Minnesota’s growing Muslim population expands political reach through organizing, activism—and winning.



By HIBAH ANSARI
Friday October 30, 2020

‘No more sambusa diplomacy’: Muslim political organizers want real political participation—not just friendly mosque visits with the old political establishment.


Habon Abdulle started Ayada Leads in 2015. The group aims to increase civic engagement in Minnesota, particularly among women from the African diaspora. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal


Abdulahi Farah didn’t vote the year he turned 18 years old. In fact, he didn’t vote during the next 15 years, either. He thought politics was corrupt and his vote could do little to curb that corruption. His thinking changed, though, when three men from Illinois bombed Dar Al Farooq, the mosque Abdulahi attended in Bloomington, in 2017.Abdulahi, a mosque leader at Dar Al Farooq, realized he needed to play a more active role in protecting his community against white supremacy. That’s when he joined ISAIAH, a progressive multi-racial coalition of faith communities in Minnesota.

“We came back from training with our eyes wide open,” Abdulahi said. The training sessions ISAIAH offered made Abdulahi realize elections are the vehicles through which groups can build power. “What is power then? Power is the number of voters you have. Then a lightbulb went off.”

Now, Abdulahi is a lead organizer for Faith in Minnesota, the tax-exempt social-welfare arm of ISAIAH that advocates directly in state elections and political processes. When he first joined the group, Abdulahi helped form the Muslim Coalition under Faith in Minnesota, which comprises about 30 mosques across the state.

Abdulahi’s newfound passion for civic engagement has aligned with a political awakening in the Muslim community in Minnesota, especially ahead of November 3. Nonpartisan studies show American Muslims are leery of Trump and they tend to vote strongly Democratic. Roughly half of them report they’ve experienced discrimination for their faith. 

But the way Muslims have mobilized in Minnesota—from voting to actually running for office—reveals new and sophisticated ways Muslims have joined the political process. Civic engagement groups hope that increasing voter turnout could prove decisive in some congressional and state races outside the Twin Cities, too. By speaking with Muslim voters, these groups have gained a better understanding of the issues they’re concerned about—from affordable housing to immigration. Activating new Muslim voters has also encouraged more Muslim women to pursue leadership roles.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he isn’t surprised by these initiatives. He said he’s seen Muslims do what anyone working in politics should do. “What your average conventional Democrat considers surprising or unique is just glaringly obvious—talk to people,” Ellison said. “The point is to get people to fill out a ballot for you. That’s it. How many ways are there to do that?”

“When I ran for office in 2006, it enlivened a lot of Muslims, not only in Minnesota, but across the country,” Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, said. He added that his campaign gave Muslim-majority neighborhoods a new level of attention. “We [door] knocked Cedar–Riverside in a whole new way.”

At the time, Ellison started to see more Muslims become interested in running for office. He also saw an increase in voter mobilization efforts. Tabling at a mosque, for example, represented a new way to reach out to the Muslim community. 

Today, the landscape of political participation in the Muslim community looks quite different. In 2013, Abdi Warsame became the first Somali in Minnesota elected to the Minneapolis City Council. Five years later, Representative Ilhan Omar made history again when she became the first refugee and one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. In 2018, Representative Mohamud Noor claimed a seat in the state House of Representatives. The following year, Representative Hodan Hassan entered the state House.

“Our level of political engagement just exploded,” Ellison said of the years after his Congressional win. “There was a campaign they were excited about, and then they stayed excited. It let people’s imaginations run.”

Muslim Americans: fewer voters but more volunteers

The Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan research institute, has released an American Muslim Poll each year since 2017. The survey tracks various civic engagement trends in the American Muslim community, which makes up just over 1 percent of the total population.

The 2020 report suggests voter registration for Muslims has increased since the previous presidential election. In 2020, 78 percent of Muslims reported being registered to vote. However, voter registration for American Muslims still lags behind registration in other faith communities: 92 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of white evangelicals, 90 percent of Jews, 88 percent of Protestants, and 87 percent of the general public are registered. 

