(RNS) — In an address to Muslim voters, former Vice President Joe Biden promised to “earn” their communities’ support and, if elected to the Oval Office, sign hate crime legislation, appoint Muslim staffers and, on his first day in office, repeal the Muslim travel ban.
“I want to work in partnership with you to make sure your voices are included in the decision-making process as we work to rebuild our nation,” Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said at a virtual event organized by Emgage Action, a Muslim PAC.
“I’ll be a president who seeks out, listens to and incorporates the ideas and concerns of Muslim Americans on everyday issues that matter most to our communities.”
The Million Muslim Vote Summit was organized by the political arm of the Muslim civic advocacy group Emgage as part of a campaign to have one million Muslim voters cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential elections. Emgage Action endorsed Biden in April, after Sen. Bernie Sanders — the group’s original endorsee — ended his campaign.
“We’re putting our trust in you,” Khurrum Wahid, chairperson for Emgage Action’s board, told Biden. “We have a swing state strategy and we will deliver for you Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. We will activate large groups of voters in Texas and Arizona. We will turn out one million votes nationally. We’re going to ask everyone we know to ‘vote Joe’ on November 3rd.”
Biden, who spoke for about 10 minutes on Monday (July 20) and did not answer questions, described Islam as “one of the great confessional faiths” and decried recent spikes in hate crimes as well as appointments of government officials with histories of anti-Muslim comments.
Also on Monday, a group of Muslim elected officials including Rep. Ilhan Omar and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison published a letter endorsing the candidate. Both Omar and Ellison initially supported Sanders.
The summit was also joined by Democratic politicians and Muslim activists, including Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Debbie Dingell, Rep. Andy Kim, Rep. Andy Levin, former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed and activist Linda Sarsour, among others.
“This upcoming presidential election is arguably the most important one within our lifetime,” said Emgage Action CEO Wa’el Alzayat. “We cannot afford another four years of a Trump presidency. Muslim American communities are organizing like never before to maximize our voter turnout and to ensure that our voices are represented.”
Survey data from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found that in the 2016 election cycle, Muslims were the religious group least likely to be registered to vote. Through the Million Muslim Vote campaign, Emgage and other civic groups seek to increase Muslim voter participation using everything from text messages to door-to-door operations.
The organization says activists’ efforts ahead of the 2018 midterms contributed to a 25-point increase in registered Muslim voter turnout in Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Florida, where it says 53% of the state’s registered Muslim voters cast their ballot.
“Your voice is your vote, your vote is your voice,” Biden said. “Muslim Americans’ voices matter … but we all know that your voice hasn’t always gotten recognized and represented. That’s your right as a citizen.”
Under his administration, Biden vowed, that would change.
“A hadith from the Prophet Muhammad instructs, ‘Whomever among you sees a wrong, let him change it with his hand,’” Biden quoted. “‘If he is not able, then with his tongue. If he is not able, then with his heart.’”
If elected, Biden said, “we could work together to right the wrongs and see our world bettered, with our hearts, with our hands, with our votes.”
But other speakers also emphasized the need for Muslims to put pressure on elected officials and make their political priorities known beyond November.
“If Donald Trump is no longer the president … I hope that you as Muslim Americans are ready for the long road ahead of us to make sure that our issues are on the agenda,” said Sarsour, who was a former Sanders surrogate. “We want to see Joe Biden in the White House, but we also want Joe Biden to know that we will hold him accountable to our communities.”
In March, Biden’s campaign appointed Emgage founding board member Farooq Mitha, formerly the national Muslim outreach director for Clinton’s campaign, as Biden’s senior adviser on Muslim American engagement.
Mitha joined the Biden team after the campaign faced backlash over its Muslim engagement coordinator, staffer Amit Jani, at the time.
Jani, the campaign’s National Asian American Pacific Islander outreach director, is not Muslim. He also shares close ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been widely criticized for his Hindu nationalist agenda and for his role in deadly anti-Muslim violence in India.
Several prominent South Asian, Muslim and other civil groups roundly condemned Jani’s involvement, arguing his hiring “tokenized” Muslims and showed the emptiness of Biden’s presentation as a “liberal counterweight” to an anti-Muslim political wave.
“To hire a supporter and friend of Narendra Modi opens the door to embracing anti-Muslim and Hindu nationalist politics,” an open letter published by over 30 organizations declared. “Progressive Asian Americans and South Asian Americans cannot stand by a candidate with relationships to fascists, here or abroad.”
The campaign has not returned requests from Religion News Service to confirm Jani’s current involvement with the campaign and its Muslim engagement efforts.