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WASHINGTON — As Donald Trump continues to target Muslims in his speeches and comments, Muslim-oriented political groups are gearing up to make sure their response is heard loud and clear in the 2016 election cycle — one in which they say Muslims have faced unprecedented attacks from politicians.
In the days after the Paris attacks, Ben Carson compared screening Syrian refugees to keeping out "rabid dogs," and Trump has expressed support for a national Muslim registry, closing mosques, and greater surveillance of Muslim-Americans, and also insisted that thousands of Arab-Americans celebrated in New Jersey as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11.
Some top Republicans have rejected Trump’s rhetoric — Jeb Bush, for example, called Trump’s comments about closing mosques and registering Muslims “just wrong” — but the Republican National Committee and others have not yet stepped into denounce the comments, during an election cycle in which the RNC had once hoped to portray the party as more inclusive. That lack of a strong response has angered Muslim-Americans, along with other well-funded minority groups, and encouraged them to use the 2016 election to show the strength of their voting bloc.
“The silence is deafening,” said Robert McCaw, government affairs manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Although Trump and Carson don’t represent views of most Republican candidates, said Randa Fahmy Hudome — a Muslim-American political consultant who worked in the Bush administration — the Republican Party is hurting itself by not standing up for Muslim-Americans.
"My advice to my party would be: Reach out to the Muslim community and be more tolerant," she said. "Certainly, these [Muslim] groups, their work is going to be so much more stepped up because they are so much more motivated."
Several Muslim groups including the Council on American-Islamic Relations are now doubling down on their efforts to register and mobilize Muslim-Americans to vote, especially in places like Florida, Virginia, and Ohio — swing-states with large Muslim populations. The comments may ultimately serve as inspiration for turnout efforts and new advocacy — that would likely benefit Democrats. Pew Research estimates there are about 2.75 million Muslims in the country, and 70% of them are Democrats or lean Democratic. Most of the groups are 501c(3) nonprofits and haven’t been engaged in electoral politics, but given the comments in recent weeks, there’s now some discussion in the community of how to best use their resources to push back against the attacks.
"Now more than ever American Muslims realize the importance of civic engagement and having a voice in these conversations,” said Rabiah Ahmed of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an advocacy group that works on civil rights and national security issues on behalf of Muslim-Americans. It’s another one of the groups — along with the American Muslim Alliance, Emerge USA, MPOWER Change, Universal Muslim Association of America and a dozen more — registering Muslim-Americans.
Even before the Paris attacks, Muslim-American leaders were growing increasingly concerned about repeated anti-Islamic comments on the campaign trail.
In September — around the time Carson said Muslims could not be president — dozens of groups partnered with mostly progressive civil rights, minority, and Christian organizations in sending a letter to the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee, urging the party committees to “categorically reject this type of bigotry and state on the record that it is incompatible with this country’s founding principles.” The groups that signed on to the letter include the American Civil Liberties Union, American Baptist Churches USA, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Human Rights Campaign, NAACP, Islamic Networks Group, Muslim Advocates, The Sikh Coalition and United Church of Christ.
“This rhetoric is not just ugly, but it is also dangerous, for our country’s future as it almost always is followed by an uptick in hate crimes and violence,” they wrote in a letter dated Sept. 29 that was obtained by BuzzFeed News. "We also see these statements as a harbinger of what may be increasing attacks on communities based on faith, ethnicity or race in order to achieve political gain.”
A week later, the groups received a response from DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, ensuring them that Democrats were “deeply committed to the values of diversity and inclusion.” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has yet to respond, even as the comments from presidential candidates from his own party have become more frequent.
The RNC also did not respond to requests for comment on why Priebus had not written back to the groups.
The larger political effort may take time, however. In the early 2000s, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslim-Americans formed a few political action committees that made some contributions to campaigns. But those were terminated over the years, as the community started focusing more on fighting racial profiling and hate crimes through nonprofits.
The bulk of the work will likely carry on in 2016 through nonprofits as well, with many launching social media campaigns over ads to more effectively get out their message. After Trump said he supported registering Muslim, for example, Muslim-Americans created “#Muslim ID” on Twitter that went viral. They tweeted pictures of their workplace and student IDs — from hospitals, law firms, to Ivy League schools and the military.
But Trump’s support for national Muslim registry has also elicited a strong response from some Jewish groups. The Anti-Defamation League condemned his comments, for instance.
“For the Jewish community, it touches a raw nerve,” said Hadar Susskind, director of the Bend the Arc Jewish Action.
Bend the Arc was one of the groups that signed on to the letter. It’s funded in part by Alex Soros, son of major Democratic donor and billionaire George Soros. The group has been airing an ad criticizing the rhetoric on immigration from presidential candidates.
Rabiah Ahmed of the Muslim Public Affairs Council delivers Ben Carson an invitation to the group's forum.
courtesy of Rabiah Ahmed/MPAC
Muslim groups say they’ve also made an effort to directly reach out to campaigns, but they’ve been largely ignored by the GOP contenders.
Ahmed’s group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, invited all presidential candidates to its Nov. 10 public policy forum in Washington, D.C. Ahmed said she personally hand-delivered an invitation to Carson while he was in D.C. for an event. Ultimately, none of the candidates attended.
“For some of the Republican candidates,” Ahmed said of why she thinks the outreach isn’t working, “we suspect that their anti-Muslim rhetoric is working in their favor.”
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