Heading into Super Tuesday, Iraqis and others who have found refuge in this swing state worry that home won’t feel like home much longer.
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — A young woman in bright green pokes her head into the back kitchen of Sinbad Restaurant, where she teases the young man working the oven.
A few years and a lifetime ago, Ledia Zangana was out on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, as an interpreter for the U.S. military when a suicide bomber blew himself up nearby. His eyeball landed on her shoulder. That was 2009. After threats against her and her family, she escaped to the United States in 2011 on a visa for military interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan. She enlisted in the Army and became a U.S. citizen. A medical discharge ended her military career, but the 29-year-old now works for the federal government. She says that Virginia is the first place that feels like home.
Abbas Hadi and his family own Sinbad, a popular gathering spot among Arab émigrés in this vital battleground state. They were forced to flee Baghdad in 2006 when an armed Shiite group said they’d kill his father if he didn’t join them in targeting Sunnis in their neighborhood. Hadi, his parents, and his four siblings grabbed their passports, some money, and headed to Jordan. They lived as refugees there before moving to the United States in 2009 and have been in Virginia ever since. Six months ago, Hadi, 22, became a U.S. citizen. He has never been back to Iraq — and says he never wants to leave Virginia.
Zangana and Hadi aren’t both just refugees of America’s bloody war in Iraq: They’re also voters in one of the most politically important states in the country. There are some 170,000 Muslims currently living in Virginia, a Super Tuesday state that is expected to be among the most contested in the presidential election in November. Yet much of what they hear from the 2016 presidential candidates — one, in particular — is that they are unwelcome.
“I earned it. This is where I belong — at least, that’s what I thought until this election,” Zangana, a pseudonym for her real name, said in an interview. “Then Donald Trump shows up and feeds on all this hatred, hatred and fear.”
“Nobody,” she said firmly, “is going to ban me from my country.”
Hadi doesn’t have her edge. When he stepped off the plane at Dulles International Airport, he told a community group worker who’d come to help them: “I love America” — in Arabic. He didn’t know the English alphabet when he started high school in Virginia. He’s attending school part time while he works in the restaurant.
“Trump, he keeps saying, ‘I’m going to make America great again,’” Hadi said. “America is already great, right?” he opens his arms as if to say it’s self-evident. “I don’t know what he means.”
Increasing racial diversity and a decreasing white-vote share is helping turn Virginia from onetime Republican red to purple, and the battleground state has one of the fastest-growing populations of immigrants from the Middle East. But open hostility toward the Muslim community has risen in U.S. politics amid the presidential election and along with public anxiety about terrorism. Several 2016 hopefuls have fanned fears with heated rhetoric on refugees and tough talk on war.
After terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Trump called for the United States to ban all Muslims from entering the country. More recently, he touted a likely myth about a U.S. general using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood to execute terrorists that the New York businessman made clear were Muslim. Just ahead of Super Tuesday, he is leading the polls in Virginia by more than 14.5 percentage points and is ahead in eight of the 11 states where Republicans go to the polls that night.
Yet the Muslim-American community in Virginia is also a powerful example of how demographic change could ultimately disrupt the precarious political balance in the few states that remain contested in U.S presidential elections. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States, 73 percent of registered Muslim voters in the six states with the largest Muslim populations — including Super Tuesday states Texas and Virginia — said they’re voting in the primaries. Three in 10 said their top issue is Islamophobia.
“The increase in the number of Muslim voters who say they will go to the polls in their primary elections indicates a high level of civic participation that may be driven at least in part by concern over the rise in Islamophobia nationwide,” CAIR’s Robert McCaw said in the survey’s press release.
The Muslim vote
The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t ask questions on religion, so there is no official government count of the number of Muslims living in the United States. But according to the Pew Research Center, there were roughly 3.3 million Muslims in 2015, about 1 percent of the total U.S. population.
The Muslim community also has one of the fastest rates of growth of any group in the United States — Pew estimates Muslims’ share of the U.S. population will double by 2050. More than half of the growth in the last five years stems from immigration. In the two decades leading up to 2012, 1.7 million Muslims entered the United States as legal permanent residents, with more than 30 percent of them from the Middle East and North Africa. Iraq has also consistently been one of the top countries of origin for refugees in recent years.
But Muslims aren’t distributed evenly: In Virginia, about 2 percent of the state’s population of 8.4 million is Muslim — some 170,000 people — roughly double the percentage in almost every other state, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Much of that population is concentrated in Northern Virginia and the greater Washington, D.C., area. While about 13 percent of the United States is foreign-born, in Virginia, it’s about 12 percent. In Alexandria, on the outskirts of Washington, it’s 27 percent; in Spotsylvania County, a rural area 50 miles southwest of Washington that was home to a recent high-profile incident of anti-Muslim bias, it’s 7 percent.
Presidential candidates should take note. Because Virginia is so evenly divided — 41 percent of adults in Virginia identify as or lean Democratic, while 42.5 percent identify as Republican or lean Republican, according to a Feb. 3 analysis by Gallup — elections can be decided by small numbers of voters. There may not be many Muslim voters in Virginia, but in a close race they could help swing it.
It’s not an academic theory. In the 2000 presidential election, after an estimated 60,000 Muslims voted for George W. Bush in Florida, a state he won by mere hundreds of votes, prominent GOP political operative Grover Norquist said that Bush “was elected president of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote.”
