The war between Israel and Hamas has torn through American politics, disturbed communities across the country and unsettled political coalitions in both parties. Over the past two weeks, Muslim American voters and leaders have been increasingly outspoken about their fears of violent backlash and political exclusion in this wrenching crisis.
Among many Muslim American Democrats, there has been a sense of frustration about the Biden administration’s handling of the conflict. On Thursday, President Joe Biden made his most explicit appeal to Muslim Americans in his speech from the Oval Office, denouncing Islamophobia and deploring the murder of a 6-year-old Illinois boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, by a man allegedly motivated by anti-Muslim paranoia.
To better understand Muslim American politics in this moment, POLITICO Magazine spoke Friday with Georgia State Sen. Nabilah Islam Parkes. The daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh, Islam Parkes, a former campaign strategist, became the first Muslim woman and the youngest woman elected to the Georgia legislature when she won one of the most competitive races in the state in 2022.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexander Burns: It’s been two weeks since the Hamas attack and since the war started. I’m wondering if you can give me a sense of what those two weeks have been like for you as a Muslim American elected official.
Islam Parkes: Emotions are very raw right now. Listening to my community and how they’re feeling in this moment: They feel otherized, they feel left behind. I’m listening to parents who are worried about their kids that are potentially going to be bullied. People worried about losing their jobs. Folks are in fear of their safety. People are hurt and scared right now. And in my role, I’m trying to be there for them as much as I can, to let them know that they’re not alone and to lift their voices and make sure that they’re heard. I see that as a responsibility as a Muslim American elected official, to be there for my community in this very charged moment.
Burns: When you talk about the community — are you hearing from people who are your literal constituents, mostly, or do you feel like you have a broader responsibility than that?
Islam Parkes: I hear from constituents. I have a lot of Muslim Americans that live in this district. But I also do feel like I have a broader responsibility as well to be a voice for a community that just recently elected, for the first time, Muslim Americans to their state legislature. I definitely feel like there’s a bigger responsibility on my shoulders to uplift everyone’s voice in the state and I’m trying to do that.
Burns: Can you give me a sense of how you are doing that?
Islam Parkes: Well, I’m reaching out to folks and trying to find out, what are some things that they need right now? Whether it’s to stand with them in solidarity, to organize, raising funds. We’re having different events at mosques — and to just be there with them and to pray with them and to pray for peace in the community. I just don’t want people to feel like they’re alone right now.
Burns: Are you hearing from people who are currently being bullied or being marginalized in their workplace? How much is that already happening, versus people are just really scared because they’ve seen this kind of moment before and they feel like it’s inevitable?
Islam Parkes: I think people are just really scared. I was talking to many people about this, other Muslim Americans and other Palestinians in the state — it feels like it’s post-9/11 with the Islamophobic rhetoric. Or it feels like how it felt before we went to war in Iraq. There is this feeling that Muslims have to — whenever there’s a terrorist attack, the Muslim community feels like there’s an onus on them, like a target on them to respond and to justify and reaffirm that they oppose violence, that they oppose terrorism. Right now, we feel like our language is policed all the time. And it’s not healthy for democracy or for real dialogue. It’s like having to constantly prove that we, too, are Americans. No other group has to go through an experience like that, to have to reaffirm: Hey, we are against terrorism, and if we don’t say that, then somehow we are for terrorism. People are feeling very, very — they’re very scared right now about how our community is going to be marginalized. And as Islamophobia is increasing, they’re scared for their children and for themselves.
Burns: Did you watch the president’s speech last night?
Islam Parkes: I did not. I did not watch it.
Burns: I don’t know if you read the coverage of that speech or if you followed coverage of his remarks in general. I wonder how you would assess his message to Muslim Americans, his relationship with the Muslim American community?
Islam Parkes: Especially in Georgia, the Muslim community’s been huge allies to the Biden administration. We organized and we were very much part of that slim margin that helped him get elected. And I think overall, the Muslim community does feel a little — there’s a level of erasure that we feel, especially at the beginning of this — from two weeks ago. Folks don’t feel like their voices are being heard.
