Few expected to hear this Arabic term for "God willing" uttered on the stage of a live presidential debate, and even fewer expected it'd be used in the niche colloquial manner known to Arab and Muslim communities. But candidate Biden did precisely that, demonstrating the extent to which these communities have made inroads in national public discourse.
American Muslims came out in full force to vote for Biden in record numbers, but for many, this was less about Biden or Trump and more about an affirmation that with collective organised power, those at the margins can assert their voices to radically transform the political landscape. The last dozen or so years of political mobilisation among American Muslims - whether through organising, protesting, voting, or other forms of civic engagement - have demonstrated that the community is now a force to be reckoned with, though it was not without difficulty.
In 2008, during then-Senator Barack Obama's campaign trail for presidency, right-wing punditry pejoratively labeled him a Muslim in an effort to publicly malign him, with Rush Limbaugh even referring to him as "Imam Hussein Obama," leading Obama to over emphasise his Christianity to distance himself from the Muslim label.
In a June rally, Obama's campaign even removed two Muslim women from behind his podium because they were wearing hijabs so that they would not be seen in any photos with him. Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign capitalised on anti-Muslim sentiment as well, by releasing a picture of Obama wearing Somali cultural clothing while on a visit to Northeast Kenya.
After Obama became president, his engagement with the American Muslim community often only served to reinforce the notion of Muslims as a problem. During the annual White House iftar in 2014, Obama took the opportunity to assert Israel's "right to defend itself" as bombs fell on the Gaza Strip resulting in the death of 550 Palestinian children in 51 days. In her 2016 campaign for president, Clinton did not change the discourse by much when she stated that the United States government must "work with American Muslim communities who are on the front lines to identify and prevent attacks."
Once Trump came into office, American Muslims were no longer given to pretensions of support from above and galvanized their grassroots on the ground in unprecedented ways. This time, Muslims were going to punctuate their place in politics on their own terms.
The day after Trump's 2017 inauguration came the Women's March, the largest single-day protest in American history, organised by Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian American Muslim woman and others. Six days later, Donald Trump passed Executive Order 13769, his first iteration of the 'Muslim Ban.'
In response, American Muslims and their allies flooded the airports in protest, and as the world watched, they offered prayers in public as a demonstration of resilience against Trump's bigotry. In a country where the president had once asserted that "Islam hates us," American Muslims demonstrated that Islam was not just a symbol of indefatigable resistance, but a force of radical love. Just a few weeks into the Trump presidency, American Muslims were already winning.
A year later came the 2018 midterms. An exciting set of Democrat lawmakers ushered their way into the White House, including Ilhan Omar, the first Black Muslim and hijab-wearing congresswoman, and Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian American congresswoman. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's upset of Joe Crowley, a pillar of the Democratic establishment, was also made possible by Muslim political advocacy groups in New York City, such as Muslims for Progress.
As these lawmakers made their way into Congress, they drastically shifted the conversation on crucial issues for the American Muslim community. Most recently, American Muslims showed up strongly in key swing states, namely Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, where Biden's victories would not have been possible without their organising.
Michigan is home to some of the most historic Muslim communities in the country with heavy Muslim populations in two major cities - Dearborn and Detroit - that arguably drove the vote in Biden's favour. Dearborn is home to thousands of Lebanese, Iraqi, and Yemeni communities who can trace their roots in America as far back as the 1870s, and Detroit is home to Mosque Number 1, the first mosque of the Nation of Islam, founded in 1930. Detroit has remained the home of a historic and sizable Black Muslim community that mobilised to vote.
Minnesota is another swing state in which Trump promised a resounding victory. Home to the largest Somali diaspora in the country, it is estimated that there are nearly 100,000 Somali speakers in the state. It is also home to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who Trump repeatedly attacked on the campaign trail. He condemned her as unpopular and an extremist who would help him get votes in Minnesota. As of now, it is estimated that Biden beat Trump by 233,400 votes in Minnesota. Interestingly enough, Ilhan Omar received 255,811 votes in her election. As opposed to being a hindrance, it was actually her district, with a sizeable Somali Muslim population, that put Biden over.
Georgia has long been a bastion of Black-led movements for centuries, with Black Muslims playing a central and essential role in that history. It also has a sizeable Arab and South Asian Muslim population and is home to a growing community of refugees from Syria and Somalia.
In 2015, the Muslims of Georgia founded the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, a grassroots initiative aimed at activating Muslim political participation in response to increased anti-Muslim bigotry and low rates of civic engagement. Since then, the initiative has made nearly 22,000 phone calls and registered voters in over 50 mosques. It is safe to say that turning Georgia blue would not have been possible without Muslim voters.
Pennsylvania is another state where Biden's victory would not have been possible without the Muslim community, especially Black Muslims. The city of Philadelphia alone is home to between 150,000 - 200,000 Muslims, most of whom are Black Americans. This has led many to hail it as the "Mecca of the West."
Beyond just the sheer numbers of Muslims, Islam in Philadelphia has left an indelible mark on the city's culture, particularly among Black Americans. Styles such as the "Philly beard" or the "Sunni beard" are even popular among non-Muslims. It is likely that Trump's anti-Black racism and anti-Muslim bigotry were deeply personal to Philadelphia's hundreds of thousands of Muslims, their friends, and their families, leading to an outpouring of votes that were so critical to Biden's victory in Pennsylvania.
As Trump hurls bombast in his inability to cope with the fact that he lost, it is important to reflect on the American Muslim voters and organisers throughout the country that made Biden's victory possible. Trump's election night was a defeat, but ultimately, his entire four years were a set of defeats. From the Women's March to protests at airports opposing the Muslim Ban to the 2018 midterms to election night, American Muslims won.
Beyond that, they won the Trump presidency. And as President-Elect Biden enters office in January 2021, American Muslims will be better situated to take on whatever challenges come their way and will join arms with other communities in building the world we all wish to see.
Asad Dandia (@DandiaAsad) is a Brooklyn-born writer, organizer, and graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University. Hamzah Raza (@raza_hamzah) is an alumnus of Vanderbilt University, is an educator who recently completed graduate study in Islamic Studies at Harvard University.
( Source: The New Arab )