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Muslim American votes may carry outsize weight in US election

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Fatima Salman, 43, a social worker and a Muslim American from Detroit, Michigan says she is “definitely” voting for Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee challenging the re-election of United States President Donald Trump.

“I have three children and I worry about their future if Trump gets re-elected,” Salman says. “It’s a matter of our own existence and the future of this country as a whole.”

With early voting already well under way nationwide, there is evidence that in this election, Salman’s vote and that of other Muslim Americans, are well placed to be a significant factor in deciding the winner of the November 3 United States presidential election.

There are an estimated 3.45 million Muslims in the US – only about one percent of the country’s total population – but their concentrations in key swing and battleground states, such as Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, could make their vote especially impactful.

Women putting on “I Voted” stickers after casting their ballots for the state’s primary inside of a polling station in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, US [File: Lucas Jackson/Reuters]

The stakes are particularly high in Michigan, a state with 270,000 registered Muslim voters, says Mohamed Gula, organising director of Emgage, a Muslim American advocacy group. Hillary Clinton, in 2016, lost the state to Trump by less than one percentage point – a little over 10,000 votes.

“When it comes down to the value of the Muslim vote, we could easily swing the election,” Gula says.

Top issues for Muslim Americans, Gula says, include healthcare, education and criminal justice reform.

“Obviously, we will hear foreign policy issues being centred,” Gula says, “but a lot of the issues that we hear today, in regards to what has really impacted the Muslim community are some of the same issues that average Americans also are impacted by.”

‘Strategy to win’

Shortly after taking office in 2017, Trump, a Republican, issued an executive order banning nationals from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US – fulfilling a campaign promise and sending shockwaves across Muslim communities in the US and abroad.

In the face of sustained legal challenges, the policy went through several iterations, but the Supreme Court upheld the third version, affecting the lives of thousands of Americans who were prevented from being joined by relatives, partners and friends.

Trump further alienated Muslims in a series of disparaging comments and tweets blasting “Radical Islamic terrorism” and calling countries on the Muslim ban list “dangerous”. More recently, Trump did not denounce white supremacist groups and instead told one right-wing group, the Proud Boys, who are active throughout Michigan: “Stand back and stand by.”

Pollsters say back in the 1990s, Muslim voters were split almost evenly in their support for Republicans and Democrats. But that gap began to widen post-9/11, and following the administration of George W Bush, when the Republican party was perceived as more hostile to Islam.

Protesters gather outside the White House for a ‘No Muslim Ban Ever’ rally against what they say are discriminatory policies that unlawfully target American Muslim and immigrant communities, in Washington, US [File: Yuri Gripas/Reuters]

Now, there are signs the Biden campaign is looking to capitalise on this sentiment.

“The Muslim vote is part of our strategy to win,” says Farooq Mitha, the Biden campaign’s senior adviser for Muslim American engagement, adding that Biden has put out an agenda for Muslim American communities promising to rescind the Muslim travel ban on “day one” of his administration and tackle hate crimes committed against them.

“Over the last seven months, we have done well over 150 events across Muslim communities and we understand that Muslims can play a pivotal role in battleground states – the traditional ones that we know of, like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin – but now we see even states like Georgia, Texas, Ohio, that could be in play,” Mitha says.

Courtney Parella, Deputy National Secretary for the Trump campaign, said the president intends on ensuring religious liberties, economic prosperity and educational opportunities for Muslims in America, and internationally, and has fostered peace by brokering a deal bringing the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain into normalised diplomatic relations with Israel.

“President Trump understands that faith is part of what unites us as a nation, and he continues to staunchly defend religious freedoms for all Americans,” Parella said in a written statement to Al Jazeera.

“This President has a strong record of success for Muslim Americans and has done what others before him couldn’t – he brought peace between the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim peoples of the Middle East.”

‘Not a monolith’

Nationally and in Michigan, Biden is leading Trump in most polls. Polling also shows that the overwhelming majority of Muslim voters support the Democratic party. According to a recent survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organisation, 71 percent of Muslims say they will vote for Biden.

Joe Biden speaking during a campaign rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit [AP Photo/Paul Sancya]

But “the Muslim community is not a monolith,” says Mahmoud Al-Hadidi, a physician and chairman of the Michigan Muslim Community Council.