The tone of a leader really matters. And I will say that there are a lot of people in the Muslim community that feel like the president let them down. People are dying on both sides here, and our blood is the same color. We’ve lost — I think it’s been over 5,000 Israelis and Palestinians. And so there are a lot of people that are upset.
Burns: How much is the part they’re upset with the policy and how much is the part they’re upset with — when you say “erasure,” is it that the president has not done enough to address Muslim Americans directly?
Islam Parkes: I think that the president is trying to address Muslim Americans directly, and I encourage that level of engagement with the Biden administration in the Muslim community. And we need to see more of it. Right now, Muslims, Palestinians are being dehumanized in the press. There’s a lot of rhetoric that’s flying around that’s conflating terrorism to Muslims. And we need our leaders to make it very clear that there’s a difference between what a terrorist is and what an American Muslim is — or just Muslims in general. And we saw earlier that the poor 6-year-old child was stabbed to death by his landlord who was radicalized by listening to the radio and was paranoid that the Palestinians were out to get him.
We just need strong leadership to recognize the humanity on both sides — that people are grieving in the Muslim community and the Jewish community and that we’re going to get through this together. Right now, there’s a lot of divisive language, and it’s not helping.
Burns: I know you said you didn’t watch the president’s speech last night. I thought that there was a section of his speech where he did exactly what you’re talking about, and it was quite effective. And I also wonder what kind of difference it would have made if it had happened 11 days earlier.
Islam Parkes: I’ll speak to that. Muslim civic engagement has increased over the past 20 years, significantly, since post-9/11. Post-9/11, a lot of Muslims went into hiding, changed their names, hid their face. But now we feel like we’re part of the American political process. There’s over 60,000 registered Muslims in Georgia, and thousands of them organized, knocked on doors, made phone calls, voted for this president because we felt like this was an administration that respected our community and respected our input. And I think at the beginning of this, we were taken aback — it felt more one-sided from the beginning. It would have helped if the president had made it clear that this wasn’t Palestinians versus Israelis; this was very much a barbaric terrorist attack from Hamas.
Recognizing the humanity in the Gaza Strip would have gone a long way. I know that he’s trying to address that now, and I appreciate that and he should. But I think our emotions are very raw. People are very emotional right now. And he needs to continue to do that and keep reaching out to us in that manner.
Burns: Can I ask you — you’re Muslim American, you’re not Palestinian and you’re not Arab American. How much do you feel like this is a political moment that you want to be a part of, and how much do you feel like it’s actually something that because of certain cultural norms and expectations, you’re forced to be in?
Islam Parkes: In the past five years, I have felt a Muslim community starting to feel more a part of this American political process. We’re running for office. There’s a lot of firsts everywhere — people getting elected, whether it’s Congress or the legislature or school board.
We’re proud of those achievements, and this is a moment where we have harnessed political power and we need to use it. We need to use it so that our communities don’t feel like they have to go back into hiding. In fact, we’re leaning into it. And as a Muslim American elected official, as the first Muslim woman in the State Senate in the state of Georgia, I carry that on my back, right? That I have to be present and vocal and continue to make sure that our voices are heard, so that we’re not marginalized moving forward in the way that we were 20 years ago.
Burns: It was a small but significant group of Muslim American candidates who were elected for the first time in 2022 in a number of states, and I wonder — is there any kind of conversation among elected officials about navigating the dynamics you’re talking about?
Islam Parkes: You mean naturally or just locally?
Islam Parkes: I think we’re all evaluating how to talk about this, respective to our communities. We all live in different parts of this country, and we’re trying to figure out the best ways to engage in this conversation. We don’t want our Jewish friends to feel isolated. We don’t want our Muslim friends to feel isolated. We’re all grieving and we should be grieving together. On my end, I want to be a coalition builder and to let everyone know we’re in this together, that we all want peace, that we don’t want more civilians dying. We’re friends, we’re neighbors, we’re colleagues. And at the end of the day, we are all Americans, grieving and trying to find a better way.