Muslim Leaders Move to Boost Voters in Their Community

GOP nominee Donald Trump’s stance sparks unprecedented interest in election by fast-growing population

By Beth Reinhard
Sept. 12, 2016 6:19 p.m. ET

MANASSAS, Va.—Corey Stewart had visited the Dar Al-Noor mosque many times as chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, but never as the leader of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Virginia.

As-salamu alaykum,” he said Monday morning, greeting hundreds of Muslims on the holiday of Eid al-Adha, marking the end of the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. “This is kind of an awkward position that I’m in.”

He didn’t need to explain. Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants has provoked widespread outrage and potentially unprecedented interest in the presidential election by the fast-growing Muslim community.

Muslims make up only about 1% of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. But the community is concentrated in several large swing states that could influence the November election, including Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

“I have never seen an election cycle this divisive, where Americans are being turned against each other,” Rafi Uddin Ahmed, the mosque’s former president, told the room full of male worshipers. “This is not the America that you know. We need to make sure we are active, every election, but especially this one.”

The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, the largest coalition of national and local Muslim groups, aims to register one million voters by the Nov. 8 election.

It declared Monday as “National Muslim Voter Registration Day,” with mosques all over the U.S. hosting voter-registration tables as worshipers streamed in to celebrate the holiday. The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates 300,000 Muslims have registered to vote since 2012.

In a rare reproach of the GOP nominee by one of his surrogates, Mr. Stewart told the audience at the mosque that he disagreed with Mr. Trump’s position on Muslim immigrants. Still, he said, the only way to agree completely with a candidate is to personally run for office.

“There was no sense in trying to paper over it,” Mr. Stewart, who is running for governor, said later to reporters.

Some Muslim leaders caution that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton shouldn’t take their support for granted, pointing to her support as a U.S. senator in favor of the war in Iraq.

State Sen. Jeremy McPike, a Democrat, spoke on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf at the mosque on Monday. He noted that as first lady, she hosted the first Ramadan celebration dinner at the White House in 1996. Her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, attended the mosque’s 2007 dedication when he was governor.  She has denounced Mr. Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants.

“The dialogue that you’ve heard this year is based on Islamophobia,” Mr. McPike said. “We’ve got to dig in as a people to show that our values are greater than that divisive rhetoric.”

Among those who filled out a registration form was Saidu Sesay, 25 years old, who works with disabled people. “We are good people in the community,’” said Mr. Sesay, whose family fled the civil war in Sierra Leone. “We are citizens like everyone else.”

Shafiuddin Ahmed, 42, filled out the same paperwork while his 12-year-old twin boys waited patiently. “Trump is going to kick all the Muslims out,” said one son, Sarim. “That’s bad.”

The Republican nominee has changed his focus in recent months from blocking Muslims from entering the U.S. to newcomers from countries rife with terrorism, but he has never officially abandoned his position on Muslim immigration.

His statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” remains on his campaign website.

Sheryar Khan, 40, a real estate consultant who picked up a registration form at the mosque, said he would probably vote for Mrs. Clinton. But he cited her public-policy experience, not Mr. Trump’s immigration policy.

“I’m educated. I could go wherever I want,” said Mr. Khan, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan and has been a citizen since 2009.

Muslim leaders say the community has been less politically engaged than other religious groups, in part because of the distrust and discrimination that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Only 60% of Muslims are registered to vote, compared with a combined 86% of Jews, Catholics and Protestants, according to a study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

“People don’t want to put their name on things for fear they will be targeted,” said Ehsan Islam, president of the Muslim Association of Virginia.

Emerging as a hero in the Muslim community during this election year is Khizr Khan, a Muslim attorney and father of a U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq, who condemned Mr. Trump at the Democratic National Convention.

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Khan said he is trying to keep a low profile since his convention speech touched off a public spat with Mr. Trump. Mr. Khan spoke at the annual festival celebrating Pakistani independence in Centreville, Va., in August and at the Islamic Society of North America conference in Chicago earlier this month.

At the conference attended by thousands of Muslims, he urged the audience to vote “regardless of issues, where you stand,” Mr. Khan added: “Let your voice be heard, so that tomorrow, our future generations, our children, don’t have to hear this ugly political rhetoric that we have heard.”

Mr. Khan, who is scheduled to speak to other Muslim groups this fall, didn’t name Mr. Trump.