As a woman, a millennial, a progressive – and a Muslim – Nabilah Islam faced long odds in her bid for elected office in Georgia. Two years ago, she ran for Congress but lost in the Democratic primary, despite a high-profile endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This year, she ran for state senate to represent parts of the Atlanta metro region and won.
“People thought it was unthinkable that in the south, someone would vote for a woman with the last name Islam,” she said. “I’m like: they did. Fifty-three per cent of this district did.”
Islam, 32, is among a record number of Muslims elected to local, state and national office in November. A new analysis by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), a civil rights and advocacy group, and Jetpac, a non-profit focused on increasing Muslim political representation in the US, found that Muslims won at least 83 seats nationwide, up from an estimated 71 in 2020.
“I ran because I wanted to make sure that we had representation in the halls of power,” said Islam, a Bangladeshi American who is the first Muslim woman and the first South Asian woman to be elected to the Georgia state senate. “It’s so important that we don’t run away from ourselves and we lean into who we are. I think that’s what inspires folks to go out and vote for people, because they trust them.”
Muslims also won seats in Texas, Illinois, California, Minnesota, Maine, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These newly elected officials come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Somali, Pakistani, Afghan, Indian and Palestinian, but tend to be young and Democratic.
The path to these wins was paved in part by higher-profile Muslim politicians, including Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to serve in Congress, who is now Minnesota attorney general; André Carson, a congressman from Indiana; and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first Muslim women to serve in Congress. But Mohamed Gula, national organizing director at Emgage, a Muslim civic engagement non-profit, said the phenomenon was also fueled by the community’s desire “to create social change, to create a culture shift and the systems that are supposed to represent us”.
Aisha Wahab, the first Muslim and the first Afghan American elected to California’s state senate, said her run was about paying it forward to the next generation. “We need to see what else we can do for our community or country that we live in,” she said.
Wahab, who first served on city council for Hayward, in the San Francisco Bay Area, will represent a majority Asian American and Latino district that has one of the largest Afghan populations in the US. As the only renter in the California legislature, Wahab, who grew up in the foster system, ran on a platform of affordable housing, supporting small businesses to ensure local job creation and expanding Medi-Cal coverage.
Meanwhile, the Democrats Salman Bhojani and Suleman Lalani won state House races in Texas, becoming the first Muslim lawmakers for the state. Bhojani had become the first Muslim to hold elected office in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Euless when he served on the city council. He said bipartisanship was one reason for his success: even though he was the only Democrat and person of color on the city council, his colleagues elected him as mayor pro tem for the city in 2020. During this time, he worked on programs to educate youth about local government and encourage large-scale development.
“That meant a lot to me and how I’ve been able to work across the aisle and pass legislation that’s common sense and kitchen table as opposed to partisan rhetoric,” he said.
In addition to winning over Republicans, Bhojani, who is Pakistani American, also reached out to constituents often ignored by other politicians. He built relationships with his district’s sizable Tongan and Nepalese communities, often meeting them in their own community spaces.
Islam, too, reached out to diverse constituencies during her campaign, drawing on her background from a working-class, immigrant family to connect with members of her district, which is 65% Black and brown, she said.
“People see themselves in my candidacy, in my story,” she said. “And that’s why I think a lot of people were inspired to go out and vote.”
Growing Muslim political participation is also happening at the voting booth. A 2020 study by EmgageUSA showed significant gains in the number of registered Muslim voters in several states compared with 2016: 39% in Georgia, 35% in Texas and 46% in Wisconsin. Even though Muslims make up just 1.3% of the US population, large communities in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Minnesota mean they can play a role in determining key races. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Emgage’s Gula said the state’s large population of African American Muslims had helped the Democrat John Fetterman defeat the Republican Mehmet Oz. (Oz, who is of Turkish descent, has described himself as a secular Muslim.)
“When you’re looking at where a large number of the Muslim community is, it allows for us to ensure that we are able to have a certain level of bargaining power,” Gula said.
Muslims are also serving in government in non-elected positions, Gula said, as well as on campaigns and as community organizers, which has helped energize political participation in the community. More than 70 Muslims serve in the Biden administration, he said, including Lina Khan, chair of the Federal Trade Commission; Sameera Fazili, national economic council deputy director; Reema Dodin, White House Office of Legislative Affairs deputy director; and Rashad Hussain, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Shafina Khabani is one of these community organizers, who is now executive director of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project (GAMVP), founded in early 2016 in response to Islamophobic rhetoric during Trump’s presidential campaign and the local Muslim community’s low level of civic engagement.
“One of the issues that we grapple with within our community is a lack of trust, especially when there are outsiders coming into the community, and our history of Islamophobia and surveillance,” Khabani said.
Through conversations, Khabani learned that many Muslims were not registered to vote. “It wasn’t because our communities didn’t care, it was because politicians were not paying attention and reaching out to our communities,” she said. “It’s because organizations that were on the ground doing voter engagement and voter registration work were not reaching out to our communities in culturally competent ways.”
By showing up at places of worship, halal restaurants, grocery stores, cultural and religious festivals, the GAMVP resonated with Georgia Muslims because community members saw that it was an organization run for and by Muslims.
Muslim political engagement will only continue to grow. “They want to be a part of the American social fabric, but they also want to be a part of building the future for America in general,” Gula said.