Muslim Americans are a diverse group comprised of waves of immigrants coming from the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia, some, dating back to the early 1930s. And about a fifth of Muslim Americans are native-born Black Americans.

According to the CAIR survey, 18 percent of Muslims said they support Donald Trump, and another 11 percent were either undecided or preferred not to answer.

Al-Hadidi explains that despite significant concerns over rising animosity towards Muslims under the Trump administration and the passage of the travel ban which was “very devastating” and “really degrading” for the Muslim community, there is also a growing sense of disenchantment towards the Democratic party.

Although Muslim Americans, especially the younger generation, have largely supported the protests that erupted this summer over racial inequality and police violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd – the older generation, many of whom fled wars and instability in their home countries, were very concerned by the violence they witnessed in the streets.

“Safety, peace, and avoiding chaos in the cities, is very important to a lot of people, especially business owners,” al-Hadidi told Al Jazeera, adding that many Muslim business owners felt that Biden did not do enough to condemn vandalism against private businesses – unlike Trump who has promised to crack down on violent protesters.

Hundreds of people take part in a peace march across the MacArthur Bridge in Detroit, Michigan on June 5, 2020 to rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd [File: Rebecca Cook/Reuters]

Detroit, a city with one of the largest concentrations of Black Americans, became a focus of nightly protests. Although most were peaceful, some saw intense clashes with police and vandalism of downtown Detroit businesses.

As a result, a sizeable proportion of Muslims are “quietly” supportive of Trump, al-Hadidi says, but are afraid to speak up out of fear “of being attacked, called traitors or having their property vandalised”.

Voting Trump out

Nada al-Hanooti, Executive Director of Emgage’s Michigan chapter says Muslims’ disenchantment with the Democratic Party sunk in after Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist the community had rallied around, dropped out of the race in early April. The Vermont senator saw his initial strong lead evaporate after the party’s establishment lined up behind Biden.

“It is going to take a long time to persuade our communities to vote for Biden,” al-Hanooti said. “They’re not going to just jump on the bandwagon of the democratic nominee.”

But for many Muslims, like their average American counterparts, who have been dismayed by Trump’s handling of foreign relations, racial justice protests and the coronavirus pandemic, voting Trump out of office may be a motivation in and of itself.

Michigan Democratic US Representative Rashida Tlaib, who is also Muslim, addresses a rally protesting against racial inequality in Detroit, Michigan, following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd [File: Rebecca Cook/Reuters]

“A lot of people will reluctantly vote for Biden, but it’s definitely a vote to get Trump out, and not necessarily to get Biden in,” al-Hanooti says.

Nationally, in a recent Pew Research Center survey, 63 percent of Biden supporters said their vote is more a vote against Trump and not necessarily a vote for Biden.

Lama Samman Nasry, a resident of Franklin, a Detroit suburb, and a mother of four children, said she is one of those reluctant voters, and is unsure if she will cast her vote at all this election.

She said Sanders was her first choice, but also believes that another four years of Trump will be devastating for the country.

“We don’t feel as safe, racism is rising and Trump is fuelling the racists, telling them to stand by, this is scary for us,” Samman Nasry said, adding that her husband and daughters are all voting for Biden, and have been urging her to do the same.

“I am not encouraged to vote for Biden, but I might change my mind and say you know what, let’s give it a try and see what he does, give him a chance.”

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Facebook’s independent oversight board is finally up and running

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Facebook’s much-anticipated independent decision-making body, the Facebook oversight board, announced it will start allowing people to submit cases for review beginning today.

That means that if you post something on Facebook or Instagram and it’s taken down for violating any of Facebook’s ever-changing rules on things like hate speech, nudity, misinformation, or violence — you will soon have the ability to appeal that decision to someone besides Facebook. For now, that option will roll out in waves, and in the next few weeks, Facebook says it’ll be an option for all users.

Social media experts have long awaited the Board’s launch because it’s expected to serve as the final decision-maker in how Facebook handles complicated and problematic posts, which have plagued the social media company. Look, for example, at how it managed the unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden or any of the countless times Facebook has been accused of letting racist hate speech run rampant on its platform. The Board said it will prioritize cases that threaten to harm freedom of expression or human rights, but declined to comment on specific cases it plans to take.

