Karen Hinks had spent approximately a year training women of color to run for office in Orange County, California, when President Donald Trump was elected.
During her training sessions, she saw that Muslims were especially underrepresented in area politics. Now her organization is preparing to launch training sessions to provide the county's Muslims the tools to run for local political office.
“There are no Muslim women who have ever been elected to office [in Orange County],” Hinks told NBC News. “That then led us to approach the leadership of the mosques in Orange County to say, ‘We want to do a training with Muslim Americans — what do you think the interest is going to be?’ And they were all for the idea.”
Starting April 15, Hinks' organization, "WELead OC" and Rima Nashashibi, former vice chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, are scheduled to hold a five-week Muslim candidate training program to teach aspiring politicians — both women and men — about fundraising, field operations, social media, messaging, communications, and volunteer recruitment.
Only one Muslim presently holds elected office in Orange County — Al Jabbar, a board member of the Anaheim Unified School District — out of an estimated 500,000 Muslims living throughout Southern California, according to the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The goal, said Hinks, is to create a “pipeline” for Muslims to enter politics ahead of the 2018 and 2020 elections at a time when political engagement in the Orange County Muslim community is on the rise.
“The more Muslims we see in elected office, the more it boosts our community’s confidence, and it’s a great way to undermine those who are spreading hate and a racist agenda,” Rashad al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Orange County-based Arab American Civic Council, told NBC News.“We love our allies and our partners in other communities, but if Muslims want to prosper and be seen as equals, they have to step up and make a difference themselves.”
Jabbar, the school district board member and sole Muslim elected official in Orange County, said that Muslims have increasingly become interested in running for office in recent years, but that Trump’s victory was “an extra kick.”
“With Trump getting elected, I see that even more,” he said. “Because as a community—Latinos and Muslims—we’ve been put down by this president and we want to show that we are here, working in our communities.”
But al-Dabbagh said that Islamophobia remains a big hurdle.
“We witnessed sometimes Muslim campaigns get targeted just because of their religion or ethnicity, and that they get accused of the nastiest things,” he said. “Some people don’t feel comfortable running because of how viciously they can be attacked by their opponents. Not a lot of people are willing to go through it.”
Jabbar said that religion never came up during his 2014 campaign, but Farrah Khan, a community organizer and interfaith leader who ran for Irvine City Council last year, told NBC News that she was attacked by anti-Muslim rhetoric, which may have contributed to her loss.
“There were lawn signs, street signs, out saying that I was anti-Israel,” she said. “Coming from the interfaith community, that was really appalling.”
Khan, who went through one of WELead OC’s training programs for women last year, said that she was also the subject of a negative mailer that portrayed her as an extremist.
“In a city where we have 110,000 voters, and this mailer went out to everybody and you can’t counter it, a lot of people who don’t know me might believe it,” she said.
Hinks said the upcoming Muslim candidate training program will address the issue of Islamophobia by focusing heavily on field operations and how to engage with voters one-on-one, which she said is the best way to break down the fears and stereotypes.
But Muslim political advancement will also require the help of others, said Khan.
“What I don’t see happening is those who are already elected bringing Muslims into roles such as commissioner, or onto committees, so they can gain the experience so that they’re able to run when the time comes,” she said. “We start from scratch often times, and that needs to change.”
Al-Dabbagh noted that some of these changes are happening. Muslims in Orange County have also become more involved inside party leadership recently, he said, winning several delegate seats in the California Democratic Party in January.
While Khan said she expects to see several new Muslim candidates in the coming years, she knows that change requires patience.
“We have to tell people that you can’t expect to win the first time—you have to keep trying,” she said, noting that she plans to run again in 2018. “That’s what I intend to do.”