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Muslim American Voters

Yasmeen Kaboud, a Penn student who was elected a Bernie Sanders convention delegate.

Few concepts have more currency in American politics than the melting pot. But the burden of assimilation on minorities has no reciprocal duty to respect or embrace diversity by groups who cling to majority status. If nothing else, the Trump campaign, with its repeated calls for surveillance of mosques and imposing a religious test on immigration by banning Muslims, is an advertisement for that imbalance of power and the capacity to reinforce stigma and fuel intolerance.

But Muslim Americans, who number more than 3 million, hold power of their own this election year. By registering to vote and building strong local organizations and a pipeline of Muslim candidates poised to run for office and win, such as Congressmen Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the diverse community can prove as other minorities have that bigotry is a poignant organizing tool.

Large, historic communities of Muslim Americans exist in California as well as Michigan and Florida, two swing states, and the longest standing mosque in America, built in 1934, is in Iowa.

It's not just coming from Trump and the religious right, which erupted with inflammatory anti-Muslim remarks like Jerry Falwell Jr.'s after the San Bernardino shootings last December. In Florida this month, Palm Beach supervisor of elections Susan Bucher, a Democrat serving in a nonpartisan role, yanked a polling place from the Islamic Center of Boca Raton after hostile calls and emails from local conservatives. The mosque has served as a voting location without incident since at least 2010, through three election cycles.

Never mind that thousands of churches and synagogues already serve as polling places in America. The unmistakable message from the nixing of the mosque is that the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom has an unwritten exception for Muslims.

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The challenge facing Muslim Americans is familiar to many groups who have faced bias and barriers to recognition and leadership. The 1960 election, bringing John F. Kennedy to the presidency across a minefield of misguided stereotypes, was a breakthrough for Catholics. The election of 1992, the Year of the Woman, amid attacks by then-vice president Dan Quayle against single moms like TV show character "Murphy Brown," produced similar breakthroughs for female candidates. Like Willie Brown before him, Antonio Villaraigosa became California's Assembly Speaker and challenged the scapegoating reflected in the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 of 1994. Dignity for LGBT people became a major focus of the 2012 election, yielding four referendum victories on marriage equality and the first openly lesbian U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin.

Democrats are far more hospitable to Muslims than Republicans. On the question of banning Muslims from coming into the country, GOP adherents approve such a position by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent. But independents oppose such a ban by an equal margin, about 3 to 2. Democrats overwhelmingly reject this discriminatory notion peddled by Trump and others, by a margin of 5 to 1.

One lesson of battles past is that voter registration and participation increase in the face of aggressive intolerance. Large, historic communities of Muslim Americans exist in California as well as Michigan and Florida, two swing states, and the longest standing mosque in America, built in 1934, is in Iowa. All three of these locales are hotly contested this election. Mobilization has the potential to determine the winner of the White House.

One notable twist of the melting pot metaphor is how well it applies inside Muslim America. This community comprises people from more than 75 countries. One reason for inclusive views by and coalition among U.S. adherents to Islam is this heterogeneity, and a tradition of internal bridge-building with strong channels of communication.

Many groups have incurred the slings and arrows of outrageous appeals to bigotry. Muslim Americans are doing so this year, and have the opportunity to use it as a catalyst for voting, training, leadership development, and candidate recruitment.

Long after the last hurrah of this campaign fades, the investment in organizing and political involvement by this large and important community this year could still be paying dividends far into the future.

Ghazala Salam and Hans Johnson

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