SHAFAQNA – Alena Khan was catching up with friends at the start of the Pakistan Day parade in Edison, N.J., last weekend when she spotted a large blue-and-white banner for the New Jersey Muslim Voters Project (NJMVP), urging her to register to vote.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve been meaning to register,” Kahn, a 19-year-old pre-dental student told Yahoo News, amid billowing green-and-white flags and children lining up to have their faces painted with the star and crescent symbol of Islam. “As unfortunate as it is, I feel like a lot of people my age want to vote, but if you give teenagers a process that takes longer than, like, two minutes, they’re really not gonna want to do it.”
For most Americans her age, this will be the first presidential election in which they can vote. But for Khan, whose Pakistani-born parents are not citizens, it marks an even more momentous passage: She will become the first member of her immediate family to cast a ballot in a U.S. presidential election.
And for many Muslim Americans — who have been the target of vitriol and discriminatory policy proposals throughout much of the 2016 campaign cycle — there’s never been a more important time to get out the vote.
“It’s the divisive rhetoric that makes us feel we’ve got to prove ourselves,” said Shawn Butt, who helped found NJMVP with a small group of local Muslim leaders. He described its mission as “[mobilizing] the Muslim population, get them registered to vote, and push them to go out and vote come Election Day.”
It didn’t take long for others in the community to get onboard. Within about a year and a half, the project had spread from five local groups into a statewide coalition of 120 Muslim organizations.
Though NJMVP explicitly does not endorse candidates, its leaders have no problem crediting Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim statements with helping to drive their effort.
“Primarily because of the Trump situation, people are responding to all of the rhetoric by saying Muslims have to have their voices heard in the democratic process,” said Mohammad Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge and a founding member of NJMVP.
So far, Chaudry said, much the outreach has involved meeting with Muslim leaders at various Islamic centers and mosques throughout the state, providing registration forms to share with congregants and helping organize small voter registration drives.
Then last week, for the second year in a row, New Jersey held its own Pakistan Day parade (separate from New York City’s longstanding celebration) in Edison, a South Asian microcosm that is home to New Jersey’s more than 26,000 Pakistani-American residents. The event provided a perfect platform for NJMVP to reach a much larger pool of potential voters, who typically move from New York City to the New Jersey suburbs as soon as they can afford it.
“In the perception of many Pakistani immigrants, New York is a steppingstone,” said Butt. “If you can make something of yourself, you’ll get a house in Jersey.”
Butt followed the same path after he first landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in 1995. A Pakistani born in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, he left home right before Desert Storm and landed in Manhattan, where he worked a variety of jobs, including waiter, cab driver and call-center operator, before starting a career in computers that gave him the means to establish himself in New Jersey. For the past 13 years, he’s been running his own IT business.
This November will mark the third presidential election in which Butt has been eligible to vote. But whereas in the past he’d approached voting as little more than a civic duty, this year it’s personal.
“Whatever the outcome of this election, [it] is going to affect the future of how this country thinks, and eventually it’s going to affect my kids,” Butt said, gesturing to his twin boys, Adam and Mohammad, clad in matching white tunics. They will turn 10 next month.
“I know how it feels to be displaced out of the place where you’re born and raised,” he said. “I don’t want my kids to feel that ever.”
While Muslim Americans make up an estimated 1 percent of the total U.S. population, approximately 400,000 New Jersey residents — or about 3 percent of the state’s population — are Muslim.
Of these 400,000, “about 211,000 are eligible voters,” said Butt. “Of the 211,000 eligible voters, there are 48,000-and-change registered voters. That’s less than 25 percent. Of the 48,000 registered voters, we have numbers that show about 15-20 percent actually go out and vote.”
“If you think about that from the larger picture, that’s less than 5 percent of the [New Jersey Muslim] population that votes,” he added.
One reason for the low turnout, he said, was the belief that “we’re so tiny, we’re so small, that our vote won’t make a difference.”
The other major reason, according to Butt, has to do with how long they’ve been in the U.S. and where they came from.
“The South Asian Muslim community is the least involved in politics because most of them are first-generation immigrants,” he said. “Back home, we’ve seen absolute levels of corruption in politics, and we kind of bring that mindset that ‘It didn’t work back home, it’s not gonna work here, so why bother?’”
Finally, he said, there is a very small portion of the Muslim population that believes that voting actually goes against Islam.
This, Butt insists, is a misinterpretation of the Quran promoted by a “minuscule part of the population.” Still, it’s significant that NJMVP is determined to combat that belief in order to engage more Muslims in the political process.
“When you’re a part of a society, you have to be part of it completely,” he said.
Based on its own analysis of voter national registration files, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) estimates that 300,000 Muslim Americans have registered to vote since the last presidential election — with the number of registered Muslim voters rising dramatically from about 500,000 in 2012 to approximately 800,000 in May 2016.
CAIR is among several national groups currently working under the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations in a larger effort to get a million Muslim Americans registered ahead of the 2016 election.
Robert McCaw, CAIR’s director of governmental affairs, said that since 2012 there have been a number of failed attempts to launch Muslim voter registration initiatives. And while he agrees that the Trump campaign has certainly motivated more Muslim voters to get involved in the election process this year, McCaw argues that the rise in registered Muslim voters is also partly the “gradual result of Muslim community becoming more engaged with electoral process.”
American Muslims are the most diverse religious community in the country, said McCaw, noting that African-Americans make up one-third of the Muslim community, while the other two-thirds comprise immigrants — or the children of immigrants — from the Middle East and South Asia.
“It’s taken some time for immigrant Muslims to connect and work with domestic groups like the African-American community,” McCaw said. “Only now are we getting to see the fruits of that labor.”
At the same time, McCaw said, Trump’s anti-Muslim agenda seems to be pushing the Democratic Party to work “twice as hard to engage Muslim voters,” who, although composing only 1 percent of the country’s population, are highly concentrated in key battleground states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida.
“I don’t know if there would have been half as many Muslims speaking onstage at the DNC if Trump had not brought them into the spotlight,” he said.
According to CAIR, 78 percent of Muslim voters cast their ballots for Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush in 2000, but ever since Sept. 11, 2001, American Muslims have been making a steady exodus from the GOP. Results of a CAIR poll of Muslim voters following the Super Tuesday primaries in March revealed that 46 percent supported Hillary Clinton, 25 percent backed Bernie Sanders, and only 11 percent favored Trump. The poll also found that the top issue concerning Muslim voters was rising Islamophobia in the U.S.
To McCaw as well as the leaders of NJMVP, 2016 marks the beginning of a new era of Muslim involvement in American politics.
“Do you have friends here who need to register?” Butt asked Alena Khan after she finished filling out her registration form.
“I’m gonna go find them,” she said. “I feel like people don’t realize how much a vote can make a difference. A lot of people think [registering] is a process, so the fact that it’s here, why not?”