Muslims in American Politics: Complexities of a Communal Identity

By: Youssef Chouhoud

January 23, 2020

Responding to: Finding Faith in Impeachment?

Muslims in American Politics: Complexities of a Communal Identity

Religious groups are not monolithic, yet some are perceived to be more uniform than others. White evangelicals have certainly garnered that reputation, at least in the realm of politics. They have earned a distinction as President Donald Trump’s most stalwart supporters throughout his term in office and the core of his political base. This public perception explains why the recent Christianity Today editorial in support of President Trump’s removal from office caused such a media firestorm. The magazine's call, not coincidentally, came on the heels of the House of Representatives voting to impeach a sitting president for only the third time in the country’s history. The vibrant debate that ensued within the evangelical community echoed, to varying degrees, the intrafaith conversations likely taking place across the country given that over a third of Catholics and about half of white mainline Protestants currently approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president.

In partial contrast, American Muslims were generally not weighed down by commitment to party or morality (or, for that matter, democracy) when considering the issue of impeachment. Throughout his tenure in the White House and during his candidacy for president, Donald Trump has repeatedly trafficked in Islamophobic stereotypes, with the latest explicit example coming only days ago via his Twitter account. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s approval among American Muslims is a paltry 16%, according to the latest survey from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. In that same poll, Muslims were effectively the mirror image of white evangelicals in terms of partisanship: 73% of American Muslims reported at least leaning in affinity towards the Democratic Party, whereas 83% of white evangelicals at least leaned Republican. In the absence of data directly gauging Muslim attitudes towards impeachment, it is safe to assume they largely align with the overwhelming majority of Democrats who believe there is enough evidence to remove Donald Trump from office. 

That is not to say that Muslims did not have their own intrafaith disputes around this historic moment. As we have been told many times over the past weeks and months, impeachment is not a legal process but a political one. So even if there was an overwhelming sense among Muslims that Donald Trump deserves to be removed from office, there was nonetheless consternation over the ramifications of impeachment. A recent survey of prominent Arab and Muslim voices across the United States highlights these tensions. On the one hand, comedian and activist Maysoon Zayid applauds the effort to hold the president to account, especially given that Rashida Tlaib and Justin Amash, two members of the U.S. Congress of Arab descent, were at the forefront of the endeavor. On the other hand, there is Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who worries that "Trump may be able to use the process to rally his base and 'gain momentum' ahead of [the presidential] election.” 

Beyond the contours of the conversation around impeachment, Muslims also distinguished themselves from other religious groups in terms of who was driving the discussion. There is no dominant periodical or central institution that commands American Muslims’ interest, let alone their deference. Similarly, there is no authoritative voice that American Muslims turn to on religious matters, let alone political ones. This decentralization coupled with the community’s unmatched demographic diversity means that no one can credibly claim to speak for Muslims in America. 

Alongside this absence of recognized (and recognizable) national figures, like Franklin Graham and Rick Warren, or regional leaders, like the heads of the various Catholic dioceses, local imams are often reticent to use up their social capital on divisive political issues, whether foreign or domestic. In my own informal survey, I could not find a single connection across any of my networks whose weekly sermon touched on the issue of impeachment the week the House of Representatives took their historic vote. Along these same lines, the first Friday communal prayer of the year across American mosques may have featured general calls to pray for all those suffering around the world, but I would be surprised if there was any direct reference to “illegal assassinations” or, alternatively, “state-sponsored terrorism.” It is hard enough to get busy individuals to attend religious services (and on a weekday, at that), so it is no wonder that imams often balk at potentially alienating someone who actually made the effort to show up. 

American-Muslim responses to impeachment highlight how the community’s political identity is still a work in progress. While it may be difficult to establish a unified set of objectives and strategies in the near future, given their varied ethnic and ideological constituencies, American Muslims coming to terms with their complexity may actually be a sign of their political maturity. After all, the last call for a unified “Muslim Bloc” emerged out of a sense of abstract fear and political naivety when mosque elders rallied (largely immigrant) co-religionists to vote for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Something tells me the likely Republican nominee for president in 2020 should not similarly count on the “Muslim vote.”

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