Although the 2016 presidential race has shined a spotlight on Muslim Americans, several experts who spoke Sept. 29 at Michigan State’s “Muslims and the Upcoming U.S. Elections” panel voiced concerns regarding Muslim participation in the election.
Sarrah Buageila, a researcher at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, said her research shows just 60 percent of eligible Muslim Americans are registered to vote, underperforming other religious groups. By comparison, she said, at least 86 percent of eligible Jews, Catholics and Protestants are registered.
“We have quite a way to go to catch up to other groups,” said the Ann Arbor resident. “The more you are collectively engaged, the more likely that politicians will listen to you.”
The panelists also voiced fear about the rise of Islamophobia in the country. According to Buageila’s research, 61 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam, and half of Americans do not know a Muslim person. The media, she said, have not helped. According to the report, 80 percent of news coverage on Muslims is negative.
Saeed Khan, a research fellow at Wayne State University, said anti-Muslim sentiments are driven by politicians, not by events, as some may believe. The radio host pointed out that anti-Muslim sentiments generally do not rise after events like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing, but during election cycles.
“There’s a correlation between heightened Islamophobia and the election cycle,” said Khan, citing statements by presidential candidate Donald Trump as an example of the trend.
Amer Zahr, a Muslim-American comedian and activist on the panel, said politicians and Americans simply have not done enough to get to know Muslims. A law professor, he brought up an example of a California school that used a demeaning caricature of an “Arab” as a mascot. According to Zahr, the school said the image celebrated Arabic heritage.
“Even when we are being celebrated, we are seen in stereotypical, discriminatory ways,” said Zahr. “When politicians come into our communities, talk to us, speak our language. That’s how to get us engaged.”
Mohammad Khalil, an associate professor of religious studies at MSU, said presidential candidates must give the Muslim community a sense of belonging to win votes.
“I think it’s all about giving Muslims a sense of ownership, making them feel like they’re all part of the same team. I don’t think that Muslims get that feeling,” said the Khalil.
He said that a substantial number of Muslims voted for President George Bush in 2000 due to his attempts to unify the country, but that he does not see Trump trying to make the same inroads with the community.
“It’s almost as if Trump is trying to avoid saying the word ‘Muslim,’” said Khalil. “We’re all playing on the same team.”