Vote drive urges Arab, Muslim turnout

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The adage often touted during elections is “Every vote counts.” And in the final days leading up to the Nov. 8 election, some groups are working to drive that home to Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans across Metro Detroit.

Through Tuesday, volunteers are phoning registered voters, knocking on doors, and more to mobilize the demographic — hoping to push larger crowds to cast ballots.

“It’s going to be a lot of hard work and it’s going to be a lot of strategizing, making sure our community gets to these polls, votes and makes an impact on this election,” said Hassan Sheikh, executive director at the nonprofit Emerge USA Michigan, which works to engage, educate and empower Muslim, South Asian and Arab American communities.

With immigration and religious extremism among the hot-button issues grabbing attention during a divisive presidential election — coinciding with more Arab or Muslim residents running for political offices — volunteers and voters are recognizing the significance of participating, advocacy group officials said.

“I’m pretty confident that the voter turnout is going to be higher for our community than in 2012,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter.

Emerge USA is teaming up with others across the region — including the Michigan Muslim Community Council— in efforts aimed at energizing and reaching voters, whatever their political persuasion.

Using information from a national database, they have identified roughly 50,000 registered Muslim American voters to call, Sheikh said. Beyond that, more than 40 area mosques received “talking points” to spur worshippers during Friday prayers, when attendance is often high.

Organizers stress the work is nonpartisan and volunteers don’t steer potential voters to a particular candidate or party. “We are trying to create a culture where people are engaged and politically empowered,” Sheikh said.

That also drives initiatives through the Dearborn-based Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). The group has long maintained a nonpartisan voter engagement program, through which an estimated 1,500 new voters were registered so far in 2016, said Rachid Elabed, its community engagement manager.

Besides trekking to college campuses, festivals and elsewhere to reach voters, volunteers canvassed the community last weekend stopping at hundreds of homes, Elabed said.

This week, about 25 people were trained to monitor polls in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck for possible voter intimidation as well as other issues. And supporters at a phone bank in their offices have logged long shifts calling registered voters who have not gone to the polls often, he said.

“They’re excited — they want to get out to vote...,” he said. “ ... They’ve been seeing the effects of Islamophobia.”

Marwa Khalil, a high school student from Dearborn, plans to dial up strangers on Saturday just as she did last weekend. The youth has helped inform voters about polling locations and, since she speaks Arabic, remind those who have difficulty speaking English that translators are available on Election Day.

“I’m only 17, so I can’t vote. I don’t want to feel like I really don’t have a voice in this election,” she said. “Going out and calling people, even strangers, telling them how important it is to vote, just helps me feel empowered.”

As local groups fan out, both presidential candidates are trying to appeal to the population each has discussed on the campaign trail.

Farooq Mitha, national director of Muslim outreach with Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said he has crisscrossed the state to reach voters through mosques, while surrogates have stumped in many neighborhoods and phonebanked.

Republican candidate Donald Trump — who has faced criticism locally and nationally for a proposed temporary ban on immigration by Muslims — announced a Michigan Middle Eastern Leadership Team for his campaign.