EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is published as part of StudentNation’s “Vision 2020: Election Stories From the Next Generation,” reports from young journalists that center the concerns of diverse young voters. In this project, working with Dr. Sherri Williams, we recruited young journalists from different backgrounds to develop story ideas and reporting about their peers’ concerns ahead of the most important election of our lives. We’ll continue publishing two stories each week over the course of September.
This story is published as part of StudentNation’s “Vision 2020: Election Stories From the Next Generation,” reports from young journalists that center the concerns of diverse young voters. In this project, working with Dr. Sherri Williams, we recruited young journalists from different backgrounds to develop story ideas and reporting about their peers’ concerns ahead of the most important election of our lives. We’ll continue publishing two stories each week over the course of September.
Zarifa Ali is voting for the first time in the 2020 election. As a first-time voter, 18-year-old Ali has paid close attention to the race, noticing how the Muslim-American population became a part of the political discussion. But she believes that Muslim voters are often taken for granted.
“We are not seen as an important demographic, and when we are seen it is only for a brief time during the election. After this, we are overlooked,” Ali said. “Mostly Republican candidates go against Muslim communities and appeal to those that see Muslims as a threat.”
Other young Muslim voters have noticed these patterns, too: Either they are pandered to without achieving any real, material changes, or they are weaponized. And their dissatisfaction with this dynamic shows up in the data: Of the Muslim youth eligible to vote, only 63 percent were registered to compared to 85 percent of their peers in the general population, according to a 2019 Institute of Social Policy and Understanding poll.
Some of their experiences are shaped by the reality of longtime anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. In a 2018 study, nearly half of Muslim-Americans, 42 percent, reported that at least one child in their family had been bullied because of religion; in 25 percent of those cases, the perpetrators were educators.
Attacks based on one’s identity take a significant toll on young people, said Nadia Ansary, a scholar at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. “It is an attack on who you are,” she said. “But the other part is that an individual can anticipate that they would be a victim of future attacks because they cannot change who they are.” But Islamophobia takes more than a mental toll. Muslims who experienced Islamophobia were 6.9 percent less likely to report being politically active than Muslims who were the target of general discrimination, according to a 2019 Social Psychology Quarterly study.
Ali said she grew up experiencing incidents of Islamophobia. She said that because of this, she wants to make sure that her experience is heard. “I chose to speak up for my community because I know that is what Islamophobes don’t want,” said Ali. “I am not going to give into the silence.”
Tasnim Benalla, a 21-year-old business analyst, said that when her family moved to a predominately white city when she was young, her mother was frequently harassed. She often heard Islamophobic slurs. “Growing up in a post-9/11 time was very difficult when I had to hear why it was happening,” she said. Before the move, she had limited contact with non-Muslims—she had attended an Islamic school. “I remember instances where we were targeted for being Muslim, but at the time I did not comprehend it,” said Benalla. Once, someone spat at her mother as they ate at a restaurant in Ellicott City, Md.
Ansary, who researches the effects of bullying on Muslim girls, said discrimination against Muslims isn’t genderless. Her research revealed that Muslim women who wear hijabs are more likely to be the victim of faith-based attacks, as are other members of religious faiths who wear symbols of their faith. At the same time, Muslim women are also more likely to engage in conversation with perpetrators, in order to bridge these divides.
Benalla is among a cohort of Generation Z Muslims voting in the 2020 presidential election, some for the first time. They were born in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks and came of age in an era of heightened Islamophobia that brought discrimination, suspicion, and surveillance to themselves and their families. Despite this, their American identity is just as important to them as their Muslim one. They will carry both to the voting booth with them, and they’re searching for candidates who respect their identities equally. While Muslim youth say they continue to feel undervalued and overlooked, for many, the heightened Islamophobia stoked by Donald Trump’s presidency has made them see the coming election as crucial.
President Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric on the 2016 campaign trail and the Muslim bans he enacted in his first weeks of office were among the most egregious examples of Islamophobia in recent national history, said Ali. After his election, the number of Islamophobic attacks increased, surpassing the number of attacks in 2001, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center study.
Some Muslim youth see voting in the election as a means of ensuring that their experiences are addressed through policy changes. Ali said that her Muslim identity informs her political beliefs and guides her to seek candidates that match her values.
Emgage, a political pact mobilizing Muslim voters, has focused on voter registration to ensure that young Muslims voters’ voices are heard. According to Mohamed Gula, a national organizer for Emgage, the pact reported a 25-percent increase of Muslim voters in the 2018 midterm in comparison to the 2014 midterm elections, compared to a 14-percent increase in the general population.
But Muslim-Americans are not politically monolithic. They are far less likely than other religious demographics to describe their political ideology as conservative, and 66 percent identify with the Democratic Party, according to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center.
And according to Ali, there is a stark generational divide between the younger and older Muslim communities. Although all of her family is voting for the Democratic presidential candidate, her parents voted for Joe Biden in the primary while she and her sister voted for Bernie Sanders.
Benalla advocates for the Muslim community through her work as a member of the Muslim Student Association at the University of Maryland. She also started a student coalition for social change, which focused on giving Muslims a place to share their experiences and work with advocacy organizations to address their concerns.
“The experiences of Muslim youth allow us to reshape and redefine what it means to be civically engaged,” said Gula. “The Muslim youth are the engine for this Muslim political movement.”