OKLAHOMA CITY — Driven by anti-Islamic rhetoric swirling in the presidential campaign and concern about fear mongering closer to home, more Muslims are expected to vote in this fall’s elections.
“By far this year, I’ve seen a large increase in interest in people getting registered or re-registered,” said Adam Soltani, executive director of Oklahoma’s chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. “I think a lot of these issues locally have really peaked people’s interests in getting more involved.”
Soltani’s group has hosted voter registration drives since 2012 in a state with a Muslim population he estimates to be about 40,000.
Most years, the group hands out hundreds of voter registration cards. This year it has distributed more than 1,500 at mosques and various community events.
“I think a lot of it has to do with a lot of the hate rhetoric and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has come out of the election,” he said.
Muslim voters, he added, hope to “challenge hatred by voting against it.”
Interest in the election among Muslims is up across the country.
While hard to calculate exactly, voter registration among Muslim and Arab-Americans has swelled by more than 300,000 ahead of the Nov. 8 election, estimated Robert McCaw, director of national government affairs for the national Council on American-Islamic Relations. The estimate is based on a review of names in voter databases.
An estimated 3.3 million Muslims live in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. McCaw said the states with the largest populations are New York, California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “anti-Muslim rhetoric” has driven many to sign up to vote, said McCaw, who noted that advocates have also worked for more than two decades to improve Muslim participation at the polls.
“(We want) to make sure our voice is counted on Election Day and we’re a well represented community,” he said. “When your community’s rights are under threat … it’s an incentive for you to turn out to vote and make sure your voice is being heard.”
Trump has proposed banning Muslim immigrants and refugees from entering the United States as a strategy to thwart terrorism.
It’s not just on the national platform where Muslims face scrutiny and hostility.
In Oklahoma, pressure is coming from current and would-be lawmakers, Soltani said. He pointed to a study at the Capitol Tuesday hosted by Rep. John Bennett, R-Sallisaw.
The title of the hearing: “Radical Islam, Sharia Law, the Muslim Brotherhood and the radicalization process.” Speakers probed “radical Islam,” its role in American politics and what states can do about it.
“The saddest thing about it is it’s our tax dollars at work,” Soltani said.
Bennett defended the study and said he’s considering filing legislation related to it, though he wouldn’t say what that might be.
“You should never tell your battle plan before you go into battle,” he said after the hearing. “We’re going to do everything we can to kick these terrorist organizations out of the state of Oklahoma and do whatever it takes to protect our citizens from this real and present danger that we face today.”
Bennett pointed to the Council on American-Islamic Relations as one such organization. The group has repeatedly, at length condemned terrorism and Islamic extremism.
Bennett noted that he also helped begin the Legislature’s counterterrorism caucus a few years ago.
“Really, when we started the counterterrorism caucus we got mocked, made fun of and laughed at because we started this thing. We got called all kinds of names,” he said.
The tenor of the presidential election has captured the interest of Muslims in Florida, said Laila Abdelaziz, legislative and government affairs director for that state’s CAIR chapter.
Expected to be a swing state in the presidential election, Florida has seen some races decided by 1 percent or less of voters.
Abdelaziz noted a 500 percent increase in hate incidents targeting the Muslim community in the state — such as anti-Islamic rallies by armed demonstrators, businesses implementing “Muslim-free zones,” and mosques that have been vandalized.
Florida’s lawmakers have also passed anti-Islamic legislation. A 2014 law declared that Florida’s courts would not abide by “foreign laws,” a thinly veiled reference to Islamic law.
In 2010, Oklahoma voters approved a similar referendum, which was later found unconstitutional by a federal court.
“It’s definitely been a very challenging time for the community,” Abdelaziz said. “The community feels the sense of urgency to get out the vote.”
About 200,000 of 700,000 Muslim-Americans who live in Florida are registered to vote, she said, a fact that hasn’t escaped some candidates who’ve been reaching out in hopes of garnering its support.
Rather than focusing on the national presidential race between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, she said, many Muslim voters in Florida are focused on state and local races.
In Oklahoma, where Trump is almost certain to win by a large margin, Soltani said some Muslim voters have questioned whether their votes even matter in the outcome.
His group, though, urges them to look at the bigger picture.
“Rather, focus on what you can do locally to use your vote wisely, because they can help cause change in our community,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.