Can the Subaltern Vote?

In 2016, the Democratic Party started seeing Muslims as voters, but that’s not necessarily a favor

In November 2016, my Bengali-American-Muslim family traveled from Atlanta, Georgia to Fort Pierce, Florida to help me canvass neighborhoods for Hillary Clinton, joining a massive turnout operation scheduled for the four days leading up to the presidential election. I was an organizer with Clinton’s team in St. Lucie, a swing county that delivered victories for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Everyone assumed history would repeat itself in 2016, no matter that the candidate was now the moneyed matriarch of an entrenched and widely detested political dynasty. On election night at the St. Lucie results party, my mother, father, grandmother, and I silently watched the CNN map redden on screen. Many more experienced campaigners were engaged in various types of breakdowns around us, but my family seemed almost resigned to the loss: heartbroken that our worst suspicions about this country were proven true, but not exactly flabbergasted.

We live in Marietta, Georgia, squarely in the state’s sixth congressional district. A special election for our former representative and now Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives just ended. Following their first experience on an American campaign trail of any sort in Florida, my mother and father became heavily involved with the Democrat Jon Ossoff’s campaign to liberate our district from Republican control. During the special election, the Bengali parties I grew up attending acquired fundraising angles or featured guests from local political organizing committees. The change was stark, as the upper-middle-class South Asian immigrant milieu I lived in throughout my childhood had always been removed from, rather than entwined with, the community that surrounded us. The full extent of political action for most of the Bengalis in the area was voting and putting up a sign in their front yards. For families that were often the sole Muslims or brown people on the block, that was already enough to court trouble.

The population of Asian Americans in Georgia’s 6th district has ballooned over the past two decades. What was once an over 90 percent white district is now down to 72.4 percent, in large part due to the migration of white-collar Asian American professionals to Metro-Atlanta suburbs. Cobb County, where my family lives, is the last of the major metro-Atlanta counties to retain a majority white population, but it is projected to become “majority-minority” in a matter of years, experiencing along the way what the New York Times called “an identity crisis.” The changing demographics of Cobb County were largely responsible for Clinton’s unprecedentedly large victory there in 2016. That win showed that attracting Asian Americans to the Democratic Party was a workable strategy with which to campaign in Republican strongholds, places in which Democratic votes had not functionally mattered in decades. Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was the first time I saw the Democrats promote the allegiance of its Asian Muslim American members; then came the countless “Muslims for Hillary” signs, and then Ossoff, the golden boy who made himself available to the Asian American community in the 6th, electioneering at mosques and dawaths alike.

But when Democrats decide to include and “empower” a group, the effects tend to be asymmetric. A strategic foray into identity politics at the national level can have serious consequences. In Fort Pierce, FL, the local mosque—the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce—became a site of national significance throughout the 2016 campaign. Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and his family were members of the mosque, which of course (of course) loudly condemned Mateen’s attack. Clinton visited the town for a rally in August 2016, and scandal arose when footage of the rally showed Omar Mateen’s father Seddique Mir Mateen standing and cheering behind her. Journalists speculated as to whether the campaign had made a point to invite Mateen’s father to the rally, probably because he happened to be standing at an angle behind Clinton that made him impossible to ignore. When asked how he came to be there, Mateen answered, “It’s a democratic party, you don’t have to be invited, you can just go.”

Mateen presumed politics was an open conversation in which he could enter and retreat as he pleased, because most of his neighbors did just that. Instead, journalists and politicos expected him to behave as a lesser person—either explicitly invited or respectfully absent—because of his religion and family ties, which they have turned into problems. Following Mateen’s unwitting disruption, the campaign urged its members and volunteers working in the area to minimize official contact and coordination with the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, even though the mosque had been extremely active in coordinating voter registration drives in the months leading up to the election. In the early weeks of September, two arsonists on motorcycles set fire to the mosque in the dead of night. Though this did not explicitly result from the campaign’s decisions, the mosque had become increasingly referenced in the media in relation to mounting election-related tension, which could only have underscored what is usually the reason Muslims are targeted: our mere existence.

