By Saeed Khan
American Muslims have their fair share of anxiety about the upcoming presidential election. They are torn between ignoring a campaign that has brought out the worst in US politics, and engaging with a narrative that has inadvertently and ironically placed them in the eye of the electoral storm. These mixed feelings have created a rupture in a community that craves unity in light of blistering and increasing Islamophobia.
The only group who has remained unconflicted in how to react to this campaign is partisan Democrats, who will reflexively vote for Hillary Clinton. Although Muslim Republicans may have initially demonstrated loyalty for their party, the Trump nomination has shaken their resolve. The current who’s who of prominent Republican politicians disavowing and disowning Trump may nudge die-hard Muslim party loyalists towards other options.
The 2016 election, for many reasons, is an exceptional case, and certainly in stark contrast to the 2008 and 2012 elections, where the consensus of the American Muslim community was that Barack Obama was a transformational leader for America and a welcome change for American Muslims after the traumatic Bush years.
The Muslim Millennials
A good segment of the American Muslim constituency in 2016 is a young demographic: half of them are under the age of 35. This will make voting and political engagement in general for this election a novel experience for many in the community. The turbulence of this year’s campaign has spawned an enhanced political literacy, especially for the domestic landscape after years of focus on foreign policy or internal community issues. 2016 also signals the emergence of a pool of voters that has come of age in this time of ‘post-truth’ politics. Trump, and his ripple effect across the political spectrum, has had a disruptive, corrosive influence on political discourse during this election, possibly for others ahead. This effect also reaches beyond Trump: Hillary Clinton first moved to the left to secure Bernie Sanders supporters against the dual threat of third-party candidates on the one hand, and complete apathy on the other; – either option would propel Trump towards victory. Clinton then also moved to the right in an attempt to appeal to disenfranchised ‘Never Trump’ Republicans, many of whom question whether their party will survive beyond November 8th.
Hillary vs Trump
The ‘stop Trump’ vote is far from united, from Muslims and across the electorate. Many American Muslims have significant reservations about Hillary. What her supporters see as her greatest strength – her experience in public life – others see as her chief liability. Many Muslims judge her as hostile to the Muslim world by the chaos of Iraq and Libya during her time as Secretary of State, or by the perception that she will maintain an unbalanced approach to the Israel-Palestine issue. Yet, Clinton also made history at the State Department with her appointment of the first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and placement of many American Muslims in high positions, including her chief advisor.
The traditional community focus on foreign policy, combined with the cynicism and skepticism of the candidates that no doubt grew after the second Presidential debate, could easily propel some Muslims towards a third-party vote, such as Jill Stein. They may opt for casting a ‘protest vote’ as a message against the establishment candidates. While this gesture may be undoubtedly driven by good intentions, its ramifications and unintended consequences are difficult to predict. It is possible that protest votes such as these will not play a decisive role in the election, and will instead send an important message to the two main parties.
However, the spectre of 2000 looms large with the potential for a repeat of the election where many Florida Muslims voted for third party Ralph Nader – enough to swing the vote in Florida, and hand the White House to George W. Bush. Those protest votes led (indirectly) to two major American-led wars in the Muslim world. Given the high stakes for Muslims, in America and across the world, it is imperative that American Muslims take their civic duty seriously. A decision to not vote, or a decision to vote for a third party candidate, may be just as consequential as a vote for Hillary or Trump.
Whatever decision Muslim voters make, 2016 leaves no room for apathy, a sentiment that is both deeply destructive un-Islamic as it shirks the responsibility that Muslims have to improve their respective societies. For the welfare of the Muslim community and for the nation itself, voting is not only a civic duty; it is a religious imperative. In fact, the Islamic command to enjoin the good and forbid the evil appears to have a great deal of resonance in the election now. 2016 is the launch point for a greater engagement for Muslims, establishing a more refined level of political debate within their respective communities. There is the opportunity for the Muslims to emerge united to safeguard their safety and the interests of the community. Smart voting allows them the chance to expel a toxic candidate along with the equally toxic option of apathy.