Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, CAIR-SFBA, celebrates the election victories of six Muslim candidates in the Bay Area. (Image courtesy of CAIR-SFBA).

In a historic set of victories, six Muslim candidates have won their Bay Area elections, including the first Muslim member of the Sunnyvale City Council.

The new council member, Omar Din, is a 22-year old Pakistani American candidate who has established three “firsts” as the first Muslim, the first person of South Asian descent and the youngest member on the Sunnyvale council. 

“I am very excited and very humbled, mainly because Sunnyvale has never had any Muslim representative at any level of government — not city, state or federally,” Din said. “The fact that I could be the first one to break those barriers, it’s difficult to wrap my head around.”

Din gave some credit to the Muslim and South Asian community for propelling him to victory. 

But clearly his campaign platform, which advocated for housing affordability and equity, resonated with voters. Only 1% of Sunnyvale’s population speaks Urdu or Farsi, and Muslims are a similar percentage of the city’s total population. 

Omar Din, 22, becomes the youngest member on the Sunnyvale City Council.

“Our community’s needs mirror the needs of everyone else because the things we are facing is housing affordability and getting to work with traffic and having resources nearby and the schools to send our kids to,” Din said. “These issues are universal.”

Din joins a group of five other Muslims elected or reelected into local Bay Area positions. They include: Sam Hindi, Foster City City Council member and mayor; Aziz Akbari, Alameda County Water District board; Hosam Haggag, Santa Clara city clerk; Aliya Chisti, City College of San Francisco board member, and Maimona Afzal, Franklin-McKinley School District board member. 

“This is a big feeling of responsibility because … I think we are really carrying the torch forward for our community,” Din said. “We had a generation before us that set up really vital infrastructure for the Muslim community — the mosques, the community centers and schools and I think the next step of the journey of Muslims in the Bay Area is this representation in government.”

Afzal, who won reelection for the Franklin-McKinley School District board, is also a trailblazer. When appointed to the school board in April 2018, she became the first Muslim woman with a headscarf, or “hijab,” to hold an elected position in the state of California. 

Part of the reason why I ran is beacuse I really felt like, especially at the school board level, the people making the decisions obviously didnt have my perspective or my background both as a Muslim and as a woman… and the other reason was Islamaphobia I saw at my district,” Afzal said. 

Maimona Afzal

She emphasized that as a Muslim woman of color, her role is to uplift all disenfranchised students by creating policies and infrastructure to promote and understand the diversity in campuses — something that did not exist before she took office. 

But having visible Muslim representation in places where traditionally there wasn’t any also sets a positive example for  Muslim students, she said. 

“I saw a student whose mom was wearing an abaya (traditional robe-like dress worn by Muslim women) and hijab, and the student was just staring at me and beaming. And a couple minutes later I looked back, and she had pulled on her sparkly purple hijab, and it really warmed my heart,” Afzal said. “Growing up I really didn’t see elected officials wearing a hijab or were visibly Muslim or looked like me, and this incident was where I really saw the impact of representation.” 

The school board member said that for members of marginalized communities, seeing people who look like themselves makes their dreams feel more tangible. 

Din echoed that sentiment. 

“One thing I really hope people take away from these wins is that they can do it too because what held me back the most from trying to decide to run for office was that it hadn’t been done before in our area and so few Muslims get elected to anything,” Din said. “And what gave me hope was seeing people from other marginalized backgrounds get elected.”

Bay Area Muslim community

Members of the Bay Area Muslim community say these six wins mark a moment of celebration, inspiration and a stronger sense of belonging.

The Bay Area is one of the largest Muslim hubs in the nation, with Muslims representing about 3.5% of the region’s 7.5 million population, according to a 2013 Bay Area Muslim study. It also is home to one of the largest Islamic centers and mosques in the United States — the Muslim Community Association center, in the city of Santa Clara. On average, 3,000 Muslims attend prayer each Friday (the holiest day for Muslims), according to the mosque’s website. 

Zahra Billoo of CAIR-SFBA.

“Today marks a time for Muslims in California and everywhere to celebrate our identities and accomplishments as a community,” said Zahra Billoo, executive director at CAIR-SFBA. It’s time to finally harness our political voice through leaders who are aware of and invested in addressing the unique issues faced by American Muslims.”

In 2020, 17 Muslim candidates ran for local offices. It was the largest number of Muslim candidates to run and a significant increase from the 2018 midterm elections, where only one Muslim candidate won. 

National trend

The increase in Muslim leadership is a trend seen throughout the country. In this election cycle, more than 100 Muslim candidates ran nationwide, according to data collected by the Islamic Scholarship Fund.

The states with the highest number of candidates were California with 20, New Jersey with 19 and Minnesota with 17. 

In 2018, California had eight Muslim candidates, New Jersey had one and Minnesota had eight. Nationally, there were 80 Muslim candidates running for office in 2018.

In this election, Democrat Farrah Khan won her race to be the first Muslim mayor in Irvine, California — a city that has historically voted conservatively. 

Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Oklahoma and Wisconsin also elected their state legislatures’ first-ever Muslim lawmakers.

Local leaders say the increase in Muslim political engagement comes in response to the recent rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric, policy and hate crimes following President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. 

“We see a huge increase in the Muslim community because of how much the Republican party, the conservative movement and the Trump presidency has tried to suppress, alienate and demonize the Muslim community,” Din said. “I think it makes sense that our response back would be to spring back up against it.

“It is a common phrase but I am going to say it again, if you are not on the table you are on the menu,” Din added. “We are pulling up to the table and saying we are not OK with being talked about when we are not in the room. We are going to be there and we are going to talk for ourselves and make decisions that uplift our community, and everyone else.”