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Amid anti-Islam rhetoric, Minnesota’s Muslim community looks to make a difference — in the voting booth

A number of organizations in Minnesota are working to get Muslims in the state involved in politics in ways they never have before. 

Nausheena Hussain and Raghad Alsayd putting up a “Register to Vote Here” sign on a shelf in Daybreak Press Global Bookshop in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

Even as the celebratory mood of Eid al-Fitr fades into the weekend and thousands of Minnesota Muslims return to their regular eating habits after Ramadan, Nausheena Hussain is preparing to get to work: embarking on an effort to galvanize Muslim American women across the state to participate in politics.

Through the organization she co-founded last year, Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE), Hussain is planning to provide Muslim women in Minnesota with the knowledge they need to participate in local, state and national electoral politics — while also registering more of them to vote in the 2016 elections.

Hussain’s efforts are just one of several in Minnesota that have sprouted in response to what many in the community see as simmering anti-Muslim sentiments throughout the United States. In the wake of terrorist attacks that paralyzed Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels and Orlando over the past year, Islamophobic discrimination and hate crimes against Muslim Americans have been on the rise, even as Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump — among others — continues to call for barring Muslims from entering the country and investigating their religious centers and monitoring their neighborhoods.

Now, a number of Muslim organizations in Minnesota are preparing for an unprecedented mobilization effort in the run-up to the November election: registering voters and encouraging Muslims to get involved in politics in ways they never have before. 

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“People don’t recognize politics until it happens to them,” said Osman Ali Ahmed, who works as a field representative for Sen. Al Franken and is planning to launch an effort to register Muslim voters across the state through an initiative called One Plus One. “You may have a hard time engaging people in politics. But if they see how it affects them, that’s when people get involved.”

‘We’re trying … to open that door’

Some of those efforts have already begun. RISE, for example, kicked off its campaign to engage Muslim women in politics last year, a project that began after Hussain sought to understand why most Muslim women weren’t participating in civil activities, even in mosques and neighborhoods.

“What we started to uncover was that there wasn’t a space where Muslim women could come together,” she explained. “A lot of young women feel like they are not associated to a center because they don’t wear hijab or they don’t speak the language or there is some sort of cultural barrier to interaction.”

So far, RISE has organized several engagement events, among them a panel discussion in February featuring Muslim women active in local and state politics. They included Ilhan Omar, who is running for the Minnesota House seat in District 60B, and Hala Asamarai, a school board member in Columbia Heights.

“What we wanted these women to talk about was why they decided to do the work that they’re doing and how did they balance their family lives, their faith, their religious aspects and how that all came together,” Hussain said. “It’s really important for other women to understand these perspectives so that they can see themselves and be able to rise to the occasion for leading.”

RISE organizes engagement trainings and discussions featuring Muslim women who a
Courtesy of RISE
RISE organizes engagement trainings and discussions featuring Muslim women who are politically active.

Sometimes, Hussain said, people in the Muslim community feel their votes don’t matter. Or they don’t see the value in participating in a secular government. Or they think Islam doesn’t permit its followers to vote for politicians with opposing values.

She wants to change that narrative. “Because [the U.S.] is a secular country, because it’s pluralistic, that makes it even more important for us to be involved. Everybody’s vote counts. Everybody needs to show up and exercise their rights.”

RISE offers practical training for how to do that. After the February panel discussion, Hussain led a session on caucusing, as well as the registration and voting process for the primary and general elections.

“It was a nice ripple effect of being politically active and not having to worry about this lack of knowledge,” Hussain added. “Sometimes people just don’t know what’s going on. So, what we’re trying to do is just open up that door and help people understand the opportunities.”

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An especially crucial election

Now Hussain is about to embark on a new project to register voters. On a recent Thursday afternoon, she stopped by Daybreak Press Global Bookshop, a community hub near the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, with a box filled with forms from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, including voter registration forms, fliers and stickers.

Store manager Raghad Alsayd and Hussain pulled out a poster that read, “Register to Vote Here!” and put it up on a shelf. The pair also arranged the fliers and voter registration forms on a round table.

Jaylani Hussein
MinnPost by Ibrahim Hirsi
Jaylani Hussein

“I think people need to know how they can register and where they can register,” Hussain explained. “The advantage we have in Minnesota is that we do have same-day registration. But I think it’s best for us to be more organized and proactive and get people registered before they go to the polls.”

CAIR-MN Executive Director Jaylani Hussein echoed a similar sentiment. Although every election is important, he said, this year’s feels especially crucial. That’s why his organization plans to launch a campaign later this month to spread the importance of political participation and encourage Muslims to cast their votes.

CAIR is planning a broad-based approach to reach Muslims throughout Minnesota who are eligible to vote, with volunteers visiting Islamic centers across the state to do voter education talks and register eligible voters.

“We want to have not only online presence, but a great number of people who could be mentors or community resources, who can answer questions that people may have about voter registration,” said Jaylani Hussein.

Violence spurs political action

Like Nausheena Hussain and Jaylani Hussein, Osman Ali Ahmed, a staffer in Franken’s office, said he’s undertaking efforts to increase political engagement within the state’s Muslim community. Ahmed plans to register voters at ethnic malls, mosques and other community gathering spots — an effort that he says was born out of the anti-Muslim rhetoric he heard during the presidential campaign over the past year.

Such rhetoric has a direct connection to an increase in violent crimes against Muslims, said Jaylani Hussein. In fact, while the overall rate of hate crimes has gone down, hate crimes targeting the Muslim community have, in fact, increased in the United States.  

Several high-profile incidents have brought such statistics home for Minnesota’s Muslim community. Last year, a Somali-American woman, Asma Jama, was assaulted at a Coon Rapids Applebee’s for speaking a foreign language. Also last year, a Muslim couple — Majida and Adly Abumayaleh — were held at gunpoint while picking up their teenage son in Maple Grove; Nancy Knoble, 48, told the couple that they looked “suspicious” in her neighborhood. 

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And just last week, two Somali-American men, wearing traditional Islamic clothing, were shot on their way to the mosque for the morning prayers. The case is still under investigation, but CAIR-Minnesota’s Hussein says that he believes that the motive was driven by hate.

Osman Ali Ahmed
Courtesy of Osman Ahmed
Osman Ali Ahmed

After a closed-door meeting with state Muslim leaders Tuesday night, Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters that he apologized to the community “for what appears to be another terrible hate crime,” which he called “a senseless random act of violence that’s so un-Minnesotan.”

Ahmed noted that Muslim Americans are well aware of the dangerous situations they might face because of their faith — and the misconceptions many Americans hold about Muslims. “They talk about it all the time,” he said of the Islamophobic incidents that have occurred in many parts of the country. “But we want to turn that into an action.”

And while there are efforts also happening on a national level — national Muslim leaders recently met at conference in Washington to lay out a plan to reach out to voters — many Muslim Americans aren’t waiting until such services reaches them.

Recently, a Somali-American man approached Ahmed at a mosque. The father of two Minnesota-born children, the man was upset about how some politicians — Donald Trump in particular — continue to talk about Muslim Americans.

“How can I get involved?” Ahmed says the man asked him. “He really wanted to participate. He didn’t want his children to grow up watching people like Trump.”