Islamophobes Came for Americans on the Campaign Trail
A new poll of Muslims who ran for office in the 2018 midterms shows how central bigotry has become to America's political life.
“Think about it: Omar wears a hijab,” Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said on her show Saturday. “Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”
That insidious piece of Islamophobic innuendo, referring to the head covering worn by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), was denounced even by Pirro’s employer. Yet it encapsulates an anti-Muslim narrative that has long been a subtext of American politics and media. A new poll surveying Muslim candidates in the 2018 midterms shows such attitudes are a pernicious—and sometimes menacing—reality for Muslims entering the public arena, particularly for women.
American Muslims have traditionally avoided electoral politics. However, the Islamophobic rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, summed up by Donald Trump’s sweeping declaration that “Islam hates us,” energized an unprecedented number of Muslims to seek office. “A lot of Muslim candidates did this to take a stand and oppose the fear and the hatred,” Gregory Jones, who sought the Democratic congressional nomination in Alaska, told Foreign Policy.
Our team identified 166 American Muslims who ran in the 2018 primaries, from the governorship of Michigan to city councils and school boards. Of those, 23 were candidates for Congress, 50 ran for state legislatures, and five sought statewide office. We surveyed that high-profile group as part of a larger project on Islamophobia in the midterms. More than half took part in the survey.
The candidates’ experiences were decidedly mixed. Almost 40 percent of respondents said they encountered little or no anti-Muslim sentiment, but about a third said the level of Islamophobia they encountered was “high” or “very high.” Only four candidates reported experiencing no Islamophobia at all. None of those were women. Several heard disparaging comments about Islam from their rivals in the race.
Female candidates were targeted about twice as often as men. More than 40 percent of women respondents reported receiving verbal threats, almost as many said they received text threats, and about 20 percent reported being physically threatened. Those who wore a hijab, like Omar, were in particular lightning rods for hate.
“Wrap that towel around your neck,” said one of scores of intimidating posts on the Facebook site of Deedra Abboud, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Senate in Arizona who is a convert from Christianity and wears a hijab. “Time for target practice,” said another troll.
“@TahirahCongress We must never allow a Muslim to be involved with our government or politics here in America,” wrote one Twitter user whose account was later removed, referring to Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, a candidate for the Democratic congressional nomination in western Massachusetts who wears hijab.
We examined more than 80,000 tweets tagging Omar in the six weeks leading up to the election and found a twisted fascination with her hijab. “No one that wears a #Hijab should be running for office in America. The #Quran #Islam and our #Constitution are Not compatible in any way,” a Twitter user who goes by the name @TrotAlex posted.
In a Twitter thread about Omar, one writer posted, “No way she belongs in this country.”
“No way she should be involved in anything!” agreed another.
“Or breathing,” added @RealLordVulcan, whose account was subsequently suspended.
In contrast to the bile on Twitter, more than half of the candidates said they rarely or never encountered people upset with the idea of being represented by a Muslim, but there were plenty of exceptions. The candidates generally came away from the election–win or lose–with a positive sense of how their fellow Americans viewed Muslim involvement in American politics. Roughly 75 percent said they rarely or never encountered people who believe Islam is dangerous, evil, or a religion of hate, and about two-thirds rarely or never encountered people who think Islam supports terrorism or is anti-American.
As Deedra Abboud wrote during her campaign, “while a scarf-wearing, fast-talking candidate with an Arkansian drawl might be met with surprise [by Arizona voters], almost everyone greeted me warmly and spoke to me earnestly.”
“Creeping Sharia” is a trope used by anti-Muslim campaigners who claim Muslims seek to impose Islamic law in the United States. However, less than 20 percent of the candidates said they believe they have constituents who fear a “takeover” or “Islamization” of the country.
The candidates’ collective view of the media is not as positive. Fully 95 percent of those responding agreed “the media spreads fear,” and two-thirds said the media presents Islam as a “threat to U.S. culture” and Muslims as “dangerous people.” Such views are bolstered by a recent study that found U.S. media outlets gave twice as much coverage to acts of violence by Muslims than to similar acts by non-Muslims.
The candidates reported that religion had more impact on their campaigns than race, ethnicity, or policy issues, but, they indicated, that was because election coverage “unfairly” focused on their faith rather than on the issues.
The Muslims who ran for office in 2018 represented a cross-section of the nation. Though overwhelmingly members of the Democratic Party, the group included six Republicans, among them a former U.S. military prosecutor in Afghanistan. Of the 166 candidates we identified, half are themselves immigrants and another third are the children of immigrants. Some were also refugees. Somalia-born Omar’s story of growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya is well known, but there are others with a similar background, such as 27-year-old Safiya Wazir, a new New Hampshire state representative who spent a decade in Azerbaijan after her family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Ethnically, 23 of the candidates were of Pakistani heritage, the largest single contingent, but the group also included 13 African Americans and two white converts to Islam. At times, baggage from the “old country” became a factor in the campaign. Nina Ahmad, who sought the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania, found herself accused of being anti-Muslim by fellow Muslims due to her criticism of Pakistan’s role in the 1971 war in her native Bangladesh. “I was like, ‘Where’s the Muslim solidarity here?’”
Such stories, together with the diversity of the American Muslim candidates in the midterms, belie the notion that there is such a thing as a monolithic “Islam” that “hates us.” An American Muslim may now be running the campaign of a major presidential contender, Bernie Sanders, but the Pirro segment on Fox and the experiences of Muslim candidates who competed in the midterms suggest that while Islamophobia is not the only story, it remains a toxic undercurrent of American politics and society.
Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar who was the founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent, Pintak has covered dozens of wars, conflicts, coups, and revolutions on three continents. His latest book is America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump.
Brian J. Bowe is an associate professor at Western Washington University and a current Fulbright scholar at the University of Jordan.