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Donald Trump’s rhetoric energizes Muslim voters

Community organizer Humayun Morshed (right, at rear), joined by Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen (in vote shirt), and organizer Kanwal Haq, spoke at a Cambridge apartment complex. John Blanding/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

In a different election year, Bilal Durrani, a busy electrical engineering student at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, might have ignored the background noise of a presidential campaign.

But when Durrani saw a voter registration table at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury earlier this year, he stopped and did the paperwork.

“After hearing what Donald Trump’s had to say,” he said, “it’s become an obligation to vote.”

Although Trump’s harsh rhetoric regarding Muslims has proved to be hugely popular with his supporters, it is also uniting and galvanizing Muslim voters, spurring unprecedented voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts in their communities, including mosques in Boston, Lawrence, and Sharon.


And those initiatives are targeting potential swing states, such as Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia.

“Sometimes, you need a catastrophe or a threat to bring people together,” said Hazem Bata, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, whose 53rd annual convention in Chicago over Labor Day weekend offered prime booth space to four organizations helping attendees register people to vote. “Donald Trump is our catastrophe.”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has a Muslim outreach director and is helping to organize Muslim-American phone banks and surrogate events in battleground states.

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

A surge in Muslim electoral participation could have consequences beyond the presidential race, helping Democrats in down-ballot races and perhaps creating a more cohesive voting bloc in future presidential contests. The country’s Muslim population is expected to more than double by 2050, to about 8.1 million, or 2 percent of the total population, according to the Pew Research Center. And Muslims tend to be younger than the general public, according to Pew.

“We’re finally being able to begin to organize,” said Nadeem Mazen, Cambridge’s first Muslim city councilor and a community organizer who created Jetpac Inc., a nonprofit seeking to empower Muslim and other minority voices in civic life. “That will bear fruit in future elections.”


Mahmoud Hassan, president of the Somali Community Center of Maine, helped lead a rally at Portland City Hall on Aug. 5 to protest comments by Donald Trump, who said Maine’s Somali community is linked to an uptick in crime.Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald/File

Muslims have long been a tiny and unwieldy demographic in US elections. They do not fit in an ideological box: They are urban and suburban, well-educated and illiterate, highly observant and not so much. They are racially and ethnically diverse.

But the Islamophobic rhetoric in the presidential campaign “may have given a fragmented community a rare common concern around which to mobilize, and a united party platform for which to cast their ballot,” concluded a recent study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a research and advocacy organization focused on American Muslims.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a nonpartisan civil rights group, said it has already detected a surge in Muslim voter registration. A June analysis of a private national database found about 824,000 voters whose names matched a list of traditionally Muslim names the group developed. A similar list from 2012 contained about 500,000 Muslim names, the group reported.

The method is imprecise, acknowledged Robert S. McCaw, the group’s government affairs director, but the large difference suggests a trend.

“Not every one of those voters is Muslim; however, it points to a strong increase in the number of Muslims that have registered to vote,” he said. “I definitely believe Trump’s continued focus on the Muslim community has been a factor in this increase.”

Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration (he modified that over the summer, saying he would require an ideological test to keep out those with radical views and would ban immigrants from countries compromised by terrorism). He has backed mosque surveillance and flirted with proposing a national Muslim registry.


He disparaged a couple who appeared at the Democratic National Convention, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq. In Portland, Maine, last month, Trump denounced the area’s Somali refugee community as a security threat.

The US Council of Muslim Organizations, a coalition of local and national groups, is responding to the harsh rhetoric by spearheading a “One America” campaign, whose goal is to register 1 million voters by Election Day. It had declared Eid al-Adha last week, one of the holiest days on the Muslim calendar, a national voter registration day: Registration tables, banners, and postcards were stationed at morning prayer services, which can draw thousands.

Mazen cautioned, though, that registering voters is one thing; getting them to actually vote is another.

Muslim voters have not been studied as thoroughly as other voters, said Karam Dana, a political science professor at the University of Washington Bothell.

In the 2000 election, pollster John Zogby said his results showed Muslims leaning toward George W. Bush, favoring the Republican Party’s traditionalist social values.

By 2004, Zogby said, his polling found that about 75 percent supported Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, mainly because of the Iraq War and profiling of Muslims in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Roughly the same percentage supported Barack Obama.


In a large survey of Muslim political attitudes in 2008 and 2009, Dana found that many Muslims “saw themselves outside the political system which had rejected them.” But Dana expects Muslims to vote in force this fall “because they understand . . . what is at stake.”

Zogby agreed: “Islamophobia is a unifier.”

Resident Ruma Akter (left) spoke with community organizer Humayun Morshed during a canvassing effort in Cambridge.John Blanding/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Muslim communities seem to be good targets for political advocacy groups because many eligible voters had been inactive, including young people and some older immigrants.

Abdullahi Gurhan, a 68-year-old retired loan officer who emigrated from Somalia in 1993 and lives in East Boston, has been helping people fill out voter registration forms at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.

He keeps the names of registrants he has helped in a spiral-bound notebook with a bright paisley cover — 103 as of last month. In many cases, he said, the new voters lack English or literacy skills and need help navigating the paperwork. If he hears of an elder who has trouble getting around, he said, he visits the prospective voter at home, registration application in hand.

Gurhan declined to discuss Trump or his policy proposals.

“The vote,” he said, “will be the answer to Donald Trump.”

Some Muslims, however, are also concerned about rhetoric coming out of the Democratic Party, said Mohammad Khan, the campaign manager of MPower Change, a digital organizing group focused on getting millennial Muslims to the polls.

Many, he said, recoiled at Bill Clinton’s suggestion during his Democratic National Convention speech in July that Muslims who “love America” and “hate terror” can “stay” — as if to suggest Muslims should have to take a loyalty test to remain in their own country. Younger Muslims, Khan said, are tired of hearing their communities being discussed solely in terms of security and terrorism.


“It’s dehumanizing for people to be put in this box,” he said.

Durrani, the 21-year-old Wentworth student, voted for Senator Bernie Sanders in the Massachusetts presidential primary.

But he said he was impressed that Clinton’s convention offered a prime-time speaking platform to the Khans, the Gold Star parents whom Trump later criticized.

“The fact that she brought them up there showed she is willing to work with us, and she values our vote,” he said.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com.