On a December morning before Georgia’s runoff senatorial election, Shafina Khabani set up tables in a parking lot outside an early voting precinct and loaded them with boxes of doughnuts, hot chocolate and coffee. Blaring social justice songs from a portable speaker, Khabani and several colleagues merrily handed out what they had to all comers.
For Khabani, executive director of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, an Atlanta nonprofit that has registered more than 2,700 voters since its founding in 2016, the treats were sweet symbols of the civic responsibility that runs deep within her.
But a sweeping new law would criminalize Khabani’s morning offerings.
Enacted amid demonstrably false claims about “voter fraud” perpetuated by former President Donald Trump and his allies after Trump and two U.S. senators from Georgia were defeated at the polls, the law, SB 202, puts broad restrictions on when and how Georgians can cast ballots. The law even makes it illegal to offer food and water to people standing in line to vote.
Among multiple provisions, the law also makes it harder to vote by absentee ballot, severely limits the number of secure ballot drop boxes, disqualifies most out-of-precinct provisional ballots, reduces early voting for runoff elections and dismantles local control of elections. In whole and in part, the law is a broad and blatant repudiation of voter rights in a Southern state with a long history of disenfranchisement, particularly for people of color.
‘People need to have a voice’
The Georgia Muslim Voter Project is one of a number of civil rights organizations on whose behalf the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Georgia, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), and law firms WilmerHale and Davis Wright Tremaine filed suit in federal court to challenge the new law.
The lawsuit, Sixth District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church v. Kemp, charges that multiple provisions of the law violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and infringe on Georgians’ rights under the 14th and 15th amendments, as well as the First Amendment in terms of the ban on the free distribution of food and water.
“It is so upsetting that this whole thing has been turned into a partisan issue,” said Khabani, whose network of volunteers canvasses and registers voters at dozens of mosques throughout Georgia and helps people with disabilities, elderly people and others get to the polls to vote.
“This is not about telling people to vote Republican or Democrat. Our community is incredibly diverse and votes every which way, frankly,” Khabani said. “We just believe that people need to have a voice. Voting is just about uplifting that voice and making sure that it is heard. That’s why we are here. We want to make sure that our leaders are representative of our community’s values and needs and that they are listening to us.”
For Georgia’s Muslims, estimated to encompass more than 100,000 people from around the world and all walks of life, the new law is painful, confusing and discouraging. It comes at a time when anti-Muslim rhetoric is increasingly prevalent in mainstream politics, when Muslim houses of worship, like all gathering places, have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, and when barriers to full inclusion in American society seem increasingly high for immigrants and communities of color.
“We know that for all communities, exercising their political voice is critical to improving their situation, and this is especially true for immigrants and new Americans,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Voting Rights Practice Group. “However, these new Georgia laws minimize access to the ballot and diminish the political influence Muslim voters in particular can wield over issues they care about. Unfortunately, it is another reminder that some politicians will never accept people of color and immigrants as part of the fabric of American society. Being a part of that fabric means being able to vote.”
The fabric of the Muslim community in Georgia has deep roots. But while for some in the community, the act of voting has long been as regular as prayer, others haven’t voted much in the past.
That is changing, however, as Muslims who were born here – along with immigrants who have recently attained U.S. citizenship – are increasingly casting ballots.
Imam Nadim Ali is encouraging them to do so. As spiritual leader of West End Community Masjid, an Atlanta mosque with deep roots in the civil rights movement since it was founded in 1976, Ali has been steeped in the pursuit of liberty his whole life. One of his earliest memories is of his mother boycotting a store that refused to hire Black people. In college, he protested apartheid and continued his ongoing study of Malcolm X. He became a Muslim in 1978 and moved to Georgia for the nascent Muslim community there.
Today in his sermons, Ali tells people they should vote. Until the pandemic shut down in-person gatherings, he would invite nonprofit organizations – including the Georgia Muslim Voter Project – to set up tables and register voters after services. Over the past year, the mosque has made voter education efforts a part of its website.
So when a man approached Ali after a Friday service in 2019 to convey his newfound enthusiasm for casting a ballot, Ali was unsurprised.
“Man, I haven’t voted in years, just didn’t see how it had anything to do with my life,” Ali recalled him saying. “But this time, I’m going to vote.”
‘We just want them to vote’
Like the man who approached Ali with his change of heart, Muslims in Georgia understand that elections, in fact, have everything to do with their lives.
“Mohammad said a Muslim should not touch a thing unless he seeks to improve it,” Ali said. “That’s a big piece of who I am and what I do and what my community has taught me. As long as we are on the planet, we’re going to have an oppressor and there will be the oppressed. But the oppressed don’t have to be sheep. We seek to improve.”
Across town, Khabani, too, was seeking to improve. Drivers outside the voting precinct rolled down their windows and accepted treats with thanks and a smile. People who had come there for driver’s licenses – not to vote – laughingly did the same.
But Khabani said the notion is crazy that their joyous little offerings are now against the law or that the enthusiasm for voting that Muslim leaders encourage should somehow be dampened.
“We don’t know who they’re going to vote for when we give them coffee and doughnuts,” she said. “We just want them to feel safe and to have access. We just want them to vote.”
Pictured above: Salik Sohani (right), a field organizer for the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, gives a presentation to students in February 2020 about the then-upcoming presidential election, reminders about the primary and November general election dates, and the importance of the Census. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Muslim Voter Project)
Read more stories from the Battle for Representation: The Ongoing Struggle for Voting Rights series here.