When Ahmad Zahra decided to run for city council in Fullerton, California, a politically and racially diverse community about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles, he knew religion was a topic he could not avoid. Zahra may be the first Muslim to run for local office in Fullerton. He’s also part of a nationwide wave of Muslim politicians on the campaign trail this election season.
Sure enough, when religion came up at a front yard meet-and-greet with some neighbors this summer, the 49-year-old Zahra had a lot to say. Several people leaned forward and listened intently as he spoke; there were questions and concerns. The topic, however, was not Islam.
Four decades ago, an artist painted Our Lady of Guadalupe, an image of the Virgin Mary revered by many of Zahra’s Catholic constituents, beneath a pedestrian bridge near the neighborhood high school. It was part of a series of murals paying tribute to the Mexican heritage of South Fullerton’s Latino community. Residents leave plastic bouquets, fresh flowers, and candles in the dirt beneath the Virgin, who shares the underpass with images of a Mexican flag, a classic car, and a cross with a halo of thorns floating over ocean waves. But the murals have started to crumble, and Zahra said he wanted to see them restored—perhaps even made into a landmark one day.
“This is the heritage of our town,” he said, addressing the small gathering seated on plastic chairs beneath a shaded carport. Most were Latinos, who make up about half of Zahra’s council district. “We’re not going to let our history fade away.”
As far as his own history, Zahra grew up half a world away in both England and Syria, learned English first and then Arabic, and studied to be a doctor like his father. He moved to the United States in his mid-20’s and studied film, leaving medicine behind to pursue a dream of being a filmmaker. He’s made several independent films, many of which focus on the Muslim experience. He moved to Fullerton in 2001. His biography isn’t typical for a Fullerton resident, but it’s one Zahra believes will resonate with his constituents, especially those who are bilingual, have immigrant roots, and are people of faith.
His films explore the diversity within the Muslim community and seek to shatter stereotypes. “Moving forward into politics, I think those same principles and ethics will carry on,” Zahra said. “I am someone who likes to bring people together.”
Zahra is one of an estimated 90 American Muslims who are running or recently wrapped up campaigns for public office this election season. That’s according to Jetpac (the Justice, Education, Technology Political Advocacy Center), a nonprofit consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that recruits and mentors Muslim candidates. It’s a record number in a year that has brought an array of new faces to the political arena. Jetpac was founded by Nadeem A. Mazen, a former Cambridge city councilor, and his former campaign manager Shaun Kennedy. In 2013, Mazen became the first Muslim politician to be elected to a political office in Massachusetts, and he founded Jetpac to build momentum for others.
“I think it’s part of a much broader trend that we’re seeing of all kinds of Americans saying, ‘Look, if I don’t do it, then who will?’” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political science professor at Northwestern University who focuses on religion and politics. “Whether one is Muslim or atheist or Hindu or whatever the case may be, people are thinking in new ways about the possibility of political action and political voice at time when that is becoming more and more urgent.”
There have been some high-profile victories for Muslim candidates so far, including in two August primaries for U.S. congressional seats. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American attorney and former state legislator in Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American state lawmaker in Minnesota, both won Democratic primaries and are in position to make history come November as the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress.
“This is super exciting,” said Dilara Sayeed, a former teacher who recently ran as a progressive Democrat in a failed bid for a seat in the Illinois state legislature. “We share many of the same stories. We are American Muslim women who are unapologetically Muslim and unapologetically women. These are the kinds of stories that will be growing.”
Getting American Muslim narratives into the political discourse has been part of the motivation behind Jetpac, which provided six-week fellowships for Sayeed, Zahra, and 28 other candidates. A dozen have won their races, and another nine or so are still out campaigning, said Kennedy, who now serves as Jetpac’s executive director. Their fundraising reaches a broad audience; a crowd-sourced Ramadan campaign on the web-based fundraising platform LaunchGood drew more than $38,000 from 457 donors in June. Through workshops and weekly phone calls, Jetpac’s support includes social media training and nuts-and-bolts guidance for those new to the game.
“A lot of it is technical, like how to run a campaign,” Zahra said. “Very specific: when to start knocking on doors, when should the first mailer come out.”
They also give tips on dealing with hostile rhetoric and anti-Muslim slurs, a common experience for many Muslim candidates. Just days before the Illinois primary in April, voters in Dilara Sayeed’s district received a mailer with an eerie image of a hooded gunman superimposed behind her, conjuring up the specter of terrorism. The mailer’s return address indicated it was funded by supporters of a fellow Democrat who had the backing of the state’s influential Democratic leadership—and went on to win the primary race. When Deedra Abboud, an Arizona attorney, announced her candidacy for U.S. Senate in July 2017, so many hate-filled messages reportedly flooded her social media accounts that it made national news—and inspired a consoling tweet from incumbent Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. Abboud lost the Arizona primary in August to Democratic Rep. Krysten Sinema.
In Zahra’s case, he said, “People have told me I can’t win with my name.” Consultants at Jetpac encouraged him to share that story and be open about his struggles.
“It’s helped me gain empathy,” Zahra said, “and it’s a great tool to help people remember my name.”
