The words weren’t uttered by an angry protestor or on some right-wing blog. They were uttered by U.S. Rep. Allen West in response to a Muslim man’s questions — at a town hall meeting, of all places: “Don’t try to blow sunshine up my butt . . . put the microphone down and go home.”
On Election Day, Rep. West, a tea-party favorite, suffered a devastating loss to Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy in Florida’s 18th congressional district. West built his political career by defaming and insulting Muslims in America and, this month, American Muslims and their neighbors kicked West out of office. The Muslim community and its allies overwhelmingly supported Murphy with their votes and contributions.
West did not lose because the majority of the people in his congressional district are Muslim. West lost because the American Muslim vote made an unprecedented showing in South Florida. With Murphy’s margin of victory less than 2,000 votes, Muslim community engagement helped other fed-up citizenry stand up against bigotry and hatred. Ironically, the hatred espoused by the likes of West has helped these communities realize the importance of civic engagement. Civic participation through voting has helped the Muslim community put action to the urgency felt by the growing tide of anti-Islamic sentiment.
American Muslims finally have a seat at the table, and they have the numbers to prove it. As a relatively new minority community in the United States, American Muslims have struggled to find their voice and in making that voice heard in the political fray. However, in recent years, this community has seen enormous growth in several swing states, most notably in Florida.
American Muslims have voted both Democratic and Republican in the past, making them a large and important group in the courtship of minority voters around election time.
Florida was a key state in the 2012 presidential elections, with President Obama edging out a win over Gov. Mitt Romney by less than 75,000 votes. Emerge USA, a civic engagement nonprofit organization that focuses on engaging minority communities, specifically the Muslim, Arab and Southeast Asian communities, maintains a database of over 150,000 registered Muslim voters in Florida, with exit polls showing 120,000 of them voted in November. Of these 120,000 votes, an overwhelming 80 percent went to Obama. Sadly, neither party courted the Muslim vote this year, yet the presidential race could have turned out dramatically different without the Muslim American vote.
Stories like West’s are taking place across the country as American Muslims become engaged in the political process with help from organizations like Emerge USA. Many in the community come from backgrounds of political dictatorship and oppression, where voting may not be commonplace and speaking out against the government is particularly dangerous. Civic engagement organizations are serving a largely educational role as the community develops into the political powerhouse it can become.
As newcomers on the scene, Muslims have made great strides in the realization that voting is the simplest, most effective way to influence change in their own lives and in the lives of others.
Contrary to what West believes, American Muslims are indeed Americans. They care about the Constitution, they care about society and they care about domestic issues. A recent poll by Emerge USA shows that 47 percent of Muslim voters polled in Florida believe the economy was the most important issue. Foreign policy garnered a measly 8 percent.
This data shows that American Muslims are here for the same reasons as everyone else — to raise a family, to establish economic stability, and to gain a higher standard of living.
What presidential candidate can afford to lose 150,000 votes in a state as crucial as Florida?
American Muslims, welcome to the table.
Mustafa Dandashly is a student at the FIU College of Law and an advisor to Emerge USA.