Benjamin Baird, deputy director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project and head of the Counter-Islamist Grid, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on March 4 about American Islamist influence in the 2020 election cycle.
Although large numbers of Muslim Americans once supported the Republican party on the basis of its social and fiscal conservatism (George W. Bush reportedly won a majority of their votes in 2000), Baird recounted how Islamist organizations have led this constituency to overwhelmingly favor the progressive left in recent years.
This shift has much to do with foreign policy. Progressive support for the Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict, smearing of Israel's government as "racist and supremacist," and vocal opposition to America's so-called "forever wars in the Middle East" resonate strongly with Muslims, particularly in the Arab American community.
Moreover, younger-generation Islamists, dubbed "theo-progressives" by Islamist Watch director Sam Westrop, have come to "simultaneously embrace social liberalism and religious orthodoxy" and many advocate "redistributive policies." They attempt theological justifications for this ideological fusion by citing Islamic tithing as a redistributive tool and even claiming the prophet Mohammed "oversaw a state welfare project and believed in minimum wage."
Islamists also embrace the progressive movement's emphasis on "grievance politics" and "identity politics." Progressive candidate Elizabeth Warren pandered to this victim mentality last month by releasing an 8,000-word document titled "Honoring the Strength and Diversity of Muslim Communities" which cast her policies on immigration and race as benefiting Muslims. "[W]e know that looking at raw black or immigrant statistics doesn't really match up or mesh with that of the Muslim American community ... [I]t really took things out of context," said Baird.
According to Baird, Islamists are largely responsible for achieving a 20% increase in Muslim voter registration since 2016 through well-organized get-out-the-vote campaigns and had high hopes of impacting the 2020 elections, initially by helping secure the Democratic presidential nomination for Bernie Sanders, their "candidate of choice." The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) launched robo-calls and public service announcements in states with sizable Muslim populations emphasizing "the importance of voting in primaries and caucuses."
U.S. Muslims can "flip the way that [a] state votes" if they come out to the polls in force.
However, Islamist hopes of delivering a decisive swing vote to Sanders in what was thought to be a tight contest were dashed by Pete Buttigieg's withdrawal from the race, which led centrists to unite behind Joe Biden. Nevertheless, Islamists may well have a decisive impact on the general election. In some states, Muslims make up 1-2% of the population and can "flip the way that the state votes if it ends up being a razor thin margin" should they come out in force and vote.
Although there is little organized outreach to court the Muslim vote by the Republican party, Baird said the GOP can and should appeal to this constituency. It is important to convince Muslim Americans that "Islamists do not have their best interest in mind," that "they ... do not have to look at America with an anti-Western, anti-American lens," and that "they do not have to be treated as victims and ... looked at within the lens of grievance politics."
Within the Muslim American community, Baird noted, there are "a few state level candidates ... grasping onto the same narrative. ... [T]hey don't want to make the religion the number one issue of their candidacy, and they don't want to make their identity the number one issue at all." The best-known is Dalia Al-Aqidi, who is running as a Republican to unseat Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.