The Nov. 8 midterms almost saw Dr. Mehmet Oz become the first Muslim U.S. Senator. The Republican TV doctor-turned-politician—who wasn’t exactly popular among a wide swathe of Muslim Americans—would have been a controversial first for the community. But Oz’s loss to Democrat John Fetterman in Pennsylvania masks what was otherwise a record-breaking election for the community of at least 3.45 million people.
Muslim Americans won at least 83 seats across local, state, and federal midterm elections as of Thursday morning, according to an analysis by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights and advocacy group, and Jetpac, a nonprofit focused on increasing Muslim political representation in the U.S. Almost 150 Muslim Americans had run this year for office, including 51 state legislative candidates across 23 states.
This year’s wins surpass the prior record of 71 that CAIR and Jetpac counted in 2020; they have been tracking this data for the last six years.
Beyond these topline figures, several Muslims became the first representatives of their communities to enter statehouses. Illinois had its first Muslim Americans elected to the general assembly: 23-year-old Nabeela Syed and 33-year-old Abdelnasser Rashid both won seats in the state house. Salman Bhojani and Suleman Lalani became the first Muslims elected to the Texas legislature. In Georgia, Palestinian American Ruwa Romman became the first Muslim woman elected to the State House. In total, Georgia elected four Muslim Americans to office.
Read More: These 2022 Candidates Made History
Nabilah Islam, a Bangladeshi Muslim American, had run for (and lost) the competitive Georgia U.S. House seat back in 2020. But in this week’s midterms, she became the first Muslim woman and first South Asian woman to be elected to Georgia’s Senate. “I decided not to give up,” Islam says. “I still wanted to make a difference in my community in the state levels; there’s many things we needed to work on, including access to Medicaid and protecting abortion rights.”
The victories for Muslim Americans like Islam help lay out a roadmap to greater federal representation.
“Today’s state legislator is tomorrow’s member of Congress,” says Mohammed Missouri, executive director of Jetpac. “It’s definitely a pipeline.” He points out that Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Keith Ellison all served in their state legislatures before scoring a congressional seat. “They didn’t come out of nowhere… they spent years building community trust… and then when they decided to run for Congress people knew who they were.”
Today, Most Muslims skew heavily Democrat—particularly since many Republicans have supported policies that harm the Muslim community, including sweeping surveillance programs and religious profiling. All four of the Democrats elected to Congress to date have been Democrat, even as some Muslims have also felt mistrust toward the party.
That political leaning is reflected in the Muslims who ran for office this year. Many state legislators that won in the midterms identify as progressive Democrats, Missouri says.
And these state legislators can have a massive impact on local communities. “We actually get to shape the budget—billions of dollars for our state—and make it better for our community,” says 25-year-old Zaynab Mohamed, who made history on Tuesday after being elected to Minnesota’s Senate. The Somali American was one of three Black women elected to Minnesota’s state Senate for the first time as well as the youngest woman and Muslim woman.
“I just often think about the fact people are like: ‘Hey, wait your turn’ or ‘you’re too young, you’re too black, you’re a visible Muslim who is wearing a hijab. You’re really going to walk down those halls, these people will never understand.’ I’m like, no, they won’t, but they sure will when I get there,” Mohamed says.
Robert McCaw, government affairs director at CAIR, points out that the Muslim American community is among the country’s most diverse religious communities. “Muslims are rarely just Muslim. They’re also Arab, African American, South Asian, or another ethnicity with their own unique experiences to add to the policymaking process.”
Jetpac’s Missouri notes that some Americans have a misguided notion that Muslim candidates only care about foreign policy. “It’s part of the trope that we’re this other, we’re not American,” he says. Missouri adds that Muslims “care deeply about specific issues” for the community but also “from the perspective of justice for all people.”
That focus on local issues has been key for Muslim candidates to capturing the trust of their districts in this election. But that’s not to say many are ignoring issues that affect Muslims specifically.
Romman, the Palestinian American Muslim who was elected to Georgia’s state house, says that while she is interested in equitable health care and school funding, she is also looking to advocate on issues specifically affecting the Muslim community. “We don’t want thinly veiled anti-Muslim laws known as anti-Sharia laws; going after the Muslim community for enhanced surveillance is unacceptable; working with anti-Muslim think tanks that have been fueled by dark money is unacceptable,” Romman says.
“To be able to say that not just as an advocate, but now as a member of the Georgia General Assembly, is going to be powerful and it tells… people like me that you have a space here and that this electoral process will and can include you,” Romman adds.
Correction, Nov 11
The original version of this story misstated which Congressional seat Nabilah Islam ran for in 2020. She ran for a U.S. House seat, not a Senate seat.
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