Additionally, a quarter of Muslims in the United States are not eligible to vote, mostly because they aren’t citizens. Ultimately, that leaves some 57 percent of all Muslims in America registered to vote—or fewer than 1 million total Muslim voters based on likely 2020 election turnout. 

Looking at those numbers, the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding has concluded that voting in national elections may not represent the most effective way to assert political influence.

“The next generation of organizers may work to encourage greater participation in local political races where Muslims can make a difference with campaign contributions and volunteering, as well as voting,” the report says.

But American Muslims have recognized the need for political activity beyond voting. For example, nearly one quarter of Muslims attended a town hall meeting in the last year—compared to 15 percent of Protestants, 12 percent of white Evangelicals, and 15 percent of the general public. At 16 percent, Muslims and Jews were the most likely to volunteer for a political campaign in the past year.

‘No more sambusa diplomacy’

So what does that political picture look like in Minnesota? For Abdulahi, at Faith in Minnesota, it includes more than 20 mosques involved in increasing voter turnout from their congregations and communities. Abdulahi has recruited 30 volunteers to call from a list of 70,000 Muslim voters, Monday through Friday. Faith in Minnesota is also hosting get out the vote events in the weeks leading up to November 3.

During his political training in 2017, Abdulahi said he saw groups from all faiths come together to fight white supremacy. He realized, “Wait a minute, that’s the same fight that we’re in.” 

 
Faith in Minnesota held a rally to get out the vote Saturday, October 24 in Brooklyn Park. Credit: Abdulahi Farah | Faith in Minnesota


Abdulahi then learned how to engage his community. That included how to set up information tables and pledge drives at mosques, what issues he should discuss with community members, and how to support campaigns across the metro area.

The effort looked very different from the “sambusa diplomacy” that Muslims in the area were used to seeing, Abdulahi said. That’s the term he uses to describe how established elected officials would visit a mosque, eat sambusas, talk about how much they care about the Muslim community, and then leave.

“We were like, no more sambusa diplomacy,” Abdulahi said. “We need to have an independent Muslim political power that actually negotiates and makes sure that we elect the right people that actually care about our agenda.”

Muslim voters would like to effect change in areas surrounding mass incarceration, policing, affordable housing, Islamophobia, and immigration. 

“We were not talking about politics at all,” Abdulahi said. “We were talking about the current struggles in our community.”

One goal of Faith in Minnesota this election is to flip state Senate seats in three regions: Rochester, St. Cloud, and Burnsville. Abdulahi believes that the Muslim community—largely East African and South Asian—could make up the margin in those areas. He says he’s organized volunteers who have been door knocking and phone banking since February. 

“We are not the electorate that people look at,” Abdulahi said. “In these areas like St. Cloud and Rochester, it’s tight. It’s razor thin margins. And now we know a lot of our community members don’t vote, so we’re giving them a political education.”

Abdulahi said most Muslim voters in these areas tend to just vote for a presidential candidate. But he’s emphasized providing information to voters so they’ll vote for Democratic state Senate candidates, too.

The volunteers who work with Abdulahi are both young and old, men and women, grassroots volunteers and professional campaigners. “We’re organizers, we’re not activists,” Abdulahi said. “We’re not only excited about an issue, we want to build a long-term power so that we can create systemic change.”

Women win

Habon Abdulle is also organizing for long-term power, but for a more specific group. Habon is the executive director of Ayada Leads (formerly known as the Women Organizing Women Network). The group aims to harness the political and social power of women from the African diaspora. They conduct training for women who want to run for office, host voter education events, and provide mentorship opportunities for women interested in politics.

“The level of organizing that I see today, whether that is general new American women of color or specifically Muslim women,” Habon said, “there is a big change.”

Habon launched Ayada Leads in 2015, because she saw that most of the people she identified with in office were Somali men. Habon wanted to spark political ambition for women who were discouraged from political participation because of both Islamophobia and the lingering patriarchal values within her own community. 

