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Biden’s Engagement With Muslims Exposes Deep Divisions Among Indian Americans

Biden’s Engagement With Muslims Exposes Deep Divisions Among Indian Americans

  • While progressives hailed the move, those who identify themselves as Hindu Americans feel the former Vice President’s overture to Muslims will alienate Hindu votes.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, addressed the Muslim American community on July 20, aiming to galvanize their support for his candidacy. Biden addressed an estimated 3,000 attendees virtually, during Emage Action’s Million Muslim Votes Summit. Emgage Action is the political wing of Emgage USA, a Muslim outreach organization, which seeks to mobilize American Muslims to advocate for legislation and policies. 

Muslim Americans leaders, activist and elected officials are celebrating what they call a “historical” step by the presidential nominee to address a community that is hurting because of the policies of the Trump administration. “Today, at the Emgage Million Muslim Votes Summit, @JoeBiden made history,” the PAC tweeted. “In November, we will make history again and take back the White House.” 

Shekar Narasimhan, chairman of
AAPI Victory Fund.

Shekar Narasimhan, chairman of the AAPI Victory Fund, the first major Asian American Political Action Committee, believes that “it always helps when candidates, especially presidential ones, show up for minority communities. That motivates them to engage as they are reassured that they are part of his coalition … And for a community that came under attack early in the Trump administration (the Muslim ban), this is particularly significant.”

The Washington Post reports that Biden is the first Democratic nominee to address a Muslim group, “which has active chapters in the swing states of Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania.” 

Emgage had originally endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders, and lent their support to Biden only after Sanders ended his campaign three months ago. The group had also criticized Biden for not attending the Islamic Society of North America’s convention last year. Sanders and former HUD secretary Julián Castro, both then-Democratic presidential candidates, were there at the event.

Among Muslim Americans who are energized with Biden’s call to work in partnership with, and to include their voices in rebuilding the nation, is Sadaf Jaffer, the Mayor of Montgomery Township in New Jersey. “The Muslim outreach is just as important as any other community,” she said. “Biden has been doing outreach in all communities,” she said, “ensuring civil rights and social justice to all.” This gesture is particularly important for the community at the time when Trump has made it clear that “Muslims are not welcome in his vision of America,” she said. By addressing the community, Jaffer says that Biden has conveyed that “our votes matter to him, our issues matter to him, and that we are not a community to be kept at arms’ length.” 

Farooq Mitha, Biden campaign’s senior adviser on Muslim American engagement.

Farooq Mitha, Biden campaign’s senior adviser on Muslim American engagement, told various media outlets that “a Biden presidency offers Muslims an opportunity to be engaged with government, rather than being shut out like many other groups that have been alienated and demonized by the Trump administration.” 

Mitha joined Biden’s campaign this March after the Biden campaign faced backlash over the appointment of Amit Jani as the Asian American Pacific Islander outreach director, because of his family’s ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Jani is still serving as AAPI outreach director, and Mitha has been given charge of outreach to Muslims. An Emgage founding board member, Mitha has worked as the outreach director for Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

Like Muslim Americans, Indian Americans, who are heavily Democrat-leaning, are closely watching Biden’s relations with the Muslim community. While Hindu Americans believe that Biden’s move will further alienate them from the Democratic Party, those with progressive or secular outlook are supportive of Biden’s productive engagement with the Muslim American community. Others are hopeful that a Biden administration would provide a platform to all minorities to bring their issues to the table without preferential treatment to anyone. 

Inclusive and Progressive Voice 

Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, says her organization wants to bring a progressive and inclusive Hindu voice to Biden’s engagements with the Hindu American community. To that extent, Viswanath says she has “already communicated with campaign staffers that we wish to be a part of these engagements so that a progressive and inclusive Hindu voice is part of the discussion.”

“We will be very disappointed if Vice President Biden speaks out of both sides of his mouth arguing on the one side against Islamophobia in the United States while on the other side becoming silent about the severe oppression of Muslims and other minorities in India.”

Complimenting Vice President Biden’s productive engagement with the Muslim community, she says “his promise to reverse the Muslim ban on day one is very encouraging.” 

Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights.

Viswanath also says she is pleased with Vice President Biden’s Agenda for Muslim American Communities, which among other things, calls for “justice for the people of Kashmir, opposes India’s Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, and states clearly that ‘these measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy.”

She hopes that Vice President Biden “will center these same values of justice and democracy when he engages with the Hindu American community, which is largely supportive of the Hindu nationalist and Islamophobic BJP government in India.” 

She, however, added: “We will be very disappointed if Vice President Biden speaks out of both sides of his mouth arguing on the one side against Islamophobia in the United States while on the other side becoming silent about the severe oppression of Muslims and other minorities in India.”

