Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accompanied by his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders, right, speaks to an overflow crowd at a Super Bowl watch party campaign event, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Sanders wins endorsement from Muslim group, Iowa's only Muslim state legislator

(RNS) — Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, where Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign team is working to draw Muslim voters, the Democratic candidate has won endorsements from a national Muslim political organizing group and from Iowa's only Muslim state legislator. 

The national board of the Muslim Caucus in America, founded in 2017 to develop a national infrastructure for American Muslim political organizing, announced its endorsement in a statement on Jan. 31. The endorsement listed candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren as its second choice.

“For decades, Senator Sanders has been consistent in fighting for progressive policies and has demonstrated in word and in action the need to care for all Americans regardless of race, creed, or class,” the organization explained in its endorsement. “His passion has ignited a whole generation committed to disrupting corruption, inequality, and all forms of racial injustice.”

The endorsement pointed to Sanders’ long history as a civil rights and labor rights activist, his commitment to ending “endless wars” and his statements in favor of vulnerable Muslim communities around the world including Palestinians, Kashmiris, Bosnians and Uighurs.

“CAIR Pre-Primary Survey of Registered Muslim Voters” Graphic courtesy of CAIR

The Vermont senator also received an endorsement from Muslim Caucus advisory committee member Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, a Des Moines native who has served in the Iowa House of Representatives since 2007 and founded the African-American Islamic Association.

“The candidate that resonated with me and that has come closest to my passion for justice in the world is Sen. Bernie Sanders,” Rep. Abdul-Samad said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the Senator and the team to continue addressing the issues that are not only dividing us here in America, but in the world.”

A Jan. 30 survey by the Council on American-Islamic relations, which surveyed 346 registered Muslim voters across the country who said they would support a Democratic candidate for president, found that Sanders won the largest share with 39% support. He was followed by former Vice President Joe Biden, at 27%.

“I am honored to receive the Muslim Caucus of America’s endorsement,” Sanders said in a statement. “Muslim Americans for generations have been part of the fabric of our American family. While Donald Trump has attempted to demonize the Muslim community, our movement is working to bring Muslims and people of all backgrounds together to create an economy, justice system and political system that are rooted in human rights for all."

With five mosques serving as caucus precincts in Iowa for the first time ever, candidates are looking to court Muslim voters. Less than 0.5% of Iowa’s population is Muslim, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s American Values Atlas, but the state is home to one of the country’s oldest Muslim and Arab communities.

Three days ahead of Monday’s caucus, Rep. Omar and Rep. Abdul-Samad visited Des Moines’ Muslim Community Organization for Friday prayers and urged worshippers there to vote.

"This election cycle is about us … You girls who don't feel comfortable showing up in their hijabs,” Omar said at the mosque, according to the Middle East Eye. “This election cycle is about us. It's about our fathers who are working two jobs, three jobs, to put food on the table."

The Sanders campaign brought on Sami Scheetz, whose mother was a Syrian immigrant, as constituency outreach director and Somali refugee Abshir Omar as Iowa political coordinator to help engage Arab and Muslim voters in Iowa.

The candidate won an endorsement this week from Luai Amro, a local Palestinian American and Muslim community leader in Des Moines, joining about a dozen other Arab and Muslim community leaders in the state.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., right, hold hands during a campaign stop at St. Ambrose University, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The candidate’s campaign team includes seven full-time Muslim staffers, according to a report from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The staffers include campaign manager Faiz Shakir, the first Muslim to manage a major presidential campaign, and Arab American organizer Nusaiba Mubarak Harmoush, who launched the campaign’s Muslims for Bernie organizing program in November.

The Sanders campaign says the Muslims for Bernie initiative has over 1,000 active Muslim volunteers who hold organizing calls every two weeks and events around the country.

Sanders was one of two candidates to participate in the first-ever presidential forum at the Islamic Society of North America’s convention last year, where he received a standing ovation. (He was joined there by Sec. Julian Castro, who has since dropped out of the race.)

He also sent a pre-recorded video to the Muslim Caucus’ conference last year in Washington, which organizers called the first national gathering of Muslim Americans in politics and was attended by around 100 people.

Despite issuing invitations to all presidential hopefuls at the time, few candidates agreed to participate in the Muslim Collective for Equitable Democracy event. Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed at the last minute to participate in person. Sen. Warren participated through a live video stream; Sanders, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Amy Klobuchar all sent pre-recorded videos. 

The conference featured speakers Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, Gold Star father and now-Biden surrogate Khizr Khan, as well as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was the first Muslim elected to Congress. All except Khan have since come out in support of Sanders.