Sunday, 20 October 2019

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Trump, campaign vitriol boosts Muslim voter outreach

By Bethany Rodgers, For Orlando Sentinel, On 15 August 2016, Read Original
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Despite supporting Bernie Sanders, first-time voter Aqeel Khanani initially cheered Donald Trump's entry into the GOP primary because he figured the former reality show host would "spice up" the presidential race.

It wasn't long before the 20-year-old Orlando resident said his amusement turned to horror at the Republican candidate's barrage of harsh rhetoric. First targeting illegal Mexican immigrants. Then the war record of Sen. John McCain. Then Khanani's own Muslim community.

As a registered independent, Khanani couldn't vote in the primary, so he'll be casting his first ballot in November — for Democrat Hillary Clinton. He's been nudging his family to hit the polls, too. A political science major, he researches candidates and relays what he learns to relatives and reminds them that a handful of voters can sometimes shift the balance in a race.

Khanani's familial push is playing out on a larger scale across Central Florida, where Islamic cultural and advocacy groups are striving to increase voter turnout among the region's roughly 30,000 Muslims.

"I just want to vote so that the rest of the world doesn't see America as a bunch of Trumps," the University of Miami student said.

Volunteer tables are popping up outside mosques during Friday afternoon services, so as the prayerful are coming or going they can fill out voter-registration forms or request a mail-in ballot.

Imam Muhammad Musri, who leads the Islamic Society of Central Florida, said voting is a citizen's obligation.

"Our message to our community is that we're American," Musri said. "This is your sacred duty to vote your conscience on the issues, from the local community to the state to the national."

This election cycle has been particularly bruising for Muslims across the nation. Muslims have reported an escalation in hateful speech and acts following recent terrorist acts such as the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, perpetrated by a self-declared Islamic State supporter.

Trump's call to close the U.S. borders to members of their faith and his feud with the Muslim American parents who lost their son in combat have alienated and pained the Islamic community.

"Muslims are praying he doesn't make it because they're scared of his comments and lack of experience and lack of leadership on many fronts," Musri said. "Imagining him as a president is really disastrous."

Imam Tariq Rasheed of the Islamic Center of Orlando said his mosque has always promoted civic engagement, but he's observed a thicker crowd around the voter-registration tables this election cycle.

While Rasheed isn't sure the inflamed rhetoric has provoked this response, a spokesman for a Muslim advocacy group argues there is a strong correlation. A rise in hateful acts against Muslims has also spurred political action, said Wilfredo Ruiz, spokesman for the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"The mobilization that the Muslims are having statewide, for me, it's unprecedented," Ruiz said.

Once, the GOP could count on a subset of the Islamic electorate who hew to conservative social values, Ruiz said. Florida Muslim voters helped tip the scales in the 2000 election, when Republican George W. Bush captured the state – and therefore the presidency – from Al Gore by a razor-thin margin, according to a study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan think tank.

Since then, the Republican Party has lost many of these voters, with a Pew Research Center report from 2014 finding that more than 60 percent of Muslim Americans identify with the Democratic party.

Ruiz pegged this shift in part to the rise of the Tea Party, and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding report also pointed to the Patriot Act and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as contributing factors.

Osceola Republican Chairman Mark Oxner said he doesn't think statements made by national GOP candidates such as Trump have hurt the local party. Republican ideas for strengthening the economy, creating jobs and improving the lives of families appeal to non-Muslims and Muslims alike, he said.

"We're as welcoming to them as we are welcoming to anybody," Oxner said. "We're about principles, not about race or religion."

Living in a swing state loaded with electoral votes, Florida Muslims are well positioned to make their voices heard in the presidential race, Ruiz said. And Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties have among the state's highest proportion of Muslims in the voter mix, figures show.

Recent backlash against Trump's campaign for criticizing Khzir and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of a fallen Muslim-American soldier, might further encourage Islamic participation, Ruiz said. The Khans example has dispelled the notion that individual Muslims are politically powerless, he added.

"Being a minority, you can still be an element of transition in this election," Ruiz said.

Last week, CAIR-Florida became the organization's first state chapter to unveil a voter-engagement website. Ruiz said the response has been so strong that the group's California, Missouri and Oklahoma branches want to follow suit.

The website, Muslims.vote, provides voter information, encourages use of the #cair2vote hashtag and grades state lawmakers for their positions on several pieces of legislation.

A high turnout from the Islamic electorate is also meaningful in local races, says Nuren Haider, a Muslim who is running for Orange County commissioner in District 1.

County leaders could do a better job of reaching out to minority communities, but change is possible if Muslims and others show up on Election Day, she said. Campaigning door-to-door has brought Haider, who wears a headscarf, into close contact with the sentiments that could drive other members of her faith to the polls.

People have called her and her team terrorists and liars and told them to get out of the country. A few people have waved her off their property while warning they keep a weapon in the house, she said.

Elsewhere, she meets gestures of kindness. Some have apologized about a neighbor's angry outburst or offered words of support.

"You get both sides of it," Haider said. "You see a lot of love, and you see a lot of hate."

The one benefit of the surge in anti-Islamic rhetoric is its effect on Muslims who might once have watched the political process from the sidelines, Khanani said.

Some have been disengaged because they lack interest, while others are immigrants from countries where citizens are suspicious of the elections process, he added. But lately, they've been paying more attention.

"I do thank Trump for that," Khanani said.