Taking the Hindu Vote for Granted

On the other end of the spectrum, Ajay Shah, executive vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA) and convenor of HinduPACT (Hindu Policy Research and Advocacy Collective USA), an initiative of VHPA, is of the opinion that Biden is taking the Hindu vote for granted. “We do not have any problem with the Biden campaign engaging Muslims,” Shah told this writer. “The problem is that the Biden campaign is taking the Hindu vote for granted. They seem to relish the fact that in past elections, a vast majority of Hindus voted Democratic and that the Hindu vote is in the bag, and Hindu issues do not need to be addressed.” 

Shah noted that the Biden campaign has no webpage addressing Hindu issues, thereby ignoring Hindu Americans and their contributions, as well as the question of Hinduphobia. In fact, Biden’s webpage “addressing the Muslims is against India and Hindus in many ways,” he said.

Professor Dinesh Agrawal, former OFBJP president who teaches Materials and Materials Science and Engineering at Penn State University, believes that Biden’s presence at the Emgage Action summit “will antagonize the Indian Americans, with more and more consolidating behind Trump. So this move will galvanize the Hindu community in U.S. more than the Muslim community to come out and vote.” 

“The problem is that the Biden campaign is taking the Hindu vote for granted. They seem to relish the fact that in past elections, a vast majority of Hindus voted Democratic and that the Hindu vote is in the bag, and Hindu issues do not need to be addressed.”

A 2018 survey by Asian American and Pacific Islanders Data found that 50 percent of Indian Americans identify themselves as Democrats and just 18 percent as Republican. According to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) and the National Asian American Survey (NAAS), in 2016, Indian Americans voted between 77 percent and 84 percent for Hillary Clinton. AAPI data reveals that in 2016, 16 percent of Indian Americans voted for Trump. That year, about 1.2 million Indian American were registered to vote, according to AAPI Data. The number is expected to rise to 1.4 million in 2020. The same data reveals that Trump’s favorability among Hindu Americans is 35 percent, and 32 percent among Indian Americans.

Although it is believed that a majority of Indian Americans will still vote for the Democrats, experts feel that several factors including Trump’s friendship with Modi, his close business ties to India and his anti-Muslim rhetoric could play well with Hindu Americans who are aligned with the rightwing politics of Modi and his BJP.

See Also

Shah also raised objection to “bracketing of Hindus with Indians and then bracketing Indians with South Asians.” According to him, “This erasure of Hindu identity will pander to some voting block, but will not serve the larger interest of the vice president in the key battleground states.” 

Shah is referring to a comment from Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, who in a webinar on July 18, said “the Indian-American community could be ‘an absolute difference maker’ in battleground states in the presidential elections.”

Will Trump’s Anti-Muslim Rhetoric Work for Biden? 

Experts say Biden is using Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and his marginalization of the community to attract votes.  

“I do not have empirical data, but I would assume that after almost four years of marginalization and demonizing by Mr. Trump, the Muslim community would be eager to participate in this election to work with anyone opposed to Trump,” said Gaurang Vaishnav of of Global Indians for Bharat Vikas (GIBV).

However, Agarwal believes that Biden’s engagement with the Muslim American community at Emgage PAC “will not make much difference to his election victory or loss.” He explains: “The population of American Muslims is about 3.5 million, out of which there may be over a million voters and I am sure most of them if they come out to vote, will vote for Biden anyway because most Muslims do not like Trump.” 

A.D. Amar, president of Indian Americans for Trump.

Meanwhile, there are others who are skeptical of the Muslim American community’s engagement translating into votes. “While the number of Muslims in America, particularly from the African countries, has skyrocketed during the Obama presidency, a large number of them do not vote,” said A.D. Amar, president of Indian Americans for Trump, and management professor at Seton Hall University. (We are, however, unable to fact check his claim that the number of Muslims in America had skyrocketed during the Obama administration.) 

“Only about 61% Muslims voted in 2016, among the lowest participation rate of all major religions in the U.S.,” Amar said, and added, “It is not sure if Biden will be able to change this behavior.”

“America is a divided democracy where candidates gain voters by pulling themselves apart from their opponents by highlighting their differences from their opponents,” Amar said. While it may appear that Biden is doing it as a standard practice to pull the disgruntled Muslim voters away from Trump, the fact is that Biden and Muslim voters make a natural union — against Trump.” 

He believes that Muslims make up a substantial part of all those who did not want Trump elected in 2016 or now reelected in 2020. “This union is further strengthened knowing that Trump unabashedly declares his love for Indians, Hindus, and Prime Minister Modi.”

Bhargavi immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 and has worked with Indian American media since then in various capacities. She has a degree in English literature and French. Through an opportunity from Alliance Française de New York, Bhargavi taught French at Baruch college for over a year. After taking a break and two kids later, she went back to work in the Desi media. An adventure sport enthusiast, in her free time, she likes to cook, bake or go for hikes, biking and long walks.

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