’t know our elected officials,” said Amiwala, referring to when her parents first moved to Rogers Park from Karachi, Pakistan, in 1996. “None of us had met someone who had run for office. They all had such similar names and similar backgrounds.”
Now, Amiwala, 21, is one of at least 10 Muslims who has successfully run for elected office in Illinois in the past few years. A rising senior at DePaul University, she was elected to the Skokie School District 73.5 Board of Education in April and is one of the youngest Muslims elected in the country.
In 2017, when Amiwala unsuccessfully ran for the Cook County Board, community support entailed words of encouragement from mosque leaders but not much else. “They were like, ‘That’s great, mashallah! When can we vote for you?'” she said.
By the time she ran again in 2019 — after an outpouring of support from the community and even her previous opponent, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin — networks of politically minded Muslims had begun working together.
“It started as several groups in their own silos,” said Reema Kamran, a co-founder of the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition. “It was people going, ‘Hey, I really need to talk to someone about blank.'”
Funded by grants and donations, the coalition has worked with candidates in the past two election cycles, cold-calling constituents, knocking on doors, and using mosques and community centers to encourage Muslims to vote. They also held their first campaign training session for Muslim candidates in December 2018 and joined forces with other local civic groups.
“Because we’ve had people who’ve run for office already, like Bushra, we were able to put together resources for new folks who wanted to run,” Kamran said. “And it gave us a chance to come together and talk about how to improve civic engagement in our community as a whole.”
Campaign and moral support
Raabia Khan was elected to a Lake County school district board this year. She worked with a partner of the coalition, the Northern Illinois American Muslim Alliance, to find resources and advice while campaigning.
“Sometimes, you just need to tell someone that you had a bad day canvassing,” said Khan, who has four children at Oak Grove School, a K-8 school in Green Oaks, and also attended the school when she was a kid.
Her parents, who were Pakistani immigrants, helped establish the first mosque in Lake County, she said, and the Muslim community was excited to see her run for a board position. In the school community, she is seen as a leader for South Asian and Muslim families, often representing their views to school administrators, who have been responsive to the concerns of different populations, she said.
But not every community has been as welcoming.
While Sara Sayed Sadat was knocking on doors with her kids in Lisle, she said she heard the phrase “get out of this country” more than once. And though her campaign was bolstered by many members of the Democratic Party, some advisers suggested she remove her middle name from campaign materials.
“To hear that kind of negativity from people who are supposed to support me was disheartening,” she said. “I’m not a size 2, blond-haired, blue-eyed person. My identity is mine, and I wanted to run on my full name.”
Sadat, who is an Indian immigrant, did just that and now serves as a village trustee in Lisle. While the coalition provided fundraising, advertising and strategy support, Sadat received moral support from her 13-year-old daughter.
“The first time someone told us to go back to where we came from, my daughter told me that she’s heard that at school, too,” said Sadat. “We took a moment, had some ice cream and went back out the next day.”
‘Time to take center stage’
While helping Muslim candidates in the Chicago area run for office is a priority for the coalition, finding ways to engage Muslim voters is part of a wider strategy, said educator and coalition co-founder Dilara Sayeed.
In a 2018 Pew report, the difference between how Muslim immigrants view living in the U.S. versus American-born Muslims is stark: 65% of immigrant Muslims said there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims. Of American-born Muslims, the number is a whopping 91%.
“Our message to the community is, continue your leadership. Be civic and social leaders,” Sayeed said. “You’re welcome to do it behind the scenes, as we’ve been taught in some of our cultures to do, but when it is time to take center stage, be unafraid.”
Sara Rezvi, a graduate student at University of Illinois at Chicago who joined Saturday’s rally at Daley Plaza to protest U.S. immigration policy, said it is important to acknowledge fear but participate anyway. Rezvi, who was born in Pakistan and is a naturalized citizen, said there is real fear in her family that citizenship for naturalized citizens could be revoked by the Trump administration.
“It’s especially hard for us because South Asian communities have benefited from acting white and distancing ourselves from other nonwhite groups,” Rezvi said. “I think there’s a lot of soul-searching we need to do, and I think we need to understand that it’s going to be necessary for us to risk our comfort in order to fight.”
She also said she was disappointed that more Muslims didn’t attend the Daley Plaza rally.
“My activism is related to the faith. We know the Prophet married women who were powerful and strong. We know the faith dictates we protect the vulnerable and especially children,” Rezvi said. “It’s hard to be in spaces like this and not see more of our people.”
Being counted is another priority for the coalition, which has started working with the U.S. Census Bureau to form an Illinois Muslim Complete Count Committee. The committee will work to make sure Muslims, considered a “hard-to-count” population, are aware the next census is in 2020 and how important it is that the community is counted.
The census presents challenges because Muslim communities are at the intersection of various hard-to-count populations, including immigrants, Asian Americans, African Americans, renters and non-English speakers.
Baker Siddiquee, who is a member of the coalition, said trust is a major factor with the community, which has sometimes struggled with law enforcement.
Muslim communities have a long history of being cautious of law enforcement. Besides dealing with religion-based hate crimes, mosque communities often have to battle zoning boards and local groups who don’t want new mosques built, and surveillance from authorities they must rely on for protection.
Starting in 2011, The Associated Press reported on extensive spying and surveillance of mosques in New York City by the New York Police Department. More recently, journalist and documentary filmmaker Assia Boundaoui discovered that her Muslim community in Bridgeview was the target of an FBI surveillance project called “Operation Vulgar Betrayal.” Cases like these, which are now more widely acknowledged, have often created distrust of authorities, even if those authorities — like the Census Bureau — don’t directly work with law enforcement.
“We’ve made some progress with these relations, at least with security issues, but it doesn’t always feel significant,” Siddiquee said.
The coalition’s census efforts have included education campaigns to encourage Muslims to self-respond or volunteer to fill out census questionnaires starting in March 2020.
The next generation
As millennial and 40-something Muslims — who are more settled than their parents were — have come into their own, they have helped organize these new political support groups, Kamran said. She cited two Muslim politicians from the Midwest as inspiration: U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
Omar, a former refugee born in Somalia who represents Minnesota, has come under attack by Republicans and Democrats for her criticism of Israel and the role of money in politics. Michigan’s Tlaib became the first Palestinian American woman in Congress. For many young Muslim women in particular, Omar and Tlaib are examples of how to engage in politics without having to compromise one’s values, Kamran and Amiwala said.
Omar and Tlaib have been vocal about denouncing Trump and have called for his impeachment. After the president tweeted this weekend that the minority congresswomen should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” they fired back on social media and in a Monday news conference, calling the tweets a distraction and criticizing the white nationalism behind the president’s words. Three of the four congresswomen were born in the U.S., including Tlaib, Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
“The first generation establishes the mosques and the schools for the community,” Kamran said. “The next generations get to do things like civic engagement. It’s a time for us to step up.”
During her run for school board, Amiwala was part of the pilot episode of “Run,” a reality show that features five female political experts assisting women running for office around the country. Amiwala appears in the trailer of the show as the team helps her with campaign tools like technology, canvassing and comedy.
And despite the distrust that exists among Muslims who have felt left out of civic life, Amiwala said that since her involvement on the school board, she has seen a 180-degree turn in even her mom’s involvement.
“When the marijuana vote was happening, my mom was the one who was like, ‘Did you hear that someone cracked an egg on the floor?'” said Amiwala, referring to state Rep. Anthony DeLuca cracking an egg into a frying pan to represent “your brain on drugs.” “She reads this stuff now. It’s so cool.”
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