(RNS) — Nabeela Syed made history in this year’s midterms when she defeated a Republican incumbent in Illinois’ 51st District, making her the youngest member of the Illinois General Assembly and among the first Muslims elected to the state Legislature.
“It is so important for us to have a seat at the table, for us to have a voice in the legislative process,” Syed, a 23-year-old Indian American who is Muslim, told a local TV news reporter soon after her win. Syed recalled a conversation with a friend who said he never thought he’d see a name like hers on hundreds of yard signs in their community.
To Syed, candidacies like hers are viable “if people put in the time, the effort and the money,” she said in a podcast series documenting her historic campaign. Syed joined Abdelnasser Rashid as the first Muslims elected to the Illinois State House.
“You can’t just write off a candidacy like mine because, ‘Oh, she’s too diverse for this district or she’s too young,’” Syed said.
Syed is among a cohort of new candidates who made history this year by becoming the first Muslim Americans to be elected to the state legislature in states like Texas, Illinois, Georgia and Minnesota. All of them are Democrats, many are women and a rising number are Somali Americans.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the 2022 midterms have been a historic election, tracking a record-breaking 145 American Muslim candidates running for local, state and federal office, including 48 state legislative candidates in 23 states.
As a result, more than 80 Muslim candidates won local, state, federal and judicial seats in over 20 states, according to a report from CAIR and the Jetpac Resource Center, a nonprofit that works to increase Muslim representation in U.S. government and politics. This signals the highest number of electoral wins among Muslim Americans since Jetpac and CAIR began tracking. In 2020, 71 were elected.
Jetpac has documented a record number of Muslims running for state legislative seats, including: 20 Muslim incumbents who successfully ran for reelection; two appointed lawmakers who ran for a full term and made history as the first Muslims elected to their respective state legislature; plus 17 new Muslim candidates who won their campaigns.
To Mohammed Missouri, Jetpac’s executive director, it’s noteworthy that all Muslim state legislators who were up for reelection have retained their seats. “That’s a big thing,” he said.
Missouri said the successful campaigns of Muslim American candidates show that “when Muslims run for office today, in 2022 and beyond, … it’s rewarded by voters.”
Among the historic gains:
In Minnesota, 25-year-old Zaynab Mohamed, a Democrat, became the first Muslim woman of Somali descent to be elected to the state Senate.
In Georgia, four Muslim Americans were elected to state office. This includes Democrat Ruwa Romman, the first Muslim woman elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, and Nabilah Islam, the first Muslim woman elected to the Georgia State Senate.
In Texas, the first two Muslim lawmakers are Democrats Salman Bhojani, who won election to House District 92 in Tarrant County, and Suleman Lalani, who won election to House District 76 in Fort Bend County.
In Ohio, Democrat Munira Abdullahi, who was unopposed, became the first Muslim woman to be elected to the state Legislature. Ismail Mohamed, a Democrat, was also elected as the first Muslim to serve in the Ohio State House. Both are Somali Americans.
In Maine, Democrats Mana Abdi, Ambureen Rana and Deqa Dhalac were the first Muslims elected to the state Legislature. Abdi and Dhalac are Somali American.
In Oregon, State Senator Kayse Jama ran for a full term after being appointed to fill a vacancy in 2021. He is the first Muslim elected to the Oregon State Legislature.
In Washington state, State Senator Yasmin Trudeau ran for a full term after being appointed to fill a vacancy in 2021. She is the first Muslim elected to the Washington State Legislature.
The 2022 midterm election results prove that “Muslims are a powerhouse,” said community organizer Nada Al-Hanooti — not just as candidates but also as a constituency.
As executive director of Emgage’s Michigan chapter, an organization that educates and mobilizes Muslim American voters, Al-Hanooti saw major wins in voter outreach and in the candidates they endorsed in Michigan, where Democrats will now control the Michigan Legislature following this year’s election.
Al-Hanooti said that most of the candidates who seek out Emgage are not Muslim. “(They) know now the pull that we have,” she said.
A recent survey of American congregations by The U.S. Religion Census showed the number of Muslims who participate in mosque prayer increased from 2.6 million in 2010 to 4.5 million in 2020, a 75% increase. (Pew Research estimates there were 3.85 million Muslims in the U.S. in 2020, but those numbers do not include children.)
Michigan Democrat Hillary Scholten, whom Emgage endorsed, defeated former Trump-backed John Gibbs in her run for Congress. Emgage also endorsed U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who defeated Sen. Tom Barrett in a competitive race.
In Michigan, the Democrats last were in charge of the Senate in 1984, and they last controlled the House in 2010, according to the Michigan Advance.
“Our focus was really to flip the House and Senate. We knew we had an opportunity,” Al-Hanooti said.
Emgage, through its nonprofit, offers nonpartisan voter education outreach. It also has a political action committee, dubbed the nation’s largest Muslim American bipartisan PAC, that supports local, state and federal candidates with a “track record of upholding civil rights, welcoming diversity, and protecting religious freedom.”
“I think slowly, but surely, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, will know that the Muslim community is a force to be reckoned with,” Al-Hanooti said.