Rhetorical Change is Change

Considering how pessimistic I am about the upcoming presidential elections, I want to express how proud I am regarding the fierce complexity of the debate on the U.S. elections among U.S. Muslims who I either know personally or follow on social media—particularly among South Asian, African, and Middle Eastern immigrants and their children. I make this distinction because Black American communities—to which at least a third of Muslim America belongs—are generations ahead in terms of institutional and communal memory of U.S. party politics.

Back in 2000, the first year I ever voted, I remember Arab and Pakistani activists in Florida encouraging Muslim voters, many who previously had supported Democratic candidates like Bill Clinton, to vote for Bush, Jr.


Bush,Jr. promised to get rid of the Secret Evidence Act passed under the Clinton administration and by which many immigrants were arrested and/or deported, including many Palestinians — meaning, without saying he was directly addressing Arab and South Asian Muslim voters, he got their votes. He was literally tossing crumbs, and they hungrily ate it.

I remember my own family—at least the ones who could vote—being conflicted about voting for a Republican. 

In 2000, Muslim immigrants from the communities I knew who were citizens and accepted that voting wasn’t haram (remember when that was the central issue?) decided to trust the activists that a politician would fulfill a promise on one issue that disproportionately effected immigrants. They trusted that activists who represented national organizations had a better understanding of U.S. politics as well as their best interests at heart — even if it meant voting against their own political intuition and local experience. 

And that was so very naive. 

I still remember that many black and progressive Jewish voters warned not to fall for it.

Many in my community did not listen, and I will always remember the trauma of that experience—and how the activists who led us there responded—or did not respond at all—to a need for accountability and critique of strategy.

And then 9/11 happened so that discussion was tabled. 

We all know when Bush, Jr. was elected, he not only did NOT get rid of the Secret Evidence Act — his administration doubled down on the curtailing of civil liberties of Muslim citizens through the PATRIOT Act. Many of the same voters who voted for him the first time were horrified—for that and for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Regretful for voting him in, they did not vote for him again when he ran for a second term — but he won anyway. 

An entire dissertation could and should be written about Muslim voters in 2000 and 2004. The fact that I am thinking it means someone probably has. I will not. 

At least two of the Democratic candidates are speaking directly to Muslim voters this year. They are not only treating them as voters rather than as liabilities nor are they dog whistling in their speeches, but they are touting their support — that speaks volumes about the efforts of organizers who have been fighting for the dignity and respect of our communities for years. 

If you looked at my newsfeed, you would say U.S. Muslims are split between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I won’t focus on the few upper/upper middle class folks who unsurprisingly considered Bloomberg and probably low key support 45–I’ll just quietly judge them for now.

Also — the fact that Elizabeth Warren uses the term “anti-Muslim racism” instead of Islamophobia in a video her team recently posted on Facebook means she’s listening to the smart people I respect. It tempers my pessimism.

Rhetorical change is change.

And that’s my little people’s history lesson. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

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