Whether political parties and social movements choose to build up immigrants and Muslims or sweep them under the rug is a matter of life and death. A strategic choice or posture for them can be a sentence for us. There is a spectrum of tropes available to Asian American and Muslim immigrants who want to participate in American electoral politics if we’re willing to adopt them, but all are hazardous. There are photo-op immigrants, like Khizr and Ghazala Khan, like women in hijab with kind faces that various candidates feature on their Facebook pages or Snapchat stories. These people are introduced on the pretext of their acceptability, though maintaining that acceptability ultimately falls on the shoulders of the immigrants themselves, with no guarantee of support or advocacy from those who drew them out into the public eye. Photo bomb immigrants on the other hand, like Seddique Mir Mateen, are not invited—implicitly if not expressly. They are embarrassments and complications; Their existence is inconvenient for everyone else involved.

No one is more aware of this complicated dynamic than immigrants. Hidden cautions flow through the various poses Asian Americans and Muslim Americans strike in public, from television appearances to hashtag campaigns to less tangible representational campaigns. For every article that quotes a Muslim American expressing their fear that the Khan family was “in for it” after Khizr’s DNC speech, there is a living-room conversation about whether Khan was engaging a bit too frequently with media, whether he himself was beginning to step over from sincerity to spectacle, and whether their prominence would really help any Muslim who wasn’t a hyper-ethnicized poster child for patriotism. The debate about how to present ourselves—what to accept from self-purported allies and what to reject—is omnipresent, at times deafening, and often paralyzing.

“Strategic essentialism” is a concept pioneered by Gayatri Spivak, in which she describes how minorities band together on the basis of shared cultural tenets, lived experiences, and convergent politics in order to represent themselves in a majoritarian society. In a sense, they must commandeer their own reduction. It is a roadmap to living as a constructed other in a hostile world order, a reality my parents’ generation of immigrants from Bangladesh know all too well. The 1971 Bangladesh Independence War took place in the midst of the Cold War, in which the United States unequivocally supported Pakistan as a foil to the USSR’s foothold in India. That binary blinded most of the Western world to the atrocious negligence and abuse served by the government seated in West Pakistan to its subjects in East Pakistan. Despite the fact that Bengal encompassed Muslim and Hindu populations, territories belonging to Pakistan and India, and deep class inequality, a campaign to liberate East Pakistan came together around one central tenet: the right to speak the language of Bangla as opposed to Urdu. Thus, in a world system that assumes the legitimacy of all national borders, Bangladesh (meaning “the land of Bangla”) built itself into existence.

In the US, immigrants find themselves faced with yet another blinding binary: the Republican Party versus the Democratic Party. But as a result of the past two years, we have a newly active and mobilized cohort of immigrant voters, and they have local political infrastructure in ways they previously did not. Old barriers to entry are falling, and now more immigrants know when and where planning meetings, rallies, and various board elections for committees and parties are taking place. Whether they choose to engage or not from this point on is up to them, but that choice matters.

With increased access comes new windows into the stages of building a shared political platform. And if anyone knows how to recognize points of ignition and pressure in people, in a movement, it is the American immigrant community. No one has a richer context for understanding the consequences of scapegoating a people, of governments occluding the reality of their operations from their citizens—and thus, no one has better arguments against them. America needs immigrants, especially now.

If Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and all other immigrants were to “essentialize” our platform and coalesce around some priorities—like preventing the passing of Islamophobic legislation, cracking down on discriminatory law enforcement, campaigning against destructive and wasteful American intervention abroad, and advocating for social welfare policies—our political benefactors would feel less free to put words in our mouths or pluck them from our lips when our silence suits them better. And if we achieve this, the onus would then be on us to guard against the exploitation of our apparent “unification.”

In 2008, political scientist Ron Daniels formed the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission to help black leaders hold the newly elected President Obama accountable to his black constituents. Though groups like this can vary in effectiveness, they spur the creation and maintenance of a formalized and active community infrastructure. It could be at least an initial public step towards showing Democrats, Republicans, and whomever else that we are watching them. More importantly, next comes convincing the political establishment that there will be consequences for failing to live up to what they promise our community. To “hit them where it hurts” would be to withhold our votes and financial contributions—and we need to become brave enough to pose that threat. By asking Asian and Muslim Americans to show up—even for a moment, even if they thought better of it later—Democrats have given us leverage. Now if the parties won’t listen when we talk, even our silence will speak.