Muslim Americans voted overwhelmingly for Biden. But community leaders in swing states tell NBC News that the president's handling of the war in Gaza risks losing their support.
Muslim Americans overwhelmingly backed Biden in 2020 and would be expected to again in 2024, especially if his opponent is former President Donald Trump, who has revived his plans to ban many Muslims from entering the United States.
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But in multiple battleground states that Biden won with thin margins last time, a growing chorus of community leaders say his handling of the war in Gaza and Islamophobia at home jeopardize his path to victory in the Electoral College, with many Muslim American and Arab American voters saying they plan to either stay home next November, vote for a write-in or a third-party presidential candidate, or simply leave the top of the ticket blank.
And while the election is more than a year away, these warnings are coming not just from usual suspects — such as never-satisfied activists on the restive left — but Democratic elected officials, nonpartisan community leaders, Muslim get-out-the vote groups and even some of Biden’s biggest Arab American validators.
“It literally may dissuade enough voters to sit back in the next election and watch Donald Trump control the presidency, watch the Republicans control the Congress and also know that conservatives will have control of the Supreme Court,” said Wa’el Alzayat, the CEO of Emgage, the country’s largest group focused on turning out Muslim American voters.
“The sad thing about it is those who truly care about democracy did this to themselves by their mismanagement of this issue,” Alzayat said of Biden, with whom he met last week as part of a small group of Muslim American leadersinvited to the White House.
Numbers are difficult to pinpoint, since neither the U.S. Census nor media exit polls ask about religion or Arab ethnicity. But a post-election poll conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that 69% of Muslim American voters backed Biden in 2020.
And while Muslims are a tiny minority of the overall U.S. population — about half the number of American Jews — they happen to make up a large enough proportion of several battleground states to be at least theoretically capable of swinging an election, were they to pull support from Biden en masse.
For instance, Biden won Arizona by just about 10,500 votes. The nongovernmental U.S. Religion Census, run by a consortium of religious institutions and other nonprofit groups, estimated that there were 110,00 Muslim adherents in Arizona total, including people ineligible to vote because they are too young or not citizens.
Biden won Georgia by about 12,000 votes; the Religion Census estimates there are 123,000 Muslim adherents in the state. He won by about 21,000 votes in Wisconsin, where there are an estimated 69,000 Muslim adherents. Biden won Michigan by about 154,000 votes, and there are estimated 242,000 Muslim adherents in the state. And he won Minnesota by about 233,000, where there are an estimated 115,00 Muslims.
“Many, including myself, are considering voting the other way or leaving the ticket blank,” said Sumaya Abdul-Quadir, program director at the Arizona Muslim Alliance, which has been urging members of Congress to support a cease-fire.
“The frustration is also about the sheer amount of money being spent on war, weapons, Israel and Ukraine,” he continued. “The president wants $105 billion to send to Israel so they can continue this genocide. We can’t stand for that.”
Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said the president continues to work "closely and proudly" with Muslim American and Palestinian American community leaders.
"President Biden knows the importance of earning the trust of every community, of upholding the sacred dignity and rights of all Americans. The President and this administration have been unequivocal: there is no place for Islamophobia, xenophobia, or any of the vile racism we have seen in recent weeks," Moussa said. "As MAGA Republicans continue to run on an openly Islamaphobic platform -- including renewed support for Donald Trump's Muslim ban -- the stakes of next year's election could not be more consequential."
Muslim and Arab Americans have changed their political allegiances in the past. Many voted for Republicans, including George W. Bush, before being turned off from the GOP after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and as Islamophobic rhetoric became more tolerated by the party after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Realizing the potential problem, the White House has tried to balance its support for Israel and Jewish Americans with calls for restraint in Gaza, including a humanitarian “pause” in fighting, a push for more aid to Gaza and increased resources to combat Islamophobia at home.
“We’ll continue to engage in conversations with these important communities and to be unequivocal in condemning hate and discrimination against them and, as the president has said, we must continue to work towards a two-state solution,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said.
The White House has also been tapping its Muslim American and Arab American appointees as ambassadors and sounding boards for their communities, organizing listening sessions for them with White House chief of staff Jeff Zients and Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn and conducting one-on-one outreach to elected officials who are Muslim or have large Arab or Muslim constituencies.
Dunn, one of Biden’s most powerful and politically savvy aides, has been holding daily video conferences with both Arab American and Jewish American administration officials around what people are hearing from their community, according to a White House official.
With emotions running high, these internal meetings have not always been pleasant, the official said, which they said underscored the president's commitment to hearing honest feedback.
Still, outside the White House, some Muslim American activists say the engagement is appreciated, but not enough.