Jetpac’s Kennedy said it’s been disheartening to see the vitriol aimed at some candidates and frustrating to see media outlets repeat some of the slurs, amplifying the negative messages. Yet, he added, “It’s inspiring to see in the face of such adversity, this community is standing up and saying, ‘No, we’re here, and we want to represent the community.’”
Even losing campaigns help broaden the public’s view of American Muslims, Kennedy said, pointing to Abdul El-Sayed’s failed bid to become the Democratic nominee for Michigan’s governor. El-Sayed’s campaign drew national attention and gave the Muslim community a broader voice in national debates over health care. In Chicago, though Sayeed lost her April primary bid, she said her campaign helped build bridges. It also raised the visibility of Muslim women in the state’s political arena. During her fellowship with Jetpac, she was encouraged to share her own story as well as focus on the political issues she prioritized: reducing gun violence, improving schools, and bringing jobs to struggling neighborhoods.
“When people don’t know you, and they only hear about the policies and the issues,” it can be difficult to connect with voters, Sayeed said. “We need to share our stories,” she says, in order to explain that Muslims have a long American history and come from diverse backgrounds. “This whole narrative that we’re different or ‘other’ really doesn’t make any sense.”
No single issue is drawing American Muslim candidates to seek political office. Kennedy notes that while about 70 percent of American Muslims are Democrats, the Muslim population is among the most racially and economically diverse in the nation. About one in four Muslims are African American, and the Muslim Latino population is growing. “I’m not Muslim, and part of the reason why I work with the Muslim community is I see it as a microcosm of the broader American community,” he said.
Hurd, the Northwestern University political scientist, will co-teach a course this fall that will focus on media coverage of Muslims. She cautions that by putting the religious identity of Muslim candidates front and center, groups like Jetpac may unintentionally reinforce stereotypes and distract journalists from recognizing the broad diversity of the Muslim community
“There is a risk that I see around this,” Hurd said. “I wouldn’t want to say Jetpac is a bad thing or a bad idea.” She added, “[But] who gets to decide whether someone is Muslim enough to be described as a Muslim candidate? It has the potential to go off track dramatically and be unfortunately exclusionary.”
Kennedy says those who accepted his organization’s fellowship are a diverse group—including allies who aren’t Muslim and want to show support and gain better insight into the American Muslim community. The self-identified Muslim candidates include a teacher, attorneys, a filmmaker, and a physician; immigrants, refugees and native-born; urban, suburban and rural residents; gay and straight. Many have complex, multi-layered identities. Zahra, a gay physician-turned-filmmaker who grew up abroad, says when he speaks of “our history,” he’s speaking of Fullerton, his hometown for the past 17 years.
“I didn’t run because I’m Muslim or it’s time for Arabs,” Zahra said. “I ran to accomplish specific things for our neighborhood.”
Win or lose, it seems clear that momentum is building. The Council on American-Islamic Relations recently announced it will soon launch a nationwide training program of its own, with a goal of encouraging 200 American Muslims to run for office in 2020. Jetpac also has plans to build on its mentoring efforts; sometime before or after the November general election, its founders will launch a new funding organization to provide its candidates with another crucial resource on the campaign trail: cash.
And while the local races don’t draw the media attention of the high-profile state-level campaigns, many say this is where the momentum begins.
“This level means more than anything else,” said Andy Pizano, a Fullerton resident who came out to hear Zahra speak in July. ”Anything these guys do directly affects you, where you live, your kids. Once you get beyond city level, they’re focused on bigger things.”
Zahra focused most of his presentation that morning on local issues that resonated with his voters: problems like homelessness, poverty, aging infrastructure, lack of parking, and vacant storefronts.
“My number one thing is to lower the community center prices,” Zahra said, referring to the cost of renting the public facility for meetings and events. “I’d like to see a deep discount for seniors, a deep discount for veterans.”
The gathering was organized by longtime resident Kitty Jaramillo, who once made a run for city council herself. She didn’t win, but her network of friends knows she keeps her eyes on local politics, and they turn to her for insider advice.
“My girlfriends they say, ‘Kitty, who do I vote for?’ That’s the one they call me about—city council,” Jaramillo said, as she sat near a table where coffee, water, and sweet pastries were set out on a plastic, rainbow-striped tablecloth. “And I’ll tell them who I like, and I’ll tell them about Ahmad.”
She’s heard people comment on Zahra’s name, questioning whether he could win in the district. “I think because it’s a Muslim kind of name,” she said. “I said, ‘Ay, so narrow minded.’”
One of Jaramillo’s friends arrived part way through Zahra’s presentation. He stood up to shake her hand. “I’m Ahmad.”
“Ah-mad?” she repeated.
“Yes, Ahmad. I’m running for office.”
Shortly after noon, the woman got up to leave. Ahmad stood up to give her a flyer and shake her hand again. “You have my vote,” she said.
Monique Parsons is an independent religion reporter based in Chicago. Her audio documentary about the founding of a suburban Chicago mosque, “An American Mosque,” won a 2018 Wilbur Award from the Religion Communicators Council.