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American Muslims Respond To Islamophobia By Running For Office

The Southern Poverty Law Center says there has been a rise in hate groups, including groups using anti-Muslim rhetoric. Some American Muslims are pushing back by running for office.

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The number of hate groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center has tripled over the past year. A new report says that number rose from 30 in 2015 to more than a hundred last year. Around half of those are local chapters of ACT for America. This is a group that uses anti-Muslim rhetoric. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team says some Muslims are pushing back by running for office.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: Nadeem Mazen is a city council member in Cambridge, Mass. And the thing local news stations like to point out more than anything else he's done is he's Muslim.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: He is the first elected Muslim in Massachusetts.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And also the only Muslim to hold elected office in Massachusetts...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: And is one of two Muslim elected officials in the state...

CHOW: Throughout Mazen's campaign in 2013, his religion became a target. His opponents pelted him with attacks.

NADEEM MAZEN: For me, they said - why are you associated with Hamas? For others, they said, why are you associated with Muslim Students Association? Muslim Students Association's like Hillel.

CHOW: Now Mazen is trying to help other Muslims get elected with a nonprofit he started called Jetpac. It teaches potential candidates how to respond to vitriol directed at them.

MAZEN: We're coming out and we're saying that's patently ridiculous. This is my track record. This is what I believe. For you to insinuate that somehow because I'm Muslim, I'm these other things, goes against what any first-generation or immigrant has faced in America.

CHOW: There's been a spike in interest from Muslims who want to get more politically involved, says Robert McCaw. He's the government affairs director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

ROBERT MCCAW: I think it's definitely a response to Islamophobia. Muslims didn't ask to be dragged into the spotlight. But now that we're there and we need to push back, getting into elected office is one of the best means.

CHOW: Right now, there are only two Muslims serving in Congress. Sayu Bhojwani is executive director of the New American Leaders Project, which helps immigrants who are already politically involved take the next steps to run for office.

SAYU BHOJWANI: I think it's really important that we are affirming for people of all backgrounds that elected office is a place where someone like them who has our skin color, our names, can be in a leadership position.

FARRAH KHAN: You want the traditional way of pronouncing it? It's Farrah Khan.

CHOW: Farrah Khan is Pakistani-American and Muslim. She runs a business in Irvine, Calif., and an interfaith group there. She was working on a local campaign for someone else when she signed up with the New American Leaders Project, thought - maybe I could run - and went to her local party members.

KHAN: I said, hey - you know what? - next year, I'm thinking of running. And they're like oh, no, no, maybe not right now. You know, we're still deciding on what to do for the next two years. And I was like no, no, I'm telling you. I'm running. (Laughter) And they were just like - oh, OK (laughter).

CHOW: Last fall, Khan ran as a Democrat for city council. Throughout her campaign, she says she heard all kinds of Islamophobic attacks - mailers from a local housing PAC that called her an extreme Muslim, a candidate in her own party made lawn signs accusing her of being anti-Israel.

KHAN: It was kind of like a self-check for me to see that - you know what? - sometimes, what's happening at the national level can be used against you by your own party members.

CHOW: Khan lost that race but not her sense of humor. She is planning on running again for a city council seat next year.

KHAN: I'm just as good as the people that are in office right now. I want people to see that there is another side to this whole Muslim narrative that's being, you know, kind of spun out of control right now.

CHOW: Taking office is her way of writing her own narrative.

Kat Chow, NPR News.

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