“The White House is actively engaging Muslims, it’s just not listening to them,” said Robert McCaw, CAIR’s top lobbyist and government affairs director, stating what they really want is a cease-fire. “Their policy is not no Palestinian civilian deaths, it’s just, ‘Hopefully less Palestinian civilian deaths’ while resupplying Israel and the bombs they’re dropping.”
Even the meeting between Biden and Muslim and Arab leaders last week meant to smooth things over ended up causing some new friction after the participants felt the White House did not want to publicly acknowledge their presence — a contrast with how the White House touted its meeting with Jewish leaders — and decried the fact that there was only one Palestinian American among the participants.
Wassim Malas, executive director of the Wisconsin Muslim Civic Alliance, said many in his community feel that Biden has failed to recognize the humanity of Palestinian civilians and advocate for their plight as much as he has for Israeli citizens killed in the Oct. 7 terror attack.
“It will definitely have an impact on the elections ... A lot of Muslims have voiced their frustration to the point that they’re talking about sitting out the elections,” he said. “President Joe Biden and other leading members within his party fail to acknowledge both sides of the story — sincerely.”
Biden’s remarks in an Oval Office address this month urging Israel “not to be blinded by rage” and telling Muslim Americans, “I see you" and "you belong” were helpful, Malas said, noting that the White House seems to be moving in a better direction. But still, he said, it’s not enough.
“Following the president’s speech, Muslims don’t feel at ease that tensions will subside. So while we’re grateful for the change in language and rhetoric, Muslims in Wisconsin and in America — insofar as I can speak on their behalf — we don’t feel that was enough to calm tensions,” he said.
Malas said his organization has not heard from the White House.
“If anyone feels that they’ve damaged their ties with our community, they should right now seek to amend things while Muslims are still willing to hear everyone and before more civilian deaths transpire. Because as the death toll mounts, and people are silent on the genocide, it will be very difficult to gain their trust back,” he added.
In Georgia, state Rep. Ruwa Romman, a 30-year-old Democrat who is Palestinian American and last year became the first Muslim American woman elected to the Georgia state House, said displeasure with Biden is not just coming from young activists, but also from elder statesmen in her community who supported Biden.
“Every single person I’ve spoken to said if the election were tomorrow, I could not vote for Joe Biden,” she said. “These are his fundraisers ... these are the most politically active people in my Muslim and Arab community.”
Romman, who knocked on doors and did outreach on behalf of Biden and now can’t say how she would vote, said she feels “personally responsible with what’s happening in Gaza right now, because I went and canvassed for him.”
“Those of us who are politically involved, who are Muslim, and particularly Palestinian, there’s this sense of, ‘Did we cause this?’” she said.
Romman also said she and others feel “bullied” to commit now to supporting Biden next year, which she said feels to some like having to choose between supporting the person they view as allowing their family members in Gaza to be bombed (Biden) or the person who they feel would endanger their families and themselves in the U.S. (Trump).
“Usually the retort is, do you want Trump as president? And the answer is no, of course we do not want Trump to be president,” she said. “For some people, it’s like, do I pick my own personal safety and security or the killing of my family?”
In Minnesota, local Muslim leaders held a press conference Friday setting a deadline of noon Tuesday for Biden to call for a full cease-fire in Gaza or lose their support. Biden did not oblige, though the White House has been calling for a “pause” in fighting to allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
“How could we vote for you, when you allow 2.2 million people to go out without having food? How can we vote for you, if you allow 2.2 million not to have water?” Hassan Abdel Salam, a professor of human rights at the University of Minnesota, said at the press conference. “It’s against our very tradition and our religion to be complicit and to actively support someone who seeks the destruction of human life.”
"I am honestly not voting Democrat again. I'm not going to vote for Biden. My vote is up for grabs," Saed Wadi, a restaurant owner in Minnesota, told NBC News Tuesday.
In Michigan, where Muslim and Arab political infrastructure is more developed, political leaders have been particularly outspoken. And at a meeting held in the largely Muslim city of Dearborn, 30 community leaders gathered for a meeting this month and all agreed they would not support Biden unless they saw a major turnaround in his policies.
“Arab and Muslim Americans have still made a clear decision to mobilize their voters,” said Democratic state Rep. Alabas Farhat, who represents the city. “But whether that includes urging support for the top of the ticket remains to be seen.”
Alzayat, of Emgage, which says it helped turn out just more than 1 million Muslim voters in 2020, said the group will once again encourage Muslim Americans to turn out and vote next year, but declined to say whether that would include supporting Biden.
He said it was “reckless” for people to say now that they’re not going to vote for Biden a year out, given the threat he said many Muslim Americans feel from Trump. But he also said running against Trump might not be enough for Biden to earn their support.
“Emgage Action and our allies will be deliberating and seeing how things go,” he said when asked whom they would support for president next year. “We’re still 12 months away from the election. Everything is on the table.”