Usra Ghazi is director of policy and programs at America Indivisible and a commissioner for the District of Columbia Interfaith Council. She has worked as a foreign affairs officer and strategic designer at the U.S. Department of State.
America is facing a civic health crisis. According to a new report released today by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), only one third of Americans communicated directly with their locally elected representatives in the last year, and only 31 percent of Americans communicated with their congressional representatives in that same span.
The numbers are worse for Americans of Muslim faith even as they are increasingly singled out for hate crimes and discrimination. Only 20 percent of American Muslims report that they met or communicated with their local government representatives and only 17 percent did so with their congressional representatives in the past year, according to ISPU’s poll.
As an American of Muslim faith, a former U.S. State Department analyst, a commissioner for the District of Columbia Interfaith Council, and a civic activist, this data couldn’t be farther from my lived reality. Yet, even though I grew up just north of Chicago in Skokie, Illinois, with two civically active Pakistani-American parents who didn’t hesitate to drag me and my siblings to community town halls about immigration policy and the Patriot Act or voter registration drives in the lead up to presidential elections, this new data reinforces much of what I know anecdotally about the civic health deficiencies of Muslim communities in the United States.
But this data should also remind local government officials of their responsibility to create more opportunities for inclusion and proactive engagement.
When diverse communities come together for common causes or to solve local challenges, this builds a kind of resiliency, social capital, or civic neighborliness between and among them. The same ISPU poll finds that Jews and Hispanic Americans express the most favorability toward American Muslims. This is no surprise because Muslim and Hispanic communities, like those I grew up among in Chicago, have historically worked hand in hand on immigration-related advocacy. There is also a growing network of Spanish language Muslim organizations and growing public awareness about Latino Muslims.
Additionally, the poll found that “Jews and Muslims mirror views of each other” with “roughly half express[ing] favorable opinions of each other.” My hometown of Skokie has seen its fair share of hate and vitriol toward its Jewish community, which includes many Holocaust survivors. But there are plenty of examples from Skokie and elsewhere of Jews and Muslims working together to build mutual understanding and combat hate and bigotry toward both groups in local communities and at the national level.
At the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, one of the most frequent concerns discussed in the Muslim community was about the anti-Muslim bigotry from both Democratic and Republican candidates, but we also asked ourselves what we were doing to advance the values of liberty, inclusion, democracy, and religious freedom. The 2016 campaign was a turning point for some: American Muslims ran for office in record numbers in recent elections. Many became more engaged in civic efforts. I doubled down on my own, encouraging young Muslims to pursue opportunities in public service and applying for Muslim civic leadership training. Yet the new poll data tells us that Muslim Americans have yet to reach the engagement level of America at large.
There is a significant voter registration gap among American Muslims. “Only 73 percent of eligible Muslim voters report being registered to do so, the least likely sample in [ISPU’s] sample than other groups in 2019 (85-95 percent). Even more startling is that “Only 63 percent of [voting eligible Muslim young adults (aged 18-29)] report being registered to vote compared to 85 percent of their peers in the general population.”
Looking at all of this data, one could make the case that American Muslims are at least partially at fault for Islamophobia in the U.S.— that the 44 percent of white Evangelicals, a politically influential American community, who hold unfavorable views toward their fellow Muslim Americans, according to the new poll, do so because Muslims just haven’t done enough to contribute to democratic institutions.
While I don’t recall my hometown Muslim community getting together to write letters to our congressional representatives or attending candidates forums for local government elections, there is a pretty active Chicago Muslim civic engagement scene. When I helped coordinate the very first iftar at Boston City Hall, over 200 mostly Somali community members packed the halls. Lines of Bostonian Muslims, young and old, stood to take selfies with the mayor. Still, many expressed to me that it was their first time visiting city hall. It took an invitation from the mayor and then-city council member Tito Jackson, for these Bostonians to set foot in that civic space.
At a time of increasing hate in the United States, when leaders and local communities should be in closer regular contact, too often we only see such engagement between local government officials and their constituents after acts of violence and hate.
In response to the most recent attack on Jewish worshippers in Poway, California, Mayor Steve Vaus met with Jewish leaders to mourn the victims of the attack and to discuss strategies to secure the house of worship. He began this conversation just six months prior, after the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Incidentally, the shooter in the Poway attack is potentially also responsible for an arson attack on the Islamic Center of Escondido, California, after which a member of the city council and the deputy mayor visited the Muslim community to express their sympathies.
Such meetings are welcome and vital after tragedies, but they should not be the first or only moment for government engagement with vulnerable communities. In his book Six Minutes in August, former Oak Creek, Wisconsin, mayor Stephen Scaffidi, chronicled his experiences, when just four months after his election, he was faced with the August 2012 shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. It was only after the attack that Scaffidi actually sat down to meet directly with his Sikh constituents. He writes in his book that the attack was, “A starting point for an honest dialogue between a faith-based group who had been ignored, or worse, ridiculed, and the government agencies charged to protect them.”
But unfortunately, in many documented cases, some such government officials and agencies have had a hand in perpetuating anti-Muslim bigotry rather than combating it. Certain city, county, and state officials have spewed anti-Muslim bigotry in city halls and on social media at increasing rates over the past six years, often using legislation to curtail the rights of religious minorities under the guise of national security.
This includes anti-Muslim statements and policies from some mayors and elected heads of local government in Maine, Maryland, Michigan, South Carolina, and Texas; elected members of city and town councils in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin; and a range of other government officials including sheriffs, election supervisors, planning, conservation and county commissioners, city clerks and attorneys, police chiefs and representatives, treasurers and state representatives, and even a tax collector. New America tracks many of these anti-Muslim statements and actions by elected and appointed officials as do organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and Haas Institute.
In light of this vitriol, what responsibility do our local, county, and state representatives have to build the civic health of their neighborhoods and communities and of vulnerable and marginalized communities in particular?
To be sure, there are local and state officials and agencies across the country who are actively standing up for the American values of equality and inclusion by condemning and combating anti-Muslim bigotry, as well as other forms of racism and discrimination, but one crucial first step that all government officials can take is to recognize the connections between civic health and resilience. It is an absolute necessity for city, county, and state officials to establish crisis response plans in addition to strong relationships with diverse constituents, if only to inoculate our towns from future horrific acts of hate.
Several initiatives are taking this challenge head on. This year, a group of 25 officials in elected appointed and professional positions in local government across the country have been selected to form the inaugural class of the Public Leaders for Inclusion Council to better understand proactive measures of engagement in order to build truly inclusive communities. Organizations like the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies offer opportunities for underrepresented communities to learn about how to serve on boards and commissions. A collective of American civic organizations recently published an American Muslim Civic Health infographic report featuring data from ISPU’s 2019 poll to educate communities and elected officials about the need for deeper engagement between Americans of Muslim faith and local civic institutions.
ISPU also noted in its recent report that knowing a Muslim is linked to a significantly lower likelihood of Islamophobia. Based on this data, one can imagine the effect that governmental agencies can have if more American Muslims are enabled to build relationships with their neighbors as part of neighborhood associations and city and county boards. This extends to communities impacted by anti-Muslim bigotry who are perceived to be Muslim, including Sikh, South Asian, Arab, and Black Americans.
While reflecting on the 2012 Oak Creek attack, Mayor Scaffidi wrote an ominous prediction in his book. “I am convinced that what happened in Oak Creek could happen again in other places and to other communities—based solely on false perceptions, and an unwillingness to believe in the values of diversity, and a refusal to engage people who look and pray differently.”
How many more tragedies need to occur before our elected officials get the message?