By Maryam Saleh
His memories of his father behind bars for pro-democracy work in Pakistan planted the seed.
The first English phrase he remembers learning is habeas corpus, a legal term rooted in Latin. When his father was filing petitions to challenge his imprisonment, he couldn’t pronounce the word. Now, he laughs, he still struggles to spell it.
But Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, 64, is no longer a newcomer. The leader of Muslim Democrats, he represents an expanding base of Muslims who identify with the Democratic Party more than any other religious group, according to a 2015 Gallup poll.
“I am more than ever convinced that it is important for the future of America that all Americans engage heavily in the political process,” Muslims included, said Mujahid, whose national political organization encourages American-Muslim participation in the electoral process.
As a recent immigrant and graduate student at the University of Chicago, Mujahid hung Harold Washington’s campaign poster on his dorm room door – even though he couldn’t vote – intrigued by the man running to be Chicago’s first black mayor.
He says his entry into American electoral politics eight years ago was “unintentional.” But it seems like a natural step in the trajectory of a man raised in a “fiercely justice-oriented family,” who has worked for decades to empower Chicago Muslims and build bridges with other faith groups.
And as Nov. 8 fast approaches, he’s busier than ever.
American Muslims overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and it’s not Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban that pushed them in that direction. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that seven in 10 Muslims in America either are self-described Democrats or say they lean Democratic.
The reason is simple, Mujahid said: Democrats embrace diversity and Republicans shy away from it. He pointed to the inclusion of Muslim speakers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Khizr Khan at the 2016 Democratic National Convention as an example.
Mujahid, a thoughtful, eloquent speaker, became involved with the Democratic Party in 2006. His participation in a massive immigrants’ rights rally in Chicago led to a meeting with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean about immigration policy.
Dean, who was Democratic National Committee Chair at the time, told Mujahid he wanted Muslims to be involved in the party.
“I said, ‘You know, Muslims are sick and tired of taking photos with politicians…I’m interested in substantial engagement,’” the community leader recalled.
He started to attend meetings with the party, driven by a desire to give Muslims access to policy makers.
Fast forward to the 2008 DNC, where a conversation with former President Jimmy Carter about Muslims’ civic engagement spurred Mujahid to start Muslim Democrats. The political action committee trained 900 volunteers and mobilized 300,000 voters in swing states that year, he said.
Now active in 20 states, the PAC is focused on mobilizing voters in swing states, including Virginia and Michigan, where volunteers will drive voters to polling centers on election day.
The group supports Hillary Clinton, and, for the first time, is paying attention to federal senatorial campaigns. It backs Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; Russ Feingold, D-Wis.; and Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, organizing fundraisers and recruiting volunteers to make phone calls for the candidates.
There is a payoff for such efforts, he explained.
Establishing relationships now will give Muslims access to the politicians in the future, enabling them to pursue policy agendas, such as criminal justice reform and due process in the creation of no-fly lists, Mujahid explained.
Although Mujahid doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Clinton on topics such as war and national security – “most Muslims” are anti-war and are tired of being relevant only in the context of the war on terror, he explained – his pragmatism trumps his disagreement.
“I’m happy that Muslims are highlighted in a way that takes the air out of that anti-American balloon that Trump and company is filling,” he said, noting that Clinton’s experience and “demonstrated acceptance for diversity” unequivocally make her the better candidate.
He is confident that Muslims have already had “tremendous influence,” on the election, due in part to increased civic engagement. Voter registration is one indication he’s right – more than 300,000 Muslims may have registered to vote since the 2012 presidential election, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
As a father of six, he is motivated by a future he envisions for his grandchildren. He dreams of a nation heavily invested in research and education, where there is “not a person in this country who’s sleeping on the street.” He choked back his tears remembering the five homeless people he saw as he walked to his office in the Loop on Monday morning.
Those who work with Mujahid admire his humility and perseverance.
“It’s quite challenging to bring [the Muslim] community together, but he never gives up,” said Nazneen Hashmi, 55, a Muslim Democrats volunteer. “He thinks there’s potential for the community to shine.”
Mehrunisa Qayyum, who met Mujahid through his work with the Muslim community 10 years ago in Chicago, compared him to leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who were “very pronounced in their religious communities” and devoted to social justice.
He wears many other hats, all inspired, he explained, by his pursuit of justice.
He is the president of Sound Vision, a public relations and media nonprofit he founded in 1988, and he produces RadioIslam, a daily talk show in Chicago. He chairs Burma Task Force USA, a coalition focused on ending the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority, and gives Friday sermons at mosques throughout the Chicago area, often promoting civic engagement from the pulpit.
He has been involved in interfaith work for decades, serving in the past as the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a 123-year-old Chicago-based group that brings together people from varying religious traditions across the globe.
He has also served as the Chairman of the Council of the Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, an umbrella group that brings together the city’s Muslim groups. Although he left that post in 2008, he remains connected to Chicago area’s estimated 400,000 Muslims. On the wall of his office is a blown-up map of the Chicago area, each mosque and Islamic center marked.
Still, he makes time for his family.
He gardens with his wife and “always, always” answers her phone calls. He pushes his children to be civically engaged. “You all need to be out doing calling parties at your home,” he tells them.
His political roots and quest for justice, he explained, go deep. They came from his father.