More Tennessee Muslims are voting and candidates are paying attention

  • There are approximately 70,000 Muslims in Tennessee. Two of them exercise an elective mandate.
  • Efforts to engage Muslims in voting and civic engagement that began in 2018 have grown with support from mosques across Tennessee.
  • Engaging the Muslim community on the vote benefits both the community and the candidates, supporters say.

Tennessee’s Muslim community could benefit from greater representation, and Tennessee lawmakers could benefit from greater Muslim support.

This message is at the heart of ongoing efforts to engage Muslims on voting and civic engagement by area mosques and Muslim advocacy groups.

“We are tired of being an ignored community. We believe our issues should be front and center,” said Sabina Mohyuddin, executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council, or AMAC.

Mosques are countering this under-representation by organizing candidate forums and participating in a Muslim Vote Day to encourage members to register and vote. Led by the AMAC, the social media events and campaigns aim to show those inside and outside the Muslim community how important their vote is.

There are approximately 70,000 Muslims in the state. There are two who are elected: Berthena Nabaa-McKinney, member of the Nashville Metro Public Schools Board, and Zulfat Suara, member of the Nashville Metro Board.

“Seeing Muslims in elected positions makes a difference,” Mohyuddin said. “That makes it real.”

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But engaging Muslim voters also builds bridges with non-Muslim lawmakers.

Muslims are less likely to register to vote than many other religious groups in the United States

Mohyuddin said some of the reluctance she has encountered among Muslims in Tennessee has to do with the political landscape. Some Muslims are unsure of the effect they will have in a state dominated by a Republican party that has at times been associated with Islamophobia and has a specific history with it.

Additionally, some Muslim immigrants who resettled more recently are still invested in politics back home or may not be U.S. citizens and still eligible to vote. Or they may be confused about how the American political system works.

Building momentum despite these hesitations took time and required the help of religious leaders.

“If the mosques support it, it brings more credibility,” Mohyuddin said. “For those whose faith is very central to how they think and see the world, this encouragement makes them more likely to get involved.”

As a result, mosques have hosted candidate forums which AMAC is helping to organize. It started in 2018 with three candidate forums. This year, there have been at least seven candidate forums and similar events ahead of the August primary and the upcoming Nov. 8 general election at Islamic community centers in Memphis, Knoxville, Metro Nashville and Murfreesboro.

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“Islamically, we are encouraged to be part of society. It is actually spiritually ordained that we must establish justice on Earth,” said Imam Ala’a Ahmed, who heads the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. “We have a lot of spiritual encouragement that inspires us to be part of society.”

Ahmed aims to communicate this message to members of his community in interpersonal settings and through events such as candidate forums.

“In every community, it is easier for religious leaders to convince people to participate in civic engagement simply because of credibility,” Ahmed said.

Despite the progress made by the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Ahmed said they still face challenges. Many community members are immigrants who left countries where voting and civic engagement were discouraged, he said.

AMAC holds parties to celebrate Muslim voter turnout and organizes a Muslim Vote Day for mosque leaders to make a more concerted effort to encourage voter registration and get people to the polls.

Awareness goes both ways. Some elected officials have sought to connect with Muslims beyond candidate forums, Mohyuddin said. Conversely, it is equally telling that candidates do not participate in the forums.

This is why the Muslim community sets to work in the hope of obtaining reciprocity from the elect.

That’s especially important because of the political, racial, ethnic and economic diversity within Tennessee’s Muslim population, Mohyuddin said.

“Politicians cannot generalize that Muslims belong to one party or the other. You must fight for their vote.

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @liamsadams.

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