The past several presidential elections have shown that the combined effect of demographic change can have a big impact; in 2012, President Barack Obama won Virginia with 37 percent of the white vote — same as Al Gore, who lost it badly to Bush in 2000. The difference: a declining white-voter share and Obama’s large margins with minority voters, according to the “States of Change” project. Minorities are expected to make up an even larger share of the pool of eligible voters in 2016.
In CAIR’s survey of registered Muslim voters, around 52 percent of respondents said they’d support Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, while around 22 percent said they’d support her Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (recent polls in Virginia show Clinton ahead by a comfortable margin of nearly 20 percentage points).
Islamophobia was the most important issue in the primaries for Muslim voters, at 30 percent, followed by the economy at 24 percent and health care at 14 percent. In a similar 2014 CAIR survey, Islamophobia was the third-ranked issue.
It tracks with a recent Pew poll that found there’s a rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment among voters in both parties, though it’s much stronger within the GOP. About 60 percent of Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP think at least “some” Muslims have anti-American views, while a third of GOP voters believe at least half of Muslims are anti-American. Sixty-five percent of GOP voters and those who lean Republican want their “next president to speak bluntly about Islamic extremists even if the statements are critical of Islam as a whole,” the survey found.
You don’t get much blunter than Trump, who at one point said his proposed ban on Muslims could include U.S. citizens and military veterans, such as Zangana. Many U.S. troops have pushed back. When a Muslim mother in Texas wrote in a Facebook post last December that she’d found her little girl packing her bags after hearing that a man named Trump wanted to kick out all Muslims, hundreds of service members began to respond with the hashtag #IWillProtectYou.
Yet other candidates also have taken extreme positions toward Muslims, veterans or no. In a telling moment in one of the early debates, neurosurgeon Ben Carson was asked about GOP rhetoric after a Muslim woman who had served in the U.S. Air Force said she was afraid for her children.
“[We] need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies, because it’s going to kill us if we don’t,” Carson said, though he added tangentially, “We are a nation of immigrants.”
“A nametag that says, ‘We’re Muslim'”
At a massive red-brick, white-columned high school in Purcellville, Virginia, some 50 miles northwest of Washington, Sen. Marco Rubio spoke to a spillover crowd Sunday. “I’ll need you to come out and vote for me on Tuesday, because, remember, friends don’t let friends vote for con artists,” he quipped. Rubio has enjoyed a wave of media attention and endorsements in recent days as he has taken an aggressive new tack against Trump. He’s making a hard play for Virginia as he seeks to position himself as the more palatable Republican pick, but it may be too late.
Rubio hasn’t always defended Muslim-Americans or other minority groups against Trump and has at times contributed to the harsh rhetoric against them. The senator also supported a “pause” on refugees from the war-torn Middle East that would’ve kept out refugees such as Hadi and his family, as well as made it harder for interpreters like Zangana, who risked their lives for the U.S. military. Still, his supporters disassociated him with the kind of rhetoric Trump has employed.
“We’re the party of diversity,” said Dhruv Gupta, 18, pointing to Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both Cuban-Americans. Gupta, an Indian-American, moved to the United States at the age of 1. “I don’t feel threatened at all — most rational people won’t vote for Donald Trump.”
But 70 miles south in Spotsylvania County, a longtime community of Muslim-Americans has witnessed the rhetoric turn into a very real threat. Later on Sunday, the Islamic Center of Fredericksburg hosted a delegation organized by the United Nations. Amid a conference on violence prevention in Washington, the religious leaders and representatives of faith-based groups from around the world had come to the small mosque, which has existed in some form here in Virginia suburbia for roughly three decades. It was a show of support and an opportunity to visit an American community impacted by hate speech, after they learned of a viral video showing outright bigotry against members of the community.
The video was a recording of a community meeting in November 2015 when Samer Shalaby, an engineer who is a member of the center’s board, presented plans for a new mosque nearby. The center has owned the land for years, but they’ve long outgrown their current building. He expected parochial complaints about traffic. Instead, so many people came and interrupted with angry slurs that the one local cop there called it off, fearing violence. One man yells in a video of the meeting that went viral: “I will do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen, because you are terrorists.”
“We’ve been very quiet. Our kids go to school. We own businesses,” Shalaby said Sunday. “We don’t go walk around and wear a nametag that says, ‘We’re Muslim.’”
While many people from around the world have reached out to express support after seeing the video, threats continue. Many, including Shalaby and his wife, Catherine, who met at George Washington University when he came to the United States from Egypt, said they worry for their children. “We’ve been here for 25 years,” he remembered responding. “If we’re all terrorists, you’re really in trouble.”
The slim silver lining, Shalaby told Foreign Policy, is that between the presidential candidates’ anti-Muslim rhetoric and the meeting, “There’s a big move in the Muslim community to register to vote, to go out and vote.… We are starting to unify our voice.” Pointing to Trump, he said, “Tolerance starts from the top, and if you want to be president, you have act presidential. The First Amendment is freedom of religion.”
In Alexandria Saturday, at the end of an hourslong conversation, Zangana said that all her friends and family in Iraq hear of the U.S presidential election is Trump. What she sees here fills her with anger and dread — the scapegoating and fear-mongering reminds her of Iraq. She is Kurdish; Hadi’s father is Sunni and his mother Shiite. For most of Zangana’s life, her onetime hometown, which she didn’t name for safety reasons, was controlled by al Qaeda, then Sunni and Shiite militias, in a vicious cycle of sectarian vengeance. Now, she jokes, she may have to start over again, in England. Suddenly serious, she says, looking down at her empty tea glass, “This is exactly how it happens in Iraq.”
- Credit: MANDEL NGAN / Stringer