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The effort to protect Muslim voters in an election filled with hate and vitriol

“I think it’s a moral imperative to be here.”

Debbie Almontaser (right) and another Common Cause volunteer. CREDIT: Bryce Covert
Debbie Almontaser (right) and another Common Cause volunteer. CREDIT: Bryce Covert

Anti-Muslim harassment has hit close to home for Debbie Almontaser.

Her husband’s cousin was recently walking down the street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with her four-year-old grandson when a woman started following her and hurling anti-Muslim epithets at her. “This woman followed her for four blocks berating her,” Almontaser said. Eventually, the relative went into a familiar grocery store and stayed there until the woman left.

It was nervousness about this kind of incident — and concern about whether similar harassment might happen on Election Day — that drove Almontaser, a Muslim woman who speaks Arabic, to volunteer as a poll watcher on Tuesday. “To make sure that my presence being out here was seen and recognized as a comfort and support for people who are Muslim and Arab,” she said.

“I think it’s a moral imperative to be here,” she said. “To make sure that every person who comes out to vote feels comfortable and doesn’t feel intimidated and is able to exercise their right.”

“I think it’s a moral imperative to be here.”

Even before Election Day, Almontaser was working with Common Cause, a grassroots voting organization, to recruit volunteers who speak Arabic and Bengali to act as helpers, translators, and a show of support at the polls. She even recruited her husband, niece, and cousins to go to poll sites around Bay Ridge, which has a large Muslim community, on Tuesday.

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They’re joining nearly 200 volunteers recruited and sent out on Tuesday by Common Cause throughout New York City neighborhoods with large Muslim and Arab populations. While the organization hasn’t focused specifically on this demographic in the past, it decided to do so this year “because of the inflammatory things which one of the presidential candidates was saying,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause.

Susan Lerner helps a voter. CREDIT: Bryce Covert
Susan Lerner helps a voter. CREDIT: Bryce Covert

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has used incendiary language when talking about Muslims, including calling for a ban on all Muslim immigration to the United States, rhetoric that experts say is fueling a huge increase in Islamophobia and violence against Muslims this year.

“We were concerned that here in New York City we have some neighborhoods where the Muslim population is pretty visible, and some of them are also neighborhoods where you have a larger number of Trump supporters,” Lerner said. That concentration, mixed with the violent language of the campaign, could lead to trouble. “It might encourage an unstable person to take it upon him or herself to come and harass voters,” she said.

It’s a concern that’s not just in Bay Ridge. Across the country, Muslim-Americans started the hashtag #IslamophobiaAtPolls to document harassment they’re experiencing at the polls on Tuesday.

But in New York, Lerner hopes is that their support won’t even be necessary. “We are hoping and expecting that actually it will be perfectly calm and we won’t see any harassment,” Lerner said. “A boring Election Day is a successful Election Day.” But if anything should arise, her volunteers will be there.

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Neither Lerner nor Almontaser is concerned about Muslim voter turnout. They’ve been working hard to get people energized to vote. Almontaser wants “people to understand that things could be very bad if they do not take a social responsibility and exercise their right to vote,” she said.

And she believes the election is not just of vital importance for her and her community, but for the whole world. One Muslim friend in London worries he won’t be able to come visit her in New York if Trump wins. Others have reached out, too. “I got a bunch of text messages today on Whats App [an international texting service] saying good luck, we’re watching you guys, we’re wishing you the best today,” she said.

She thinks that gravity is felt throughout the Muslim-American community. “People realize that they have to come out and vote because if they don’t and things don’t turn out the way that the community hopes it would come out, then they would feel awfully terrible,” she said. “I think that a lot of people are afraid of what the consequences can be.”