“Trump effect” pushes American Muslims into political fray

Far from shying away from politics, American Muslims have been compelled onto the political stage by the new pressures and conflicts surrounding Islam in the Trump era, though the shape and outcome of such involvement remain unclear. In a presentation at the late-October meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which RW attended, Brie Laskota of the University of California noted a “Trump effect” reflected in Muslims running for political office. Policies such as the travel ban targeting Muslim nations and the more general anti-Islamic rhetoric have led American Muslims in three directions: to feel overwhelmed, to keep their heads down and ignore such challenges, or to engage more deeply in civic life. The spate of Muslim candidates running for local and national offices suggests that the third option is being embraced in much of the Islamic community. Laskota said that 90 Muslims ran for office in the last year, with 49 remaining as post-primary candidates. As RW goes to press following the midterm elections, two Muslim women have been elected to Congress for the first time—Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib.

Laskota said that the stage had been set for such political activity 20 years earlier through such networks as the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, the Council on American Islamic Affairs (CAIR), and secular efforts as the New Leaders Project. The new Muslim politicians share an alienation from what they regard as Republican extremism, with the main division being between centrist and leftist progressives. Among the Muslim community in general, “voting is seen as obligatory, much more than usual, [although] if there are no returns [from such political involvement] the Muslim community may become more isolationist,” Laskota concluded. An article in the journal Politics and Religion (online October) echoes Laskota’s research in showing how Muslims have responded to spikes in anti-Muslim discrimination since 2016 by mobilizing in interest groups on issues such as Islamophobia and citizenship rights. Targeting Muslims as “the other” in American society has “provided Muslim American interest groups with a number of unintended opportunities through which they have been able to present themselves as official representatives of the American Muslim community,” writes Emily Cury of Northeastern University.

But how much does the current wave of political activism reflect the religious teachings and concerns of the American Muslim community? In First Things magazine (November), Paul Rowan Brian writes that there is “a fault line running through the American Muslim experience: strategic alliances between Muslim organizations and the social justice left that violate socially conservative beliefs of actual Muslims attending their events and contributing funds.” This tension was demonstrated in the summer of 2017 at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference, when a table set up by Muslims for Progressive Values and the Human Life Campaign was removed after an attendee complained about the pro-LBGT advocacy of these groups. American Muslims have found the most acceptance from the left, particularly on issues like Palestinian foreign policy and civil rights, but that may be changing as divisions between young American Muslims and these liberal elements grow. “An increasing number of voices, from Hamza Yusuf to Sherman Jackson, Omar Suleiman, and Zaid Shakir, have defined a new and tenuous place for American Muslims: largely accordant with the left’s positions on race, foreign policy, the environment, and workers’ rights, but upholding the socially conservative beliefs of Islam in opposition to feminism, the LGBT lifestyle, libertinism, or fanatical individualism.”

(First Things, https://www.firstthings.com/)