By Hannan Adely, northjersey.com | USA TODAY
When she heard the tale, told by the Republican nominee for president, that Gen. John Pershing shot dozens of Muslims during a century-old Philippines conflict with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, Kaity Assaf was so repulsed she personally registered up about 15 new Muslim voters on a recent Friday outside a local mosque.
The story that Donald J. Trump has several times retold, even though it has been widely debunked, was received by American Muslims as degrading to their faith, in which pork and pig’s blood are unholy, but as an invitation by Trump supporters to dehumanize adherents of Islam.
Like Assaf, many Muslim Americans say they are gearing up to vote in large numbers on Tuesday to rebuke that sort of message, following a massive campaign that has included door-to-door visits, voter registration drives, phone banks and speeches at social and religious events imploring crowds to turn out.
“Your vote is your voice. It’s not about choosing from the lesser of two evils, but it also could show that American Muslims do play a role in politics,” Assaf, a Rutgers student from Clifton, told her peers.
This year, Muslims voters say they hope to demonstrate their power as a political constituency, not because of sheer numbers — Muslims make up about 1 percent of the total U.S. population — but because of their high concentration in key swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Michigan. It’s in those battleground states where their votes could help decide the outcome of an election, community organizers say.
In a nationwide survey of 800 American Muslims, 86 percent said they intend to vote this year. Another 30 percent reported that they had experienced discrimination or profiling in the past year.
“These numbers tell a story of Muslim American community that is hopeful and worried,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which released the survey findings in October. “They’re worried that the national political discourse has deteriorated so much that they feel unsure of their future as American citizens.”
Getting out the vote
During the 2016 election season, American Muslims cringed as they watched GOP candidates propose policies for Muslim registries, immigration bans and patrols of their mosques and neighborhoods. As the harsh rhetoric began to emerge in primary campaigns last year, Muslim activists began joining forces and launching campaigns to get out the vote.
Volunteers set up tables outside mosques in the past year during Friday afternoon prayer services to distribute voting information and register people to vote. The imams, meanwhile, urged congregants to vote as a stand against prejudice and an act of civic participation.
Volunteers hit the phones, calling people with Muslim names and affiliations to ask about their voting status, while others bombarded social media with reminders. CAIR announced this weekend that it’s putting out a robo-call to 400,000 registered Muslim voters featuring Khizr Khan – who spoke famously at the Democratic National Convention about his son, a Muslim U.S. soldier killed on duty – urging them to vote.
National organizations have sent leaders into mosques and community centers. At the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, Ahlam Jbrara of the #MyMuslimVote campaign told 15 local leaders that their community had been ignored for too long.
“Voting is one of the ways we can use to be heard and to be part of the process,” said Jbara, who has been touring cities across the county as part of the campaign.
The US Council of Muslim Organizations, a coalition of groups across the country, said thousands of new voters have registered at events held at more than 2,500 mosques, 500 schools and at community centers around the U.S.
In a separate effort, the New Jersey Muslim Voters Project registered more than 5,000 people in the state, said organizer Ayaz Aslam.
Political organizers say rallying voters has been made easier by Trump’s controversial speech and policy proposals that target Muslims. Muslims, who are racially and ethnically diverse, appear largely united in opposition to him.
CAIR’s survey found that 4 percent of Muslim voters said they would vote for Trump; 72 percent were for Clinton. Another 3 percent said they would vote for Jill Stein and 2 percent for Gary Johnson, with the rest undecided.
But many Muslims’ distaste for Trump does not automatically translate to enthusiasm for Clinton. Many Muslim Americans said they worried about her foreign-policy stances and feared she would perpetuate or expand wars abroad. Others were dismayed with her uncritical support for Israel.
Diab Mustafa’s 76-year-old father tells him he has to vote against Trump because he fears he’ll treat Muslims and their children “like we don’t belong to this country.”
“I think the Trump factor may make a lot of people go out and vote. But when we look at the positions, the big picture is that foreign policy is not motivating anybody to go out and vote,” said Mustafa, a Clifton resident.
Others pointed to Clinton’s description of them as the “eyes and ears on our frontlines,” which didn’t sit well with Muslims who object to the notion that they’re conduits to terrorism.
Then there are the Muslims who are part of what once was a solid Republican voting constituency that hewed to the GOP’s family values and social conservatism.
Most Muslims voted for George W. Bush in his first term, according to surveys and news accounts, but many voters were disaffected by the wars initiated in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as harsh rhetoric by some officials about Islam and many favored Democrats.
Omar Mohammed, of Upper Saddle River, said his parents are registered Republicans who voted for George W. Bush in his first term.
“In the last few cycles, it’s just that Republicans have totally just changed,” Mohammed said. “They’re alienating a lot of voters. The tone is that we’re the bad guys. That’s not going to work out for us.”
In spite of the effect to get out the vote, some political organizers quietly worry that distaste for either of the main candidates could fail to motivate Muslim voters, who might choose to stay home on Election Day.
But Aslam urges people to vote especially because of all the local and state races where the Muslim vote could make a difference. In a few, like school board races for Clifton and Paramus, Muslim candidates are running for office.
“Our goal is to get involved all levels, local, county, city or state,” Aslam said.
To voters he says: “Go and see what candidates stand for and see what attracts you and what you like and vote for that candidate.”