In early February, Hasan Minhaj, the popular Muslim American comedian and host of Netflix’s Patriot Act told presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, “You’re Jewish, but you’re pretty Muslim-ish.” The 78-year-old candidate laughed and responded, “I’ve been called many things in my life, never Muslim-ish.” Two weeks later, Sanders was introduced at the arena where the Mesquite Rodeo is held by one of the most prominent American imams in North Texas, if not the country. “Assalamu alaikum, and peace be with you,” Imam Omar Suleiman said as he took the stage. “I never thought I’d be speaking at the Mesquite Rodeo, but a Bernie rally can do some pretty strange things.”
The Louisiana-born Palestinian American preacher knows all too well that he’s not typically considered a “safe Muslim” that politicians want to work with—he’s been routinely attacked by conservative politicians and media outlets, particularly for his pro-Palestinian views. It’s easy to host private fundraisers with wealthy Muslims, he says, but in years past, many haven’t wanted to work with the politically progressive imam. “What makes Bernie different is that he has engaged authentically with Muslim Americans,” Suleiman tells me. “That elevates [the conversation] from a level of tokenization.”
Sanders, whose campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, is Muslim American, was one of two Democratic candidates to attend the Islamic Society of North America’s annual conference in Houston over Labor Day weekend last year, an event that drew some 30,000 Muslims from all over the country. (The other candidate, Julián Castro, has since dropped out of the race and endorsed Elizabeth Warren.)
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“This is some of the highest outreach I’ve seen,” says Farrukh Shamsi, a board member for the Texas chapter of Emgage (the largest Muslim American political organization) and a Texas cochair for the Sanders campaign. “We had been shunned after 9/11. Most politicians never wanted to highlight [Muslim voters] because, until recently, they were worried it would make them lose others.” Shamsi knows a thing or two about this—he’s also the former vice chair of the Texas Democratic Party, and has been involved in local Harris County and state politics for nearly two decades.
The faith community has always had an outsized reputation in American politics, but Muslim Americans make up just 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to most estimates. Politicians don’t court the Muslim vote in part because of its size, but also because it is far from a homogenous voting bloc: Muslim Americans come from every racial demographic; they are young and old, poor and rich, immigrants and native born. Some surveys from the early aughts suggest that Muslim American voters once leaned conservative, but today, those who vote overwhelmingly vote Democratic, typically at rates higher than their peers by age, race, or gender. And in Texas, which has one of the largest populations of Muslim Americans in the U.S., that means there’s plenty of untapped potential.
Young organizers under the umbrella of Muslims For Bernie have been working hard to build support for Sanders among Texas’s Muslim voters. That involves efforts like phone banking for and by Muslim Americans, canvassing at mosques after Friday prayers, managing WhatsApp groups of potential Muslim voters, and posting on personal and official social media accounts on behalf of the Sanders campaign. Muslims For Bernie has also hosted rallies specifically for the community. In Houston, Shamsi spoke at a “Barnstorm for Bernie” event, which drew about fifty people on a Sunday night. It was a relatively small gathering, says Kumail Hasan, one of the volunteer organizers of the event. “But for a lot of people, this was their first time being involved in a political event,” Hasan says. “The older adults at the event told us that they’d seen so many administrations come and go, but they’d never felt this connected to a campaign.”
Nationally, Muslim American voter registration has been on the upswing after the 2016 election, when Donald Trump ascended to the White House after saying, among other things, that “Islam hates us.” While 60 percent of the demographic was registered to vote in 2016, that number stood at 73 percent in 2019, according to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). Though the research organization doesn’t track state-level data, it seems that Texas isn’t an exception to the rule. Saiful Islam, a North Texas resident who works with a nonprofit called Good Citizens DFW, which encourages civic engagement among South Asian Muslims, tells me that in the past few years, the number of registered South Asian Muslim voters in North Texas has risen from 14,000 to 18,000. (Those figures don’t include Muslims from other ethnic backgrounds.) In the greater Houston area, there are more than 60,000 Muslims, many of whom are eligible to vote, according to data provided by Emgage. Even so, Muslim Americans have the lowest voter registration rate of any faith community, according to the ISPU, and the gap is widest for Muslims between ages 18 and 29.
And when it comes to turnout, there’s also room for improvement. Four years ago, nearly 40 percent of Muslims didn’t vote in the election—and one of the top reasons given, according to ISPU data, was that the candidates on the ballot didn’t appeal to respondents.
Conventional wisdom dictates that Muslim voters must be primarily interested in Muslim issues, namely foreign policy and the so-called Muslim ban, Trump’s 2017 executive order banning immigrants from several majority Muslim nations from traveling to the U.S. Sanders has talked about these issues in a way that likely resonates with Muslim voters: ending the “forever wars” in the Middle East, repealing the Muslim ban, highlighting the plight of Uighur Muslims in China. Notably, Sanders has also talked about the U.S. government’s “complicity” in the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and just this week announced he would not attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference this year, citing the lobbying group’s opposition to “basic Palestinian rights.” (Elizabeth Warren has also said she will skip the 2020 conference.)
But Muslim Americans aren’t single-issue foreign policy voters. Suleiman acknowledges that Sanders has done the most of any Democratic presidential candidate to humanize Palestinians and elevate human rights. “But issues like poverty, health care, domestic racism, and global militarism are issues that cut across identity,” he says. At the Mesquite rally, he started off by recounting the protests he led against the Muslim ban at DFW Airport—but focused the rest of his four-minute speech on broader issues like racialized police brutality, homelessness, and the deaths of children at the U.S.–Mexico border.
At a recent Sanders rally ahead of the March 3 primary, potential Muslim voters showed up for the same reasons that thousands of others did: Imran Khan, a voter from Richmond who attended Sanders’s Houston rally, sees Sanders as the candidate with the best shot at beating Trump. Nida Haider, a Katy resident and former teacher, was proud of the fact that the Vermont senator talked about the reasons that she left the profession, like low pay. Syed Jafri, a physician in his sixties from Houston, is tired of seeing his patients unable to afford the medication they need to survive.
Sanders has received endorsements from prominent Muslim American figures: politicians like Abdul El-Sayed, the first Muslim American to run for governor; Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim American women elected to Congress; and even millennial influencers like Hoda Katebi, a popular fashion writer, cultural critic, and political activist. A few weeks before Super Tuesday, Emgage endorsed Sanders as well.
“We’re gonna win here in Texas, and in November we’re gonna defeat Trump here in Texas,” Sanders said in Houston to thunderous applause. If that turns out to be true on March 3, it won’t exactly be because Muslim voters in Sugar Land or Plano swung the election. But if Sanders were to win the nomination, there’s hope that his efforts to drive Muslim turnout might matter a lot in local down-ballot races in conservative suburban strongholds: in suburban Collin and Fort Bend counties, for example, the number of Muslim American voters might be large enough to swing tight races for city council and state representative.
Either way, the Muslim American community is now more politically organized than ever before, in no small part because of excitement for Bernie Sanders. That’s no small feat for a community that has long been viewed as outsiders with no place in American politics.
Correction: The original version of this story quoted Farrukh Shamsi as saying that, before this election cycle, Muslim voters had not been highlighted by politicians since 9/11. In fact, Shamsi said that they had, but only recently. The story has been updated.