26 Muslim candidates won election across USA this year
When Abdul El-Sayed announced in February 2017 he was running as a Democrat to be Michigan’s next governor, it was just a few weeks after President Donald Trump issued his Muslim travel ban.
The year before, Trump had declared: “I think Islam hates us.” And now, some officials with a history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims were in power in the White House.
El-Sayed, who is Muslim, forged ahead in spite of the challenging environment, but he had to deal with abuse online and on the campaign trail, facing bigoted remarks and death threats that prompted him to hire a bodyguard.
A report released this month by several scholars from four universities confirms the experiences that El-Sayed and other Muslim candidates across the U.S. faced during the 2018 political campaigns. Titled “#Islamophobia, Stoking Fear and Prejudice in the 2018 Midterms,” the 97-page report details the hatred that 166 Muslim political candidates in the U.S. endured during the midterm elections.
While the study portrayed a hostile climate for Muslim candidates, many have succeeded. This month, 26 Muslim candidates across the U.S. — including some in metro Detroit in cities like Hamtramck and Dearborn Heights — won local election races, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. A total of 34 Muslim candidates won in 2019. Three Muslims were elected Nov. 5 to Hamtramck City Council, ensuring the six-member council will remain Muslim-majority, which became so four years ago.
Out of the 166 Muslim candidates examined in the study, 29 of them were in Michigan, and out of those, 10 ran for statewide and federal offices, which was the focus of the study. The study was done by professors and researchers at Washington State University, Columbia University, Western Washington University, and Pennsylvania State University, who described it as “a multiplatform study of trolls: social media, fringe media, and the real world.”
The study stressed that hate is found more online than in the real world for many of the candidates, and that much of the bigotry came from a small group amplified by bots.
Michigan’s sizable Middle Eastern and Muslim communities have been the targets of attacks for decades, long before Twitter and Facebook existed. But the increasing use of social media has shifted the dynamics, the researchers said. They are calling upon Twitter to be more proactive in cracking down on accounts seen as extreme and hateful.
The report said that the social media sites were an increasing source of the online hate, replacing “extreme-right media entities that were the primary source of the anti-Muslim dialogue in the 2016 presidential campaign. They spread hate speech like a virus on social media. …
“While many Muslim candidates reported limited encounters with Islamophobia among their constituents, we found a social media narrative of manufactured outrage that was disproportionately Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic,” the report said. “It was heavily influenced by a small number of agents provocateurs, whose hate-filled messages and disinformation were amplified by networks of accounts operating on a scale that signals the involvement of organized networks.”
El-Sayed said the report’s findings gel with his personal experiences on the campaign trail.
“The obstacles people of color and religious minorities face in our current political climate are real,” El-Sayed told the Free Press. “On the campaign trail, I was reminded of these obstacles as we dealt with regular death threats. This report critically identifies the tip of the iceberg. But the implicit bias you can’t see is often a bigger obstacle than the biases you can see.”
In a statement to the Detroit Free Press, Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said: “Death threats, incitement to violence, and hateful conduct have no place on Twitter. We believe this behavior undermines freedom of expression and the power of healthy public conversation. People using their accounts to spread this type of content will face enforcement action.
“While we continue investing in proactive technology, we encourage people to report content they believe violates our rules.”
The new study looked at more than 100,000 tweets posted from about mid-September 2018 to the weekend before Election Day in November 2018. The study focused a lot on two U.S. House Reps. elected last year, Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress.
Some of the other Muslim candidates in Michigan who ran in state or federal races in the 2018 midterms were Fayrouz Saad of Northville, who ran for a House seat in metro Detroit in the 11th Congressional District and was the former director of immigrant affairs for the city of Detroit; state House candidates Abraham Aiyash of Hamtramck, Hamtramck City Councilman Saad Almasmari, state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, Syed Rob, Md Alam; state Senate candidates Ghulam Qadir of Northville Township and Hamtramck City Councilman Anam Miah. Hammoud was reelected, but the other candidates lost last year. Almasmari and Miah lost their Hamtramck City Council seats this year.
Six Muslim candidates from Michigan completed the survey the researchers sent out to Muslim candidates, said one of the report’s authors, Western Washington University associate professor of journalism Brian Bowe.
“What’s important here is not simply that someone like Rashida Tlaib is the target of online Islamophobic, xenophobic and misogynist rhetoric, it’s that Twitter makes it easy for bad actors to amplify this rhetoric, which then spills over into news coverage,” Bowe told the Free Press. “Some of the most active Twitter conversation about Rep. Tlaib came from far outside the 13th District, as we saw from the thousands of tweets tagging both her and Rep. Omar. This kind of disinformation infrastructure may disrupt and distort local debates over which candidate would best serve the needs of constituents, posing a danger for democracy.”
Twitter and other social media sites have tried to strike a balance as they have faced criticism from both liberals and conservatives over what they allow. Republicans have criticized them for banning some right-wing users while liberals have said they are allowing racism to flourish. Conservatives have argued they should have the right to criticize what they see as extremist views by some Muslim politicians such as Omar and Tlaib.
Last month, Twitter released a report on transparency that said it is increasingly relying on technology to detect abusive tweets. It said more than 50% of abusive tweets it takes action on are done using technology, compared with 20% a year ago. Also, Twitter said it has seen a 105% increase in accounts locked or suspended for violating its rules.
“#Islamophobia, Stoking Fear and Prejudice in the 2018 Midterms” noted the campaign of Saad, interviewing her for the report.
After she announced she was running for a U.S. House seat, Saad said she was inundated with social media messages “from far and wide” that “covered the gamut of Islamophobia,” the study said.
But within her district, “it was never blatant, to my face,” Saad said.
There was bias that was more subtle, she said.
“People would say things like, ‘I think so and so,’ who just happens to be a white male, ‘is the most electable or the most likely to win,’” Saad said. “It felt like it was an attack on either my gender or my race or my ethnicity. It wasn’t explicit, but it very much felt like that was the implication.”
Tlaib, born to Palestinian immigrants, has faced a torrent of abuse online over the past year.
She told the Free Press that the “report on Islamophobia online during the 2018 campaign is not surprising — anyone who has ever read my Twitter mentions and replies has already seen the level of hate that exists online.”
The report noted that about one-third of the tweets mentioning Tlaib were Islamophobic or other types of hate speech.
Last month, Tlaib questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a congressional hearing on why his company is not doing more to prevent hate groups from using his social media site to promote bigotry and violence.
“I hope that social media companies will take a serious look at this report and what it means for our democracy,” Tlaib said.
In June, Tlaib shed tears during a House hearing with the FBI and the Department of Justice on “Confronting White Supremacy: Adequacy of the Federal Response,” while she was recalling a death threat she received after the New Zealand mass shooting at a mosque.
Tlaib questioned why federal law enforcement and the Justice Department are not classifying more cases of domestic extremism as terrorism and not doing enough to combat hate crimes.
In metro Detroit, some minority and Muslim groups have asked the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan and local law enforcement to do more to investigate and prosecute white supremacists.
The study’s lead author, Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and author of six books on media and U.S. policy toward the Muslim world, told the Free Press that their research showed that “the cacophony of hate was generated by a handful of accounts and then amplified across Twitter — and then into the media — by a vast bot army run by faceless individuals, organizations or governments.”
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