FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA — Last year, George Mason University senior Maaz Ahmad’s mosque in Northern Virginia was vandalized twice. In the middle of the summer, someone cut the wires in the mosque’s air conditioning unit at a time when its members were fasting and praying, leaving the building sweltering hot.
Although Ahmad said the heat didn’t bother mosque-goers who are used to the heat of South Asia, it did stir up a fear present in Muslim communities across the country. The incident was just one among a long list of Islamophobic events that have occurred in the United States recently, most since the terrorist attacks in Paris last November.
Ahmad, a board member with the GMU Muslim Students Association (MSA), said the anti-Islam rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates, mainly Donald Trump, has driven many Muslims concentrated in Northern Virginia to want to vote in the state’s primary on Super Tuesday. Trump’s call for a ban on all Muslims entering the country was just one of many hateful remarks made by candidates on the right so far this election cycle.
“When you have this rhetoric that is very anti-Muslim and makes it a ‘you versus me’ kind of thing instead of an ‘us,’ it separates us and it just causes animosity that really shouldn’t be there,” he said.
Fawad Rahimyar, a GMU freshman who is also involved in the MSA, said Trump’s presence on the Republican ticket makes it even more important that Muslims participate on Tuesday.
“It is disheartening to hear how his supporters are very adamant and strong with him, so it’s very important that we have everyone paying attention to this process and going out and having their voices heard tomorrow in the Super Tuesday states,” he said.
There are roughly 220,000 Muslims living in Virginia, and 90,000 of them are registered voters. The margin of votes between President Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 was small — fewer than 150,000 votes — so Muslim leader in the state say the demographic has the power to sway the upcoming election.
“We’re a large community, we make up a good population of America, and we’re a voice that needs to be heard,” Ahmad said.
Rizwan Jaka, chairman of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center, the second largest Muslim organization in the United States, told ThinkProgress his group has been leading get-out-the-vote efforts for months, encouraging members of the Muslim community not only to vote but to help with phone banking and other outreach efforts.
He said that while every election is important and there are always important reasons for Muslims to participate, the “unfortunate statements” that many candidates on the right have made in recent months are “further motivating people and encouraging them to get out the vote.”
“We’re concerned about all of the Islamophobia,” Jaka said, citing increased numbers of Islamophobic incidents in the United States in 2015. “A lot of that is associated with the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, but there are a lot of surface tensions because of statements made by presidential candidates.”
Students on GMU’s campus said they plan to vote, but are even more focused on community outreach efforts. While action by a political figure to counter Islamophobia is necessary, Ahmad said that its even more important that the community members spread a positive narrative about Islam.
“It starts with rhetoric, to counteract that anti-Muslim rhetoric,” he said. “And after that, hopefully action comes out of it. The biggest change won’t happen through political rhetoric but through people who aren’t Muslim reaching out to their Muslim neighbors and learning about them, and also Muslims extending their hand and saying this is who we are. This is what we believe. And we’d like you to get to know us.”
Ahmad said that while he appreciates outreach efforts made by the Democratic candidates to the Muslim community — for instance, Bernie Sanders, who he’s supporting, visited a mosque in Washington, D.C. recently — the Republicans haven’t tried to extend their hands.
The ADAMS Center has publicly challenged Trump to come and meet with its members. The real estate mogul has not yet responded, but Jaka said he extended the same invitation to Herman Cain in 2012, which Cain accepted. After that meeting, Cain apologized to Muslims, saying he emerged from it feeling “humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends.”
Additional reporting by Alice Ollstein.