The day before he appeared onstage at Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited the Islamic Center of Detroit to discuss the concerns of Muslim Americans.
The roundtable, attended by imams, activists, nonprofit leaders and other community members, lasted about an hour. The group discussed Inslee’s promise to dismantle the Muslim ban, his climate change agenda, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Inslee, who was the first governor to condemn President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries and challenge it in court, told HuffPost he visited the mosque to recognize “the real fear and anxiety” endured by Muslims under Trump administration.
“We have a very dangerous person in the White House,” he said, calling Trump someone who tries “to inflame anger and fear and hatred in the United States against the Muslim community.”
Inslee is not the only candidate courting the Muslim vote. He joins a number of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who have campaigned in Muslim communities around the country.
Prior to the 2020 election, presidential candidates rarely ― if ever ― visited a mosque on the campaign trail.
In the past, and especially in the post-9/11 era, candidates feared a backlash if they did. Both as a candidate and then as president, Barack Obama had to grapple with rumors of being Muslim ― as if that were a bad thing. In addition, Muslims have been a small slice of the electorate, even now making up just 1% of the U.S. population.
Before 2016, Muslim voter turnout also tended to be low, with minimal overall civic engagement between Muslims and elected officials. But after the rise of Trump and the election of the most diverse congressional class ever in 2018, including the nation’s first two Muslim congresswomen, Democrats have pivoted to embracing marginalized communities in a more formal way.
Candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have hired Muslims for high-level positions, while others like Inslee have constantly reminded voters of the discrimination enshrined in Islamophobic policies like the Muslim ban. At Wednesday night’s debate, Inslee was the first candidate to bring up the ban, calling the president a white nationalist.
Shahed Amanullah, a former adviser in the Obama administration who worked under both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, described the Democratic relationship with Muslims as a constant “push and pull.”
“Either Muslims were the avatar to be demonized and be used to drum up votes on the other side,” or, Amanullah said, “Muslims were the symbol of resistance, the canary in the coal mine.”
“It’s weird to be part of a demographic group that is a presidential campaign issue. But that’s the world we live in now,” he added.
Neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton visited a mosque during the race for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Obama didn’t visit a mosque until his eighth and final year in the White House, when he spoke to Muslims at the Islamic Society of Baltimore in 2016. During the last Democratic primary, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley visited a mosque in Sterling, Virginia, in 2015.
Although Trump has not visited any mosques as a candidate or as president, other Republicans have in the past. In 2001, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington a few days after the 9/11 attacks in an attempt to discourage the sudden wave of hate crimes against Muslims. More recently, in 2015, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona visited a mosque in an attempt to repair the GOP’s relationship with Muslims after then-candidate Trump called for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S.
Zaki Barzinji, who served as White House liaison to Muslim-American communities during the Obama administration, applauded the increase in candidates visiting mosques during the runup to 2020.
“Any attention is good attention for the community, is my perspective,” said Barzinji. “We need to figure out how to leverage that attention and shape it in a way that leads to substantive representation of our community.”
Barzinji, who is also on the board of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, pointed to new political participation figures as one of the reasons Democrats are going out of their way to host town halls with Muslim Americans.
In the last few years alone, Muslim engagement has skyrocketed. 2018 marked the blue Muslim wave, where nearly 100 American Muslims, almost all Democrats, ran for public office in the face of Islamophobic campaigns from opponents who consistently targeted candidates for their faith and identity.
Muslim turnout in four crucial swing states in particular ― Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, each with a significant Muslim population ― jumped 25 percentage points from 2014 to the 2018 midterm elections.
Like Amanullah, Barzinji said the election of Trump has thrust Muslims into the spotlight, but that there is arguably a silver lining: increasingly diverse campaign staffs who are ensuring their candidates take notice.
“In the climate that we’re in since Trump came to office, there’s been such a rush to embrace marginalized communities, Muslims being one of those marginalized communities, and so our voices have been elevated and our issues have been elevated,” said Barzinji.
But even though the majority of Muslim voters are registered Democrats, many are wary of Democratic leadership for not taking a strong stance against Islamophobia, and for using their communities as proxies to tackle issues of national security and terrorism.
Just last week, Muslim organizers shared their grave disappointment with the 2020 Democratic candidates when many of them brushed off a historic gathering of Muslim Americans in politics. Only New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attended the Washington, D.C., event in person. Inslee, along with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, spoke to the participants via livestream, while Sanders sent a prerecorded video.
Sanders, however, has been applauded by Muslim voters for his consistent outreach to their community. In 2015, Sanders participated in an interfaith roundtable at the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Washington, D.C., where he condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric used by his GOP counterparts during his run for the Democratic nomination against Clinton. During her race against Trump in the general election, Clinton took a softer approach when she expanded her team, notably consulting her longtime aide Huma Abedin, who is Muslim, to develop stronger Muslim outreach.
After announcing his second run for president, Sanders hired Faiz Shakir, the first Muslim American to manage a major presidential campaign. Sanders has also repeatedly and swiftly come out in support of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, each time she was attacked by Trump and the GOP ― and Muslim voters took notice.
In March, Sanders also became the highest-ranking American official and the first U.S. presidential candidate to visit a mosque in the immediate aftermath of the mosque massacre in New Zealand. The next month, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii visited a mosque near Des Moines, Iowa. During the Islamic month of Ramadan this past May, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg followed suit when he visited a mosque in his home state.
Amanullah said he embraced candidates adding mosques to their list of campaign stops, but with caution and a healthy amount of skepticism. Prior to the election of Trump, Democrats had a convenient relationship with Muslims, but after 2016, Muslims went from being a faith community to what he calls a “political football.”
“I truly do appreciate it,” Amanullah said of the new attention. “But is it coming from a place of you really care for our community? Or is it coming from a place of we’re the best club to beat Trump with?”