Notes from an American Muslim in Florida's Republican Panhandle

Notes from Florida: An American Muslim in the Republican Panhandle
7 min read
31 Oct, 2020
Comment: In the swing state of Florida, where Trump courts communities he seemingly holds in contempt, every single vote will count, writes Hiba Rahim.
In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 67 hate groups in Florida [Getty]
In 2013, after a 10-year estrangement from my hometown in the Florida Panhandle, I returned to the "Redneck Riviera," a gerrymandered crimson part of the state littered with giant Trump-Pence signs, Confederate flags, and most recently, "The Trump Store."

Here, political leaning is easy to decipher, and bigotry is rampant, despite an awkward fusion of racism and southern hospitality. There's a lot that can be done to get out the vote on an individual level, but the division of districts has historically been deliberately manipulated to secure an overall victory for Team Red.

For years, activists including myself have focused our efforts on social activism and voter empowerment. We know it's not going to turn the Panhandle blue, but across the state, every single vote counts and can swing the pendulum one way or the other.

"Remember, in 2000, Bush won Florida by only 537 votes," I tell people. When addressing members of my Muslim community, I remind them that we have many mosques across Florida whose single congregation size exceeds that number. Most people respond that they plan to vote.

In fact, as of March 2020, 81 percent of nationally registered Muslim voters planned to participate in the election, and my goal through work and non-partisan activism is to make sure our Florida numbers more closely match the 92 percent of evangelicals who plan to vote.

There is always a fringe group of Muslims and members of other minority groups who vote against their community's accepted or official voting bloc. Those who benefit from Republican tax breaks; who vote nationally based on what is best for their home country abroad; those who don't understand or don't care about America's history of systemic racism and the vicious cycle of injustices it creates, and even those who are willing to overlook xenophobia in order to carry the conservative label, to name a few. 

Every single vote counts and can swing the pendulum one way or the other

Except now, for those same reasons and a few more, a small but growing number of Muslims I speak to tacitly support Trump. In fact, the latest research indicates that among Muslims, approval of Trump's job performance rose from 13 percent in 2018 to 30 percent in 2020. It's worth noting, though, that approval rating does not necessarily signify intention to vote for a candidate. 

So are more Muslims joining the Trump camp? And is this a Panhandle phenomenon? In Florida, they say the further south you go, the more 'northern' - or open-minded and diverse - the people are. In fact, the Florida Panhandle is often referred to as L.A. - Lower Alabama. So I made my way down the peninsula to Tampa, Florida, looking for some clarity.

As I took the first exit into this more metropolitan, diverse city, I saw that I was driving toward an election site. From a distance, I thought how refreshing it would be to find a variety of candidates' signs swaying in the light breeze. But as I approached, I was back in the Panhandle for a moment as I passed the first domino line-up of about 20 Trump-Pence signs, followed by a row of signs I had never seen before:

"Latinos for Trump" and "Blacks for Trump", they proclaimed.

I scanned quickly for the word "Muslims" and was pleased not to find any. But what about the other minority groups? Trump rallies are sprinkled with Black and brown bodies, but in my work within the Black community in Northwest Florida, I had yet to meet someone voting for Trump. 

Who are these people? "It's propaganda," says Maury, an African-American realtor in the area. "There's not a Black person I know voting for Trump. Who wouldn't put a sign on their lawn if someone gave them some incentive?" 

Read more: In Michigan, some Bernie-supporting Arab Americans are bypassing Biden for Trump. Here's why

Johnathan, a Puerto-Rican resident of Tampa who works for a moving company, generally agrees. But he says that out of his large family, he has one second-cousin who is voting for Trump, much to the dismay of the family. "There are some," they concur, "but not the way the signs would make you think. They're just trying to get people on their way in to vote."

Yes, people are entitled to vote freely. After all, that is a fundamental right we should all fight to defend. But I find it appalling to see members of minority groups who have so often been targeted by hate speech directly from the president, overlook his Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist rhetoric, for some false illusion of something good, or even some degree of tangible benefit.

"Islam hates us", "A total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the US, "Laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that", "They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," on Mexicans coming to the US.

Still, this man has attracted the support of a minority of minorities - one too many. Perhaps they are sycophants who want to be accepted, or maybe some who vote for personal interest over community empowerment, or buy into regurgitated statistics from politicians and pundits that reflect a deceptive reality. Yes, Florida's gross state product grew 3.4 percent over the five years to 2019, but that is a smaller margin of growth than we saw in Florida under the previous administration.  

Even more deplorable, are the blatant efforts at voter suppression enacted against these very communities. In its most long-term form (starting in the late 1800s), we see this in the unyielding efforts to overturn Amendment 4, the Voter Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, a constitutional amendment proposed through the rigorous Citizens Initiative process and passed by an overwhelming 64 percent of the votes in 2018.

There has not been a president in recent history who has been so divisive and so offensive

This law returned the right to vote to 1.4 million Floridians, who were quickly thrown into the swamps of Florida politics as court appeals and rulings once again placed stringent restrictions that disproportionately disenfranchise Black communities.

At voting sites in the Panhandle, community allies are complaining of having their signs removed overnight and replaced with Trump-Pence signs. In Tampa, voter intimidation has surfaced in the form of armed men at an early voting site. They claimed to be a part of a private security company hired by the Trump campaign and refused to leave when a deputy approached them. The security company claimed no knowledge of the individuals, and the Republican Party denied having hired them.  

There has not been a president in recent history who has been so divisive and so offensive, who has caused an uptick in hate crimes and an emboldening of hate groups. In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked 67 hate groups in Florida. That's the second highest number of registered groups in the US, after California.

In addition to the Proud Boys, many are standing back, standing by, waiting for some moment to spark the looming threat of civil unrest. And if we end up with another four years of an ignoramus as president - a man who has made this great democracy the laughing stock of the world and has already endangered the lives of many members of these minority communities - you can expect the worst.

And at that point, Blacks for Trump, Latinos for Trump, and yes, even Muslims for Trump, when a bigoted, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Black Trump supporter feels emboldened to espouse that hate toward you, remember to tell them who you voted for. And see if that makes a difference.

Hiba Rahim is an American Muslim activist and community organiser. She is a graduate of Florida State University's International Affairs Masters program and currently works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations - Florida. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of CAIR-Florida, its leadership, or staff.

Follow her on Twitter: @rahim_hiba

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.