Facebook’s oversight board is made up of a group of 20 academics, journalists, and international policy experts from around the world, and is set up as a separate company from Facebook, funded by a $130 million independent trust. Its decisions on individual pieces of content are binding, meaning Facebook has agreed to follow whatever decisions the Board makes, and the group can also make broader policy recommendations to Facebook — although those won’t be binding. That means the board has the power to overrule even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has a history of taking stubborn stances in the name of protecting free expression. Zuckerberg allowed President Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” post in response to Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis, and, until recently, allowed Holocaust denialism on Facebook — even when some of his own employees, civil rights leaders, and others have raised serious concerns.

“The Board is eager to get to work,” said Catalina Botero Marino, co-chair of the oversight board, in a press statement on Thursday. “We won’t be able to hear every appeal, but want our decisions to have the widest possible value, and will be prioritizing cases that have the potential to impact many users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse, and raise questions about Facebook’s policies.”

At a time when Facebook is being criticized by US politicians on both sides of the aisle for how it handles contentious speech on its platform, the Board is meant as an outside check on Facebook’s power. Some, though, have criticized the Board, saying it was too slow in getting started (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first publicly described the idea two years ago) and too narrow in scope to meaningfully change how Facebook handles hate speech and misinformation. For example, for now, users will only be able to appeal cases where they feel their content is wrongfully taken down, not cases in which they think inflammatory content is wrongfully staying up on the platform (the Board says that latter option will come in the next few months).

“Facebook was always criticized for moving fast and breaking things. I think we are looking at this as the opposite that,” said oversight board co-chair and former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt on a press call with reporters on Thursday.

Critics point out that the oversight board seems unlikely to help Facebook deal with one of the most controversial content moderation challenges it has faced to date: the 2020 US presidential election.

President Trump has been making unsupported assertions on Facebook and Twitter for months now that the election is “rigged,” centering on false claims about mail-in voting — which Facebook has labelled with a generic link to nonpartisan voting information, and Twitter has more aggressively — at times — labeled as “misleading” and fact-checked.

Many anticipate that Trump — or other politicians — could question the results of the election or declare a premature victory on social media before the race is called. In that case, it would be up to Facebook or Twitter to decide how to deal with such a declaration. (Facebook and Twitter have signaled they would fact-check and label such a post or even take it down, depending on what it says.) Whatever decision these companies make will be widely controversial.

But it seems unlikely the Board will take any cases in time to impact election-night posts or regulate misinformation in the remaining days until the election.

That’s because it will take up to 90 days for the Board to decide on a case — and that’s after the Board even figures out which cases it wants to hear first. Facebook the company can submit a case to the Board for expedited review, but on a press call with journalists on Thursday morning, the company said it will not send any cases to the Board before November 3.

“We are not going to send something for expedited review before the election,” said head of strategic initiatives at Facebook Brent Harris. “And we have done that because we do not wish to place undue pressure on the board.”

Last month, a group of 25 experts from academia, civil rights, politics, and journalism announced they were creating an ad-hoc group to scrutinize Facebook’s oversight board, calling themselves “The Real Facebook Oversight Board.”

Facebook oversight board’s Thorning-Schmidt said she welcomes the feedback.

“We welcome all debate on this,” she said. “Part of the reason why we have joined this course is because we want to debate around content moderation.”


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Obama delivers a blistering critique of Trump in his first stump speech of the 2020 cycle

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Speaking for the first time in person on the campaign trail in Philadelphia, former President Barack Obama did not hold back.

In a 36-minute speech delivered Wednesday to an audience seated in or standing by their cars, Obama slammed President Donald Trump as “incapable of taking the job seriously.” In between plugs for his former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, Obama repeatedly attacked Trump’s record, starting with his handling of Covid-19.

“At least 220,000 Americans have died. More than 100,000 small businesses have closed. Millions of jobs are gone. Our proud reputation around the world is in tatters,” Obama said. “Presidents up for reelection usually ask if the country is better off than it was four years ago. I’ll tell you one thing, four years ago you’d be tailgating here at the Lincoln instead of watching a speech from your cars.”

Obama also pointed to statistics indicating that despite the US having its first identified cases around the same day, South Korea has a “per capita death toll is just 1.3 percent of what ours is.”

Obama’s visit to Pennsylvania underscored the importance the Biden campaign is placing on the state, and in mobilizing black voters in the Philadelphia area particularly. Obama’s approach: focus more on personality than policy.

