Last month the all-Muslim, nonpartisan council in Hamtramck, Michigan, which also has a Muslim mayor, opted to remove a Pride flag from public grounds, fulfilling a campaign promise the mayor made last year when he ran for the office. According to a Washington Post story published Wednesday, Muslims (and some Ethiopian Orthodox Christians) in Montgomery County, Maryland, have called on the school system there to restore an “opt-out provision” that allowed parents to withdraw their children from class whenever a particular day’s lessons included books featuring LGBTQ characters.
The all-Muslim council in Hamtramck, Michigan, which also has a Muslim mayor, opted to remove a Pride flag from public grounds, fulfilling a campaign promise the mayor made.
Those two stories have helped intensify an ongoing debate over whether some Muslim Americans are signing on to the GOP’s anti-LGBTQ agenda and knowingly trafficking in anti-LGBTQ bigotry for political gain. In other words, they’re teaming up with the same conservatives who have demonized our communities.
Some people with a different interpretation of what’s happening have gone as far as to strip Muslims of their agency and claim that they are being used as “puppets” of the right. Not surprisingly, that condescending characterization has caused some Muslim leaders to push back.
The Muslim American community is now estimated to be about 4 million people, and as it grows in size and political activity, we can expect to see Muslims fall along a wide spectrum of political views. Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a staunch Bernie Sanders ally, have become the most visible faces of Muslim political activism in our nation. The young Muslim Americans I have met who are active in politics are, like me, on the progressive side of that political spectrum.
But what we Muslims and the rest of the nation must understand is that just as in other faith groups, there are moderate and conservative Muslims. If not serving in elected office, then definitely in the voting booth. According to the Associated Press in 2020, exit polls during that year’s presidential election found that 35% of Muslims voted for Donald Trump and 64% voted for Joe Biden. That 35% strikes me as high. The Council on American-Islamic Relations found in its exit poll of registered Muslim voter households that 17% voted for Trump in 2020, up from 13% in 2016.
I recently spoke with Omar on my SiriusXM show about Hamtramck banning the Pride flag. Omar began by saying that she will always defend people who are mocked for their religious beliefs. But she added that as a “marginalized community” we Muslims cannot “punch down” by joining in the hate directed against other marginalized communities. Referring to the LGBTQ community, she said correctly, “Solidary for us has been lifesaving, and that solidary needs to exist for others whose lives need to be protected.”
Omar’s approach is one her fellow Democrats should adopt while addressing this issue with the Muslim community. It respects people’s religious beliefs but appeals to their sense of standing with communities in need — just as other communities stood with Muslims during the time Trump made demonizing us a big part of his bigoted 2016 campaign and presidency.
I can’t imagine how it feels for our LGBTQ+ neighbors in Hamtramck to watch their own elected reps decide their existence doesn’t matter.
But leaders in Hamtramck have shown little interest in the solidarity that Omar says it’s important to maintain with other marginalized groups. In a response that illustrated the political divide in the Muslim community, Tlaib slammed the decision made by Hamtramck officials. According to the Detroit Free Press, she said, “I can’t imagine how it feels for our LGBTQ+ neighbors in Hamtramck to watch their own elected reps decide their existence doesn’t matter.” She added, “This is painful to see in a city that has always fought for equal justice for all. This action divides our communities.”
Mayor Amer Ghalib later released a statement addressed to “politicians who don’t understand the situation in Hamtramck but,” he said, “released statements to criticize us.” He said those politicians “do not know our city more than we do, and you will not know the consequences of opening the door for every group to fly their flag on city properties. Our residents are all equally important to us, and we will continue to serve them equally without discrimination, favoritism or preferential treatment to any group. The city government will stay NEUTRAL and IMPARTIAL toward its residents.”
According to the Detroit Free Press, ahead of the June 13 vote to remove the Pride flag, City Councilman Nayeem Choudhury said of the LGBTQ community, “You guys are welcome … (but) why do you have to have the flag shown on government property to be represented? You’re already represented. We already know who you are. … By making this (about) bigotry … it’s making it like you want to hate us.”
Worse, Ghalib made it a campaign issue to remove the Pride flag that the previous mayor, who was not Muslim, had raised. Using the language of neutrality makes him no less wrong than the Republicans who’ve sought to ban Pride flags to exploit anti-LGBTQ sentiment for their political advantage.
The Muslim parents in Montgomery County who want the right to keep their children out of classes when LGBTQ books or topics are being discussed say they simply want input into what their children should learn and are not seeking to ban LGBTQ themed books, as Republicans have done in numerous states. Rather, as one Muslim parent told The Washington Post, “None of us are anti-LGBT; none of us hold any hatred toward them. We want to be able to introduce our children to these sensitive topics which are intertwined with our faith in a very sensitive way.”
Ghalib made it a campaign issue to remove the Pride flag that the previous mayor, who was not Muslim, had raised.
It’s true that Moms for Liberty — which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a right wing extremist group that has “spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community”— is happy to welcome Muslims who’ll support their efforts in Montgomery County. But as Zainab Chaudry, the director of the Maryland Office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told The Washington Post about Moms for Liberty, “Their ideology, their views, their positions are antithetical to what our communities stand for.”
Even if they see the awfulness of Moms for Liberty and even if they say they’re not opposed to LGBTQ people, I disagree with my fellow Muslims who are choosing to withdraw their children from certain lessons. Because the purpose of “inclusive books,” as the school board explained, is “to support a student’s ability to empathize, connect, and collaborate with diverse peers and encourage respect for all.” Imagine how we’d feel if people demanded the right to “opt out” their children when lessons plans call for them to read books that tell the stories of Muslims and could have the effect of destroying hate-filled myths and stereotypes about us.
We Muslims must always call out hate and bigotry, especially from members of our own communities. To me, banning the Pride flag to score political points is trafficking in bigotry.
At the same time, those dismissing concerned Muslim parents who are trying to negotiate their faith and their children’s education as “puppets” should take a lesson from Omar. Be respectful of these parents’ sincerely held religious beliefs while appealing to the reality that as Muslims we are a marginalized community and need to stand with others in need, just as they stood with us. The bigots of the right will again demonize us when it helps their own political agenda. Who is going to stand with us then if we turn our backs on others in need now?