Sarah Aly sifts through her mail, her eyes quickly scanning political flyers. As Aly and her husband prepare to vote in the upcoming election, they are studying how politicians plan to address the relocation of an asphalt plant near her Irvine home.

“Last election, I had voted for Farrah Khan, the Muslim mayor (of Irvine), but I don’t know if I completely agree with her stance on this situation and her sense of urgency regarding this specific item,” Aly said. “I’m going to assess and see which other candidates have it as a high priority.”

Many Irvine voters are watching how politicians are addressing concerns over an asphalt plant in the foothills off Portola Parkway in Irvine. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

As a mother of two, Aly is concerned about the asphalt plant being close to her home and Northwood High School as the emissions and odors affect the air quality in the neighborhood.

“It is a public health issue,” she said.

Orange County – once considered a white, conservative bastion – is becoming increasingly diverse. Muslims like Aly are fast becoming an important voting group demanding accountability of elected officials. (Data released by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding earlier this year showed an uptick in Muslim voter registration across America from 60% in 2016 to 81% in 2022.)

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For Fatema Kermalli, a health coach and trainer living in Anaheim Hills, it’s important to see how candidates interact with her community.

As a Shia Muslim, Kermalli attends the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, where a mayor and police department have come out to speak to worshippers. She appreciates these interactions plus the recent collaborations with Sunni-majority mosques like the Islamic Society of Garden Grove. Shias, she said, are “used to not getting too much recognition or presentation.”

CAIR, the largest Muslim civil liberties organization in the U.S., has hosted various meet-the-candidate forums on congressional, state, and city levels. Zienab Abdelgany, senior manager of programs and community organizing at CAIR-LA, said people have responded favorably to those events.

Kermalli credited CAIR and the Muslim Public Affairs Council for offering guides to understand better the ballot measures. Without them, Kermalli, who is also a mother of two, said she would find what’s at stake confusing and overwhelming; so, she tends to vote based on how other Muslims are voting.

“Living in California, you already know, it’s a blue state,” Kermalli said. “It’s like you really don’t know how much your vote counts because of how the states work. Every state has its color already kind of assigned.”

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But Aly, who became a U.S. citizen a few years ago, views her vote as a privilege. And even though she is a registered Democrat, she said, “I do technically try to look up at each candidate and see if I agree with their politics just because I won’t blindly vote Democrat.”

In Fullerton, neurologist Faisal Qazi also plans to vote in the upcoming election cycle. He typically votes along party lines but also considers the issues at hand.

“I’m looking to hear from candidates and really see what they’re offering; not just rhetoric,” Qazi said.

In recent years, the long-time voter said election cycles have been plagued by “culture wars” where candidates have talked “about abortion as an issue, transgender bathrooms were an issue, ethnic studies were made an issue.” Yet, candidates remained silent when it comes to actual, tangible policy, he said.

On a national level, Qazi looks out for policies affecting rising inflation and global conflicts. At the state level, he personally advocates for housing and long-term support for California’s aging population, maintaining housing continues to be California’s biggest crisis.

He is also concerned about “ideologues and ideological extremists wanting to take over (the) school board, but it’s really unclear what they’re offering in terms of educational value to the system.”

Qazi is optimistic about politicians’ increased engagement with Orange County’s Muslim community. He also counts the elected Muslims as instrumental in giving the faith group a voice.

The 2020 election cycle saw a record number of Muslims running for office. Following this trend in 2022 in Orange County, in addition to Khan’s re-election campaign, Asif Mahmood is running for Congress to represent the 40th congressional district, and Anaheim Union High School District Trustee Al Jabbar is in the race for Anaheim City Council.

Muslim constituents are “realizing when they are able to ask questions directly to candidates that they have a lot more access than they think they do, and a lot more agency to influence the system than they think they do,” said Abdelgany.

Aly agrees, remembering interactions with elected officials in the past: Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, engaged with the Muslim community by attending an iftar (the meal breaking the fast during Ramadan), and Irvine City Councilman Anthony Kuo participated in a fundraiser at the local Muslim school her children attend.

“I do think it made a big difference … to have that show of acknowledging the fact that first of all, a lot of the Muslims in the area (Irvine) are very financially affluent,” she says. “They’re also very educated.”

By showing up for Muslim community events, Aly said elected officials can also benefit.

Almost all politicians who CAIR has engaged with, Abdelgany said, have agreed to support a Muslim awareness and appreciation month local proclamation. But she wants to see more concrete commitments to resources for vulnerable segments of the community.

Abdelgany is hopeful that this increased interfacing between Muslim advocacy organizations and public sector stakeholders will lead to policies that can positively impact Muslims.

“I think we’re much more difficult to ignore as a community because we’re a community that’s increasingly active here in Southern California,” she said.

However, she stopped short of calling Muslim voters a “bloc.” Given that Muslims in America are from different ethnic backgrounds and even sects, they are negotiating differences, building alliances, and identifying best practices to build a base, she said.

“I think we could put politicians on notice that in a few years from now, they will have a powerful voting bloc to contend with and it’s better to get in early than late,” Abdelgany said.

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