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Muslim Americans seeking political office undeterred by Trump's racist attacks

Activists at Muslim Caucus conference say US president's rhetoric has unified progressives against hate
Mary Jobaida launched campaign for New York State Assembly in West Queens in May 2019 (MEE/Sheren Khalel)
By in
Washington

When Mary Jobaida decided to run for office, she was nervous about being accepted as a candidate in her mostly non-Muslim community. 

Jobaida, who is Bangladeshi-American, wears a hijab and speaks with an accent.  Still, she is mounting a campaign for a seat in the New York State Assembly to represent a mostly white and Hispanic district in West Queens.

A mother of three, Jobaida can quickly list the issues close to her heart. Schools are overcrowded she says, something that has affected her own children's education. She rails against gentrification in her district, poor public transportation and rising housing costs. 

But Jobaida has a long road ahead. She is going up against incumbent state Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who has held the seat since 1984, during a period in which minority office-holders may come under direct attack from the White House. 

But while President Donald Trump has been targeting four congresswomen of colour, including Muslim legislators Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, with racist attacks, Jobaida said the president's bigotry is falling short of achieving his divisive aims.

"What he doesn't realise is that his hate has actually been counterproductive, because he is challenging our communities everywhere to be more inclusive," Jobaida said. 

Still, Jobaida admitted that seeing Muslim politicians fight back against constant attacks made her question the viability of her candidacy as a Muslim woman, at least at first.

"Instead, I found it was the opposite. I found great support and acceptance in my community from the moment I said I would run," Jobaida told Middle East Eye.

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Jobaida, who launched her campaign in May, is one of hundreds of Muslims who gathered at the first-ever meeting of the Muslim Caucus Education Collective in Washington this week. 

The caucus, a non-profit organisation launched earlier this year, seeks to empower the Muslim-American community through politics and collective action. 

Tlaib and Omar, the first two Muslim women in Congress, along with scores of other advocates and elected officials, attended the two-day event. 

Jobaida said the gathering highlighted a bonding of the Muslim community and left-wing progressives, as people who have come together to stand against the racist remarks coming from the White House. 

"With this president in the White House, we progressives are more organised than before and more united than ever," Jobaida told MEE. 

The conference included a six-hour candidate training session, run in part by the Democratic National Committee, where professional advisers groomed potential candidates to help them run successful campaigns. 

Aiming higher

Muslim activists from across the country attended, many of whom planned campaigns or had already tried to run for office.

While many of the attendees were eyeing local positions, including city council and school board seats, Ameen Ahmad, a 16-year-old student from Maryland, is dreaming big. He wants to be president one day.  

Ameen Ahmad, 16, at the Muslim Caucus Educational Collective conference on 24 July (MEE/Sheren Khalel)
Ameen Ahmad, 16, at the Muslim Caucus Educational Collective conference on 24 July (MEE/Sheren Khalel)

Ahmad is well aware of the political climate in the US, and said the hate and race-baiting he has seen only serve to galvanise his political aspirations. 

"When I watched the video and saw President Trump standing there for 16 seconds as people chanted 'Send her back, Send her back', I felt upset and hurt, but I didn't feel scared," Ahmad said.

He was referring to a Trump rally in North Carolina last week, where the president's supporters targeted Omar with racist slogans.

"It actually makes me want to run even more because I want to show people that Muslims are part of their community and normal citizens just like them," Ahmad added.

'More reason to run'

While Ahmad will not be able to run for office for some years, some more immediate candidates attended the training for tips that may help their future efforts.

Mahmoud Mahmoud, who recently ran unsuccessfully for the State Assembly in New Jersey, attended the session in hopes of improving his next campaign. 

Mahmoud Mahmoud is an Egyptian-American preparing for his next Congressional campaign in New Jersey (MEE/Sheren Khalel)
Mahmoud Mahmoud is an Egyptian-American preparing for his next campaign in New Jersey (MEE/Sheren Khalel)

Mahmoud, who moved to the US from Egypt at age 4, said he dealt with "some really awful" anti-Muslim attacks fuelled by Trump's rhetoric during his 2018 campaign.

"But that is even more reason to run," Mahmoud told MEE. "I shouldn't have to fear for my life for wanting to serve my community, for wanting to do good for people. We're here to change that."

Mahmoud travelled to the DC event from New Jersey, not only to bolster his next campaign, but also to make connections and network with other Muslim Americans in politics. 

"Events like this are important because every group and every community has its people who lobby legislators, people who make the unified concerns of their community heard, and the Muslim community has lacked that," he said.  

"But we're here now, and we aren't going anywhere".