National Press Club

Congressmen urge Muslim community to build political influence, voting power

May 25, 2016 | By Yasmine El-Sabawi | yasmine.elsabawi@gmail.com

U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison (speaking) and André Carson discuss Islamophobia in the United States at a National Press Club Newsmaker news conference, May 24, 2016.  Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak, chair of the NPC Board of Governors moderated the event.

U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison (speaking) and André Carson discuss Islamophobia in the United States at a National Press Club Newsmaker news conference, May 24, 2016. Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak, chair of the NPC Board of Governors moderated the event.

Muslim-Americans are not regarded as an influential voting bloc in the U.S., and the community must step up its engagement efforts to be better represented in the political process, two Muslim Congressmen told a National Press Club Newsmaker crowd on May 24.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., said Muslims must be the ones to stand up to anti-Muslim legislation proposed in state legislatures and city councils, which requires Muslims to establish a political presence.

“We live in very serious times,” Carson said, referring to what he called the rhetoric of “bigotry” from the presumptive Republican nominee for the White House, Donald Trump. “I caution Muslims against retreating” out of fear or disillusionment, he added.

Muslims, in particular those outside the African-American community, “don’t have much political leverage” because they are focused on their professional lives, Carson said. “The more Muslims who participate in the political process, it presents a different face for us.”

There are some 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S., making up about 1% of the population, according to the Pew Research Center.

Yet “there are a lot of states where the Muslim vote is a critical vote,” Ellison said, pointing to his own district where there is a large Somali-American population. “I believe this anti-Muslim hate is going to be responded to with a renewed investment in activism."

The heightened Islamophobia is “awakening a group of loyal, dedicated Americans who appreciate the democracy that we have” and “won’t take [the bigotry] lying down,” he added.

Hate crimes against Muslims have been on the rise since the November terror attacks in Paris, the December attack in San Bernardino, and Trump’s subsequent call to ban Muslims from the country, the FBI and rights groups have noted. Ellison and Carson said they have both received hateful tweets and letters due to their religious identity.

It’s “not fair to say there’s a special responsibility” for Muslims to denounce terrorism, even though they do it anyway, Ellison said. “We’re the number one victims of Daesh, and Al-Qaeda too, and Boko Haram.”

The Minnesota Congressman himself has been labeled an “apostate” by Daesh, the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“All the Muslim community want,” he said, is for people to “assume they reject [terrorism]” without obligating them to vocalize it. “There is an official component to this [kind of discrimination and] we’re not gonna stop talking about it."

Islamophobia typically “spikes with the presidential cycle,” Ellison said, adding that politicians’ divisive tactics "have very real consequences” which translate, among other things, to Muslim passengers being pulled off airplanes.

Trump in particular appeals to people’s “paternalistic, tribalistic impulse,” he said. “It’s racist, it’s frequent, but we’re undaunted.”

Carson, who is a Hillary Clinton supporter, called the real estate mogul a “classic bully” who “will not stop at anything” to get votes. He said Clinton, the former secretary of state, however, "has a special sensitivity as it relates to issues impacting the Muslim community."

“Once she becomes president, you will see Muslims in important positions in her cabinet,” Carson said.