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Trump is getting Muslims to the polls — to vote against him

First Published      Last Updated Mar 11 2016 11:57 am

Salim Jaffer moved to the U.S. when he was 14 years old. His family, along with the rest of the Indian community, had been expelled from Uganda in 1972 under the violent dictator Idi Amin and sought respite in America.

But he said he's never felt in danger until this year.

"As a Muslim, I feel threatened," said Jaffer, a gastroenterologist living in Lansing, Mich. "It's as if someone is trying to take away my civil rights. Think about it. Donald Trump thinks we should stop immigration of Muslims coming into this country. Marco Rubio, he wants to close down mosques. Ted Cruz, he wants to see if 'sand glows' in Syria."

That's why Jaffer participated in his first-ever presidential primary Tuesday, casting his vote for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. And it's the reason he, a doctor who only superficially followed politics for most of his life, has just submitted paperwork to register a new nonprofit organization aimed at getting Midwestern Muslims to vote in November.

"From a Muslim standpoint," he said, "we've got to make sure we get somebody who is sympathetic to our cause and understands the sociology, the theology, the anthropology and the history of Islam."

With Trump leading the Republican race, Muslim groups are launching voter-registration drives in a push to ensure that the Islamophobic rhetoric of the election campaign is rejected at the polls.

"Anti-Muslim rhetoric is motivating Muslim Americans across the country to engage in the political process like never before," said Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. "This is true in Minnesota, as well as in swing states like Virginia and Florida where Muslim Americans will play a critical role on Election Day."

Almost three-quarters of Muslim voters plan to vote in state primaries this year, according to data from the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"If you, as a political candidate, choose to spew hatred, bigotry and to vilify Muslim Americans, you do so at your own political risk," Altaf Husain, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, declared at a news conference in December. "We will use every democratic means and political strategy to ensure your candidacy never succeeds."

That day, CAIR and more than a dozen affiliated Muslim groups announced a national drive to register 20,000 voters. The US Council of Muslim Organizations also plans a campaign to register a million voters before Election Day.

Mosques in Virginia and Georgia have sent mass emails, posted signs and set up tables outside their prayer halls to direct members on how to vote in their primaries. Imams from Chicago to Detroit are underscoring the importance of voting during their Friday sermons.

"There's a lot in the balance this election cycle for American Muslims, not just the general issues around the economy and health care," said Imam Dawud Walid, who heads CAIR's Michigan chapter and has spoken at area Islamic centers about this election's importance. "We're urging people to exercise their right to vote in particular if they don't want to see a president who is making statements that Muslims aren't welcome in the U.S."

On Wednesday night, Trump said Islam had a "tremendous hatred" of the West. In December, he called for a "total and complete" shutdown of Muslim immigration to the U.S. He has claimed that American Muslims celebrated 9/11 and said Muslims should carry special ID. Last month, he recounted as fact an old debunked myth about a general executing Muslims with bullets dipped in pigs' blood.

And he's won primaries or caucuses in 15 states so far.

"We used to find this kind of Islamophobia lurking on anonymous blogs or Islamophobic websites," said Omid Safi, who directs Duke University's Islamic studies center. "Then we saw them move over to Fox News and now being amplified from the mouths of people running for the highest office in the land."

About a quarter of Muslim voters CAIR surveyed on Super Tuesday named such Islamophobia their top concern going into the primaries. In 2014, it ranked third. For many, that rising fear now comes coupled with the realization that Trump could be sitting in the Oval Office come January.

It's resulting in a movement not unlike one happening in the Latino community, where some legal residents are rushing to earn their citizenship in time to vote against Trump in November.

Voter advocacy is particularly important in immigrant communities, where people may not understand how and why to perform their civic rights, said Thasin Sardar, former president of Michigan's Islamic Society of Greater Lansing.

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