In 2018, Habon’s hopes became a reality when Representative Ilhan Omar registered a historical win for Muslim women.

Habon said it’s important to see Muslim women, especially those who wear the hijab, hold office because of their visibility as Muslims. She added that it confirms that “we’re powerful, without needing to assimilate.”

Simply getting out the Muslim vote is not her ultimate goal. “We believe political participation in all forms—running for office, voting, getting familiar with policy—is an effective strategy to counter all sorts of discrimination,” Habon said. Ayada Leads has also been phone banking and canvassing in person, while following CDC guidelines for coronavirus safety.

This election season, Habon is seeing more effort in engaging with the Muslim community, not as “a standalone bloc,” but as a group willing to build coalitions with people who aren’t Muslim, she said. “When we engage in politics, we engage as Americans, as those who want to build connections with our neighbors.” 

‘We’re not going to let them suppress votes’

When Habon looks back at the past 20 years, she realizes that Muslims have been at the center of the political conversation in the United States for a long time. But in the beginning, they were mostly vilified and othered. Now, she’s seeing the community take agency and mobilize in exciting ways.


Ward 6 City Council Member Jamal Osman worked with volunteers ahead of his election in August. Credit: Jamal Osman


Jamal Osman, 36, Minneapolis City Council Member for Ward 6, was raised in the 9/11 era of fear mongering about “Islamic extremism”—an ugly stereotype that most Muslims became accustomed to.

“We have been targeted since September 11, especially in national elections,” Jamal said. “Now that they recognize we have a voice, we can push back and say: No, we’re not a label. We can be a part of the process.”

Almost 20 years later, Jamal said he sees a similar effort to scapegoat the Muslim community—only now, the concern is immigration rather than extremism. But he’s seen members of his own community speak out when they’re vilified by the White House, for example.

“We’re tough, and we just got used to this,” Jamal said of discrimination against Muslims in the United States. “Our community shows that we’re not going to go through that.”

That same attitude inspired Jamal to run for city council in Minneapolis when the Ward 6 seat opened up. He said he hoped to spend his time in office addressing neighborhood issues like public health, the local economy, and the opioid crisis.

Instead, a month after Jamal won the city council seat, he was accused of ballot harvesting in a pair of bewildering videos from Project Veritas, a “right-wing disinformation outfit,” according to media researchers at Harvard University. In September, Project Veritas released a video report clouded with confusing allegations that campaign workers, like Jamal’s brother, were illegally collecting absentee ballots in Cedar–Riverside.

Jamal said the report was meant to stoke fear of absentee voting among his constituents—an effort Jamal said didn’t actually work.

“That’s what they do,” Jamal said. “That’s all they’re about: trying to divide people, trying to other us. And intimidating us like we’re not part of the society, like we’re not American enough.”

But Jamal said none of his constituents actually came to him with concerns about whether his election was legitimate. They knew they were being deliberately targeted. And if any community can see through discrimination from the political right, it’s Muslims, Jamal said.

“Of course, it’s not the first time we’ve heard this kind of attack. But we’re not going to let them suppress votes,” Jamal said. “We’re going to come out stronger and stronger.”

Still, Jamal is concerned about any surprise voter intimidation on November 3. He’s working with law enforcement to make sure there aren’t any bad actors at polling stations trying to deter people from voting. The attorney general’s office said it is illegal to intimidate or interfere with voters at the polls.

“I want to make it crystal clear to anyone who is even thinking about intimidating voters that I will not hesitate to enforce the laws against it to the fullest extent,” Ellison said in the statement. 

Both Ilhan and Mohamud face reelection November 3. Amir Malik, a Pakistani American candidate from Blaine, is also vying for a seat in the state House this year. Along with Muslims in city councils and school boards across Minnesota, they form a growing presence of Muslim elected officials in local and state government.

“It’s amazing to see a Muslim woman in Congress. And it’s great to see people like me being elected into city council,” Jamal said. “We’re here to stay and we are here to be part of the political process in the United States.”



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