While Obama’s remarks also lauded Biden’s health care plan and his foreign policy experience, the bulk of the speech focused on questions of character — both Biden’s and Trump’s. Throughout the speech, Obama returned to that familiar theme, including his oft-used maxim: “The presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”

When he discussed his view of Trump’s fitness for office, Obama’s incredulity was palpable. As he recounted Trump retweeting conspiracy theories about whether SEAL Team Six actually killed Osama Bin Laden he spoke to voters exhausted by the news cycle: “You might be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner without having an argument” if Trump loses this November.

“And, look, this notion of truthfulness and democracy and citizenship, and being responsible, these aren’t Republican or Democratic principles, they’re American principles. They’re what most of us grew up learning from our parents and our grandparents. They’re not White or Black or Latino or Asian values, they’re American values, human values, and we need to reclaim them. We have to get those values back at the center of our public life.”

At one point, he leveled his ire at those who have made excuses for what he views as intolerable behavior from the president. Obama also lamented that Trump’s abnormal behavior “distracts all of us” from the policy ramifications of this administration. Ironically, in this speech, the former president seemed to be caught in that trap as well.

The Atlantic has reported that while “Obama is alarmed about Trump’s presidency,” like many he has struggled with how to campaign during a pandemic. Wednesday night’s speech — and an accompanying stop to meet with community organizers — seems to indicate he’s found his answer. It will be one event in a two-week blitz where “Obama will hit the trail, potentially adding joint appearances with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”


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Polish court allows stricter abortion law, sparking outcry

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Chief justice says existing legislation that allowed abortion of malformed fetuses was ‘incompatible’ with the constitution.

Poland’s constitutional court has struck down a provision of the country’s abortion law allowing Europe’s most strict legislation to be further tightened and provoking an outcry from rights groups.

Chief justice Julia Przylebska said in a ruling on Thursday existing legislation, which allows for the abortion of malformed fetuses, was “incompatible” with the constitution.

The verdict, which is final and cannot be appealed, drew immediate condemnation from the Council of Europe, whose Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic called it “a sad day for #WomensRights”.

“Removing the basis for almost all legal abortions in #Poland amounts to a ban & violates #HumanRights,” Mijatovic tweeted.

“Today’s ruling … means underground/abroad abortions for those who can afford & even greater ordeal for all others.”

Since 1993, Poland has only allowed abortions in case of rape or incest, a threat to the mother’s life or a deformed fetus.

Now the court ruling could pave the way for legislators from the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party to approve draft legislation that would ban pregnancy terminations in the case of fetuses with congenital birth defects.

Many Polish women bridled when PiS backed the bill originating as a popular petition earlier this year, prompting conservative legislators to refer the matter to the constitutional court.

The tribunal, whose main role is to ensure any law complies with the constitution, underwent government reforms in 2016 that led critics to contend it is stacked with PiS allies.

Police separate pro-choice activists, right, carrying a poster saying ‘We are not incubators’ from anti-abortion rights protesters, left, in front of Poland’s constitutional court in Warsaw [Wojtek Radwanski/AFP]

‘Blood on your hands’

Former liberal Polish Prime Minister and PiS critic Donald Tusk called the timing of the abortion issue “political wickedness”.

“Throwing the topic of abortion and a ruling by a pseudo-court into the middle of a raging pandemic is more than cynical,” the head of the European People’s Party tweeted.

The NGO Action Democracy, which had gathered more than 210,000 signatures against the stricter law, issued a statement saying the court delivered “a shameful, political verdict dictated by right-wing fundamentalists”.

Leftist legislator Barbara Nowacka blamed the devoutly Catholic country’s bishops, telling them at a news conference in parliament: “You have blood on your hands.”

PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda has said if approved by the parliament he would sign the draft legislation into law.

On Thursday, his spokesman Blazej Spychalski said “the president’s views on this matter are well-known and haven’t changed. We’re satisfied that the constitutional court sided with life”, he was quoted by the Polish news agency PAP as saying.

The country of 38 million people sees fewer than 2,000 legal abortions a year, but women’s groups estimate up to 200,000 procedures are performed illegally or abroad.

An attempt by the PiS government to tighten the abortion law in 2016 was scrapped following nationwide protests by tens of thousands of women dressed in black.

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