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American Muslims Are Trying to Take Back Their Government

CHICAGO—A weary Barack Obama stood before the nation in January and delivered a message. “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials,” he said in his farewell address, “grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”

Mehrunisa Qayyum took the call to action personally. “I’m tired of being disappointed with my local officials,” the 30-something told me. When the local Democratic Party asked her to make a bid for Downers Grove Township trustee—“city council for the suburbs,” she explained—she decided to try running for office for the first time.


Qayyum is a progressive post-election fantasy come true. She’s a Muslim woman who’s getting civically involved in a purple district: In 2016, Downers Grove went 52 to 42 percent for Hillary Clinton, but 49 to 46 percent for Mark Kirk, the Republican U.S. senator who tried and failed to hold his seat against a challenge from Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat.

Qayyum isn’t alone. Reema Ahmad, a political consultant and organizer who works with the Muslim community, counted some three dozen Muslims running for local office in the Chicago area on April 4, when municipal elections were held. Motivated in part by the election of a president who campaigned on banning foreign Muslims from entering the country, some American Muslims are seeking a voice in politics—not just as voters, but as candidates.

“Civic engagement is my bread and butter,” Ahmad said. “I’ve not seen this before.”

Some Muslims have been involved in Chicago politics for a long time, especially those who are African American, according to Ahmad. The difference this year, she said, is that regular people who haven’t previously been politically engaged have decided to run.


“Ten years ago, if you had a Muslim who wanted to run, it was usually a wealthier person … [with] some type of professional degree who says, ‘I’m going to run for Congress!’” she said. “It’s been exciting to see people … recognize that it’s at the local level that you really are creating policies that impact our day-to-day lives.”

Qayyum and others like her are trying to find their role in this political moment, when Muslims are a constant topic of national discussion. But they’re also discovering something else: Local politics are hard. As Obama said in January, “Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose … And there will be times when the process will disappoint you.” A new class of leaders who are younger and more ethnically and religiously diverse may be stepping up to run for office. Taking back the government, however, isn’t as easy as it may sound. (Full article

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