While the media hail 2018’s historic total of female and LGBTQ political candidates, religion writers should be covering the unprecedented 90 or more Muslims, virtually all Democrats, running for national, state, or local office. That’s the count from the Justice Education Technology Political Advocacy Center, founded in 2015 to promote Muslim candidacies.
President Donald Trump’s words and deeds toward Muslims doubtless energize this electoral activism. Not to mention Virginia’s faltering Republican U.S. Senate nominee, Corey Stewart, who smeared Michigan governor candidate Abdul El-Sayed as an “ISIS commie.”
Pioneering Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and very likely Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, are guaranteed media stardom, in line to be the first Muslim women in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Tlaib, who succeeds disgraced Congressman John Conyers, just edged Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones in a six-candidate Democratic primary scramble. She’ll run unopposed in November for the 13thdistrict seat. The oldest of Palestianian immigrants’ 14 children and a mother of two, Tlaib earned a law degree through weekend classes and was elected to the Michigan House, reportedly only the second U.S. Muslim woman to be a state legislator.
Two other Muslim hopefuls fell short in Michigan. El-Sayed, director of Detroit’s health department, lost the governor nomination to former state Senator Gretchen Whitmer. In U.S. House district 11, Fayrouz Saad, who directs Detroit’s immigrant affairs office, took only fourth place.
The first Muslim in the U.S. House, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is the most politically powerful U.S. Muslim to date, nearly winning the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and is currently its deputy chairman. Ellison decided to leave the House and run for state attorney general. In his 2006 House bid he surmounted concerns over past ties to Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic Nation of Islam, and on Tuesday cruised to the AG nomination despite accusations last weekend about domestic abuse, which he denies.
Ilhan Omar was one of five Minnesota Democrats running to succeed Ellison in House district 5. The Somali-American mother of three immigrated to the U.S. at age 12, was a longtime party activist, and won election to the Minnesota House in 2016. Notably, she got the official party endorsement instead of former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Kelleher and easily beat her in the primary. Her November prospects are excellent, since Democrats have held this seat for 55 years running.
Tlaib, and likely Omar, will join one other Muslim in the U.S. House, Andre Carson of Indianapolis, an adult convert who was raised Baptist and attended Catholic schools. He won a 2008 special election to succeed his grandmother in the district 7 seat.
Like Catholic and Jewish immigrants of old, 21st Century U.S. Muslims can rely on Article VI of the U.S. Constitution: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public trust.” That binds the government, but not individual voters. (America’s only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, won the 1960 popular vote by only 118,574 of 68.8 million cast.)
As with J.F.K. and his church, voters and reporters will ask how candidates’ religious affiliation shapes views on, for example, immigration, monitoring of domestic Muslim radicals, U.S. policy toward Israel and Mideast Muslim regimes, why many Muslim nations resist democracy, and religious liberty issues in the U.S. and overseas.
On that, consider Saudi Arabia, which styles itself the most authentic Muslim society. The regime -- currently retaliating against Canada because its foreign ministry urged release of imprisoned human rights activists -- has the distinction, probably shared only with North Korea, of forbidding any church to exist. (In practice, the religious police rarely disrupt clandestine worship services and Bible study groups if restricted to expatriates.)
The Saudis cite a hadith (tradition about the Prophet Muhammad) in which he said “I will expel the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and will not leave any but Muslims.” (Sahih Muslim Book 19, #4366). The Saudi religious chief declared in 2015 that this hadith should bind neighboring Arab countries that tolerate a few churches. Other Muslims say a single hadith isn’t binding and the Quran (2:256) teaches otherwise, while historians doubt Muhammad and his successors banished all churches.
Amid other Saudi religious reforms, Egyptian media reported in May the Saudis agreed to allow a Catholic church, but the Vatican denied this. Nonetheless, the August 4 issue of The Economist quotes an unnamed royal advisor claiming the kingdom’s first-ever church is “only a matter of time.” Keep an eye on this one.