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As anti-Islam activity rises, campaign aims to boost voter turnout among Muslim-Americans

MPower Change organizing director Ishraq Ali registers voters at the Middle Ground Muslim Center in Upland, California.
MPower Change organizing director Ishraq Ali registers voters at the Middle Ground Muslim Center in Upland, California.
AARON SCHRANK/KPCC

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More than 100 people gathered at the Middle Ground Muslim Center in Upland Friday as part of National Muslim Voter Registration Day, a campaign that aims to boost Muslim-American turnout in the November midterm elections.

The day of registration is part of a broader effort to increase civic engagement among Muslims and follows in the wake of a marked increase in anti-Muslim activity, coinciding with President Trump's campaign and post-election rhetoric and terrorist events in the U.S. and abroad. 

After a traditional call to prayer, Marc Manley, the Muslim center imam and religious director, issued a call to action, urging local Muslims to vote their values.

“That should absolutely be part of our civic engagement,” Manley said. “And if we want society to be better, than we need to participate ourselves.” 

About 4 in 10 Muslim-Americans said they voted in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center, compared to the estimated 58 percent of all eligible voters who went to the polls that year. But Muslim candidates are running for public office in record numbers this year, and Trump policies like the so-called Muslim travel ban have spurred more political engagement among Muslim voters.

The ban prohibits most travel from several Muslim-majority countries. The administration cites national security for the restrictions, but many Muslims view it as a move against their religion.

“That definitely had major implications into the public psyche of Muslims," said Ishraq Ali, organizing director with MPower Change, a Muslim social justice advocacy group. “Given the administration’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, we’ve seen a kind of uptick.”

Southern California’s Muslims aren’t a monolithic group. They’re worried about a range of issues that impact immigrants and communities of color, like an increase in hate crimes and the future of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows young adults brought to the country illegally as children to temporarily live and work here.

"There’s a ton of undocumented Muslim youth in Southern California that are being impacted by this," Ali said. 

At the Muslim center, MPower Change helped dozens register on their way out of prayer, and held similar events in Koreatown and Corona.

The group plans to sign up as many people as it can before California's online voter registration deadline on Oct. 22.

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.