Islamic Finance 

Muslim Americans organize with their money and their votes

| 30 October, 2016 | General
 Wardah Khalid
Muslim Americans organize with their money and their votes
Photo: UNITED STATES - OCT 7, 2016: #MyMuslimVote National Khutba Day

Early voting in the U.S. presidential election has begun and Muslim Americans are rushing to the polls. 86 percent of registered Muslim voters intend to vote, encouraged by local and national Muslim organizations, which have worked for years to engage their communities in the political process. With the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has plagued election season, there was little need for convincing. In addition to voting, some are taking things a step further by donating their time and money to build institutions to continue the work after the results are announced on November 8th.

“Every election is important but this election has shown what can happen when we aren’t organized and not voting and not showing our true impact as a community,” said Fayrouz Saad, a board member of Emerge USA Foundation, a non-profit focused on Muslim political engagement. “It makes it easy for politicians to attack us because they think, ‘what do we have to lose?’ They haven’t heard from Muslims who are residents of their communities.”

The stakes are so high that even traditionally spiritual and religious organizations, such as mosques and Islamic centers, are taking part in the action. Saad’s organization teamed up with them to hold debate watch parties, candidate and voter education forums, and get out the vote trainings. Friday prayer sermons were also used to educate attendees.


“This is the most engaged I’ve seen the Muslim American community,” Saad said. “In Michigan, we registered nearly 600 people to vote.”

Michigan, along with Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are states with large Muslim populations, which could be the swing vote in this election.

MakeSpace, a non-profit Muslim organization in Virginia established just four years ago, is well aware of this fact.

“Most of our prior programming was spiritual or religious,” Baura Zia, a public relations volunteer, said. “This is the first election we’ve been actively involved in.” According to Zia, in recent months MakeSpace organized phone banking, debate watching parties, and mock debates around the election and found its programs well attended by people of all ages and backgrounds.

In California, the energy surrounding the Presidential race was leveraged to draw attention to the importance of civic engagement and local races. The California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CA) released a voter guide containing details on the voting performance of California representatives from Congress and state legislature as well as propositions to help Muslim voters make informed decisions.

“We appreciated that we already had the infrastructure in place from prior election cycles,” Zahra Billoo, Executive Director of CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter, said. “Our distribution was a lot more thorough and people know to trust it.”

Billoo’s office began efforts to register voters in May, and will continue through the general election in November. Just last week, her staff automated calls to over 11,000 homes in the Bay Area to remind them to register. They also held meet and greets and candidates’ forums in partnership with local mosques.


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The heightened attention by the Muslim American community this election has also translated into additional donations toward these civic engagement initiatives.

“Our donor base has easily tripled this year,” Khurrum Wahid, co-chair of Emerge Foundation and chair of its political action committee, Emerge PAC, said. “Emerge has been around for 10 years and getting funds into the PAC has been difficult because it isn’t tax deductible and people don’t see results right away. This year it became substantially easier because folks have seen the message we’ve been saying has come true.”

“Maybe if we had engaged with the Republican party earlier, we wouldn’t have seen a Donald Trump rise,” said Wahid.

Like the other organizations, Emerge relies on donations from both grassroots supporters and high net worth individuals and businesses.

“Some of the state PACs can take money from corporations that want to make an impact on local issues. Their business model is set up to give on a regular basis, not just when we ask,” Wahid said.

“For high net worth individuals, we are targeting people who have already expressed interest in our work or understand the role that their financial resources can play, such as supporting or putting money against candidates.”

Wahid said Emerge’s non-profit entity appeals to a broad range of people at different economic levels, and individuals may give from $20 to $50,000. Billoo’s CAIR chapter similarly relies on donations from a large number of people.

“We do approach high net worth individuals, but most of our work is grassroots funded,” Billoo said. “It democratizes decision making. I’m accountable to the entire community as opposed to a small handful of funders.”


While organizations are enthusiastic about the increased level of participation and donations by Muslim American voters, they stressed the need for efforts to continue after ballots over the next two weeks.

“We still have a ways to go,” Saad said. “60 percent of Muslims are registered to vote but it is still less than other communities.” By comparison, at least 86 percent of Jews, 95 percent of Catholics, and 94 percent of Protestants are registered.

“Attacks on identities won’t stop next year,” Wahid said. “We are hoping to keep people engaged by talking to them about issues they care about and guide them on how they can get involved in those issues.”

For MakeSpace’s Zia, doing so is a matter of both patriotism and religion.

“It’s our duty as Muslims and Americans,” she said.

Wardah Khalid is as writer, speaker, and analyst on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Muslim American issues. Follow her on Twitter @wardahkhalid_.

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