U.S. Senate race is Milwaukee Muslims’ hope for another Washington ally

Milwaukee Wisconsin Mosque
An imam makes an announcement after evening prayers at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee in Milwaukee, Wis., on Oct. 21, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)

By Maryam Saleh

Milwaukee area Muslims’ support for Hillary Clinton is “unenthusiastic” and “reluctant,” largely stirred by Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, say community members and leaders.

But there is one candidate they emphatically stand behind: Democrat Russ Feingold.

“Feingold is a wonderful person, and Muslims owe to him for voting against the Patriot Act,” said Mohammad Fareed, a 61-year-old Muslim physician who worships at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, which operates three mosques in the Milwaukee, Wis., area.

Overall, Muslim voters are expected to turn out overwhelmingly for the Democrats.

Feingold, a former three-term U.S. Senator, is running against Republican incumbent Ron Johnson for Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate seat.

Most polls show Feingold with a consistent advantage over Johnson, and Muslims said the Democrat’s voting record and history of standing by the Muslim community make him the obvious choice.

Community leaders added that the estimated 15,000 Muslims in southeast Wisconsin are expected to repeat the Democratic preference they showed in the 2012 presidential election.

Milwaukee Muslims’ voting behavior is not an aberration. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that seven in 10 Muslims in America either are self-described Democrats or say they lean Democratic.

“I think the Democratic Party, or a number of the candidates, are definitely concerned about the Muslims, and are concerned about the attacks against Muslims, and the attempts to malign Muslims or disenfranchise them,” said Othman Atta, ISM operations manager, adding that Feingold is someone who has taken “very positive positions toward Muslims.”

Feingold, who was unseated by Johnson in 2010, was the only member of the U.S. Senate to vote against the U.S. Patriot Act, anti-terrorism legislation passed just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The controversial law singled out Muslim and Arab communities for enhanced surveillance, according to civil rights advocates.

As a U.S. Senator, Feingold called on then President George W. Bush not to use the term “Islamic fascists,” saying it was offensive to Muslims, and he has been outspoken against Islamophobia in recent years.

While Johnson has split from Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, he recently renewed his support for his party’s White House nominee during the senatorial candidates’ Oct. 14 debate.

He called for “positive engagement with Muslim communities” in a June interview with Green Bay talk radio host Jerry Bader, but he has made no attempt to engage Muslim voters, several community leaders said. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Feingold, in contrast, has strived to build bridges with the Muslim community.

Najeeb, who has been involved with the Democratic Party for years, said she agreed to host a fundraiser for Feingold after he met with about 20 community leaders early this year and answered questions on a number of issues, including Islamophobia, American foreign policy, and Guantanamo Bay.

The community’s policy priorities include civil rights, immigrants’ rights, affordable healthcare and decreased American military involvement in the Middle East, she said. Although Milwaukee Muslims don’t agree with Feingold on every issue, Najeeb said they feel that his positions largely align with their own.

“We can’t have a president or a senator that’s really going to embody all of the ideals of the Muslim community,” she added. “That’s not going to happen, because that’s not who these individuals are.”

Feingold visited the Islamic Society of Milwaukee several times during his 2010 campaign against Johnson, and he spoke at an interfaith event at ISM’s facility in Brookfield this summer, Milwaukee Muslims said.

Brookfield Wisconsin Mosque
About 500 Muslims attend Friday services at ISM’s Brookfield, Wis., mosque, which was opened two years ago. Imam Noman Hussain often speaks about civic engagement from the pulpit. Oct. 21, 2016 (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)

“The values and the things he stood up for in the past are the things the Muslim community stands for,” said Imam Noman Hussain, who leads the congregation at the Brookfield mosque, adding that Feingold spoke out against Islamophobia during his recent mosque visit.

Political pundits predict that Johnson’s Senate seat is one of the seats most likely to flip to the Democrats in the election. Democrats need to flip four or five seats to regain a Senate majority, which they lost in 2014. A Senate held by Democrats has broad implications, including the ability to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy. (Senate Republicans have refused to consider President Obama’s nominee to the high court.)

Despite their ardent support for Feingold, Milwaukee-area Muslims are not much concerned with the greater significance of his victory, leaders said.

“I think there’s still not a lot of sophistication about the process and the long-term effects of some of these types of things,” in Milwaukee’s “young” Muslim community, Najeeb said, adding that she and others deeply involved in the electoral process are cognizant of the importance of a Democratically held Senate.

“What we need to focus on is educating our communities so that our upcoming generation – those who were born here and raised here – are more knowledgeable about politics, that they continue to be involved in politics, so that we can really have that block of people that are engaged and see the big picture,” she added.

Photo at top: An imam makes an announcement after evening prayers at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee in Milwaukee, Wis., on Oct. 21, 2016. (Maryam Saleh/MEDILL)