Mehbs Omar registers to vote during Friday Prayers at Madina institute, Islamic educational institution, in Duluth on Friday, September 9. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

For Muslim voters, a time to speak up with a ballot

On several Fridays, Aisha Yaqoob and other volunteers have gathered before prayers at the Madina Institute USA in Duluth.

Voter-registration tables are set up near each entrance to the mosque. As men and women come in they are asked if they are registered to vote. Some register for the first time. Others stop to make sure their information is updated.

With eight weeks to go before election day, multiple efforts are underway to register Muslims to vote.

Yaqoob, executive director of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, is careful not to mention specific candidates or elections.

She really doesn’t need to. Like other Muslims across the nation, Yaqoob feels her faith is under attack.

“There’s a lot going on on the national scale that’s vilified our community,” said Yaqoob, who lives in Suwanee. “Community members are beginning to understand the power of their vote, so we’re really jumping into that and making sure people are informed. A lot of people who are registering want to make sure that America is a safe place for their children when they grow up and that their values are respected.”

During early campaigning, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the nation and suggested that the U.S. consider profiling Muslims.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll conducted by ABT SRBI in January found that 63 percent of Georgia voters oppose Trump’s proposal. Some 32 percent supported it

Other polls show that a growing number of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam.

A Pew Research Center survey in 2014 asked Americans to rate members of eight religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 to 100, with 0 the coldest. They rated Muslims rather coolly: an average of 40, comparable to the average rating of 41 they gave atheists.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the in the U.S., according to a December 2015 survey. That survey also found Republicans more likely than Democrats to say that Muslims should be subject to more scrutiny than people of other religions.

Such feelings manifest themselves in many ways.

In South Carolina, a Muslim woman wearing an hijab was escorted out of a Trump rally after she stood up in silent protest.

In Georgia and elsewhere, opposition to planned mosques and Muslim cemeteries has reached a boiling point.

In nearby Newton County, for instance, an armed militia group threatened to protest a Muslim congregation’s controversial proposal to build a cemetery and mosque after law enforcement opened an investigation into the militia’s activities.

That troubles Soumaya Khalifa, executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta.

“It’s not only what he (Trump) says but the repercussions of what he says,” she said. “His rhetoric gives people a license to hate and not just hate, but bring that hate out into the open.”

She said she wants to see Muslim Americans come out “100 percent” to cast their ballots.

A 2011 Pew Research Center study survey of Muslim Americans, which was conducted in English as well as Arabic, Farsi and Urdu, estimated there were 1.8 million Muslim adults, most of them immigrants, living in the United States.

“Our votes count just as much as anyone else’s,” Khalifa said. “This election cycle is important for people who are being marginalized to let their voices be heard.”

So far, the Georgia Muslim Voters Project has netted more than 600 new voters across the state.

That number is expected to grow. On Saturday, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and the Georgia chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations will hold a program on ways to counter Islamaphobia, and will register people to vote, at the Madina Institute.

Jiehan Abdolwahb was one of the people registering to vote before prayers at Madina Institute USA.

The 21-year-old Georgia State University student hadn’t planned to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

Her cousins, though, convinced her that was it was important to make her voice heard, especially as a Muslim.

“My cousins said I have an opportunity to make a difference,” said Abdolwahb, who lives in Norcross.”We have politicians who have spit in my face (as a Muslim). How are you not going to vote?”

When anti-Muslim rhetoric surfaced in the campaign, she said it was so off-base she thought it was a joke. The more she followed the news and social media, though, her fears rose.

“It kind of threw me off,” she said.

Rafatu Nartey left her native Ghana three decades ago and has been a U.S. citizen for 22 years. She’s voted off an on.

She has voted in previous elections but moved and wanted to make sure she was still able to vote. “Every vote counts,” she said.

The current presidential election is “very, very important,” said Nartey, a 52-year-old nurse technician. “The way the country is going right now, the Republican candidate is saying things that don’t make me feel safe for myself or my children.”

She stresses, though, that it’s not just because she is Muslim. She also worries about hateful rhetoric and violence against blacks, talk about building a wall to get Mexicans out and Trump mocking a reporter with a disability.

Dr. Muhammad Ninowy, director of the Madina Institute USA has talked to the community about the importance of voting.

“It’s important to be heard,” he said. Voting “is the most important right that an American citizen has. It’s specifically important for Muslim Americans to participate in this election — and in every election — but especially this election where there is almost bordeline hysteric Islamaphobia, profiling of Muslim Americans, belittling them almost to the point of dehumanizing them.”

Related:

Security concerns shut down Newton County mosque meeting

LGBT Muslims hope for a time of unity

Muslims cautious but not afraid

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