The first accusations that now President Barack Obama might be secretly Muslim were whispered around the country in spring 2008 with 10% of Americans saying that they believed the rumors.
Since then, attacking Islam and Muslims has been an increasingly popular way to score political points with conservative American voters. During the 2010 midterm elections, Republican candidates around the United States used the specter of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (which was, of course, neither a mosque nor located at Ground Zero) as a means of distinguishing themselves from Democratic opponents. A party strategist was cited in August 2010 as telling “CNN that GOP candidates are being encouraged to talk about the issue as much as possible” – and it paid off for newcomers like North Carolina’s Renee Ellmers, whose Ground Zero mosque campaign advertisement was described as “the most baldly anti-Muslim ad of the year”. Meanwhile, belief that President Obama is Muslim has grown, from 18% of Americans in 2010 to 29% – nearly three in ten – in 2015.
The 2016 presidential campaign, of course, has seen a considerable intensification of anti-Islam rhetoric, starting with GOP candidate Ben Carson’s September 2015 statements that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation”, unless the Muslim in question was only nominally or culturally connected to Islam. For him, as for many Americans over the past few years, the issue of sharia – a concern that has a very recent history in American discourse, with almost no mentions of sharia after key events like the Iranian revolution or the September 11 attacks – looms large.
After the Paris attacks of November 2015, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump joined the debate, linking Islamophobic language to another hot button issue – immigration. “Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” his campaign announced in a December press release. While Carson’s numbers have suffered, Trump is the current GOP front-runner, with multiple models predicting victory on Super Tuesday.
The net effect of this political discourse has been to make “Islam” and “Muslim” politically costly terms, unless used negatively – a dramatic change from the President George W. Bush era. Starting six days after September 11, Bush became a frequent visitor to the Islamic Center of Washington DC (interestingly, dedicated in 1957 by President Eisenhower), where he incidentally referred to Allah as “God”, suggesting that he was comfortable with the idea that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Since 2008, however, speaking well of Islam and Muslims, let alone actually engaging with American Muslims, has had nothing but a politically toxic effect (as with for example the Islamophobic accusations lobbed at Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff while Secretary of State, by Representative Michele Bachmann and others). It is possible that the only reason Obama’s religious identity didn’t become more of an issue in the 2012 presidential elections was because his opponent, Mitt Romney, is Mormon – a religion with its own history of poor treatment in the United States. (And, incidentally, with a long history of being lumped together for negative effect, as in texts like the 1912 Mormonism: The Islam of America.)
Yet while the rhetorical anti-Muslim tide has been rising in the United States, so have the voting rates of Muslim Americans – an encouraging sign in a historically quietist population. Historically, Muslim Americans – like Arab and South Asian Americans – tended to vote Republican and to be only minimally involved in US politics. Over the course of the 2000s, however, two things changed. First, over the course of the 2000s, American Muslim voting patterns shifted from Republican to Democrat, with 78% voting for George Bush in 2000, 71% voting for John Kerry in 2004, and 92% voting for Barack Obama in 2008. Second, the major (and many minor) Muslim organizations in the United States began actively campaigning to get Muslims involved in civic life – and particularly in voting.
The result was that in 2012, Muslims were described by the New York Times as “swing voters” because of their concentration in battleground states like Michigan and Florida.
Despite the mounting anti-Islamic rhetoric, the trend towards greater civic engagement continues in 2016. The US Council of Muslim Organizations has announced a three-part campaign to combat Islamophobia in the United States, which includes the goal of registering one million Muslim American voters before the 2016 presidential election – a laudable goal given that the total Muslim American population is estimated at 3.3 million, or approximately 1% of the total US population.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council, which published its first election guide in January 2008, has developed a “2016 Presidential Primary Community Guide”. It encourages readers to “contribute to the wellbeing of fellow citizens and be active members of society” by voting and engaging in civic life. Nationally, anecdotal reports suggest that American Muslims are responding – or, as one columnist put it, “Guess what, Donald Trump? Your bigotry has inspired Muslim American voters like no presidential candidate [before]”.
The latest poll on Muslim American voters was released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations in early February. It found that 73% of those polled plan to participate in the primary elections – a small but steady increase from 2014’s 69%, and higher than even New Hampshire’s 52% or South Carolina’s 30% actual primary turnout. Yet while 30% of respondents listed Islamophobia as the “most important issue to you in the 2016 presidential election” (with the economy, historically a more typical area of concern, taking second place at 24%), their party preference appeared more complex.
While 67% stated that they planned to support the Democratic Party, 15% planned to vote Republican, 11% declined to answer, and 7% planned to support a minor party. If the Republican Party has been hurt by its top candidates’ anti-Muslim stances, it hasn’t lost all Muslim American voters – and nor has the Democratic Party gained all of those turned off by the hostile rhetoric of Mr. Trump, Mr. Carson, or others. In fact, Trump was the third most popular candidate listed in response to the question of which candidate within each party the respondent planned to support: 7% of those polled planned to vote for him during the primary elections.
That last data point may be a head scratcher, although observers have suggested either that Trump still resonates with pro-business members of the Muslim American community, or that some percentage of those polled – like American voters around the country – don’t look too carefully at candidate positions. What the data suggest overall, however, is that despite the increasing anti-Islam and anti-Muslim political rhetoric over the past 10 years, American Muslims are an increasingly engaged voting community – and 2016 may be their highest voting year yet.
Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites. Stanton’s recent work on the Middle East includes an examination of the role of the Olympic Games in fostering national and regional identities in Lebanon and Syria, and an analysis of themes found in US-based Syrian aid appeals and in Syrian political cartoons.