If Saima Farooqui wins the Aug. 28 primary in her South Florida district, she will make history as one of the first American Muslims to hold a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.
The 42-year-old Broward County resident is one of about eight Muslim candidates on local or state ballots this year in Florida. That breaks records in previous years where only one or two Muslim candidates ran for office, according to the American Muslim Democratic Caucus.
But the odds are stacked against her.
Farooqui, a first-time Democratic challenger, is running against a well-funded Democratic incumbent for district 96, an area which covers Parkland. Farooqui said she decided to run for office after 17 students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, not far from her home.
Win or lose, Farooqui’s candidacy represents an increasing diversity in Florida politics, and comes on the heels of a reported 15 percent increase in hate crimes against American Muslims nationwide last year.
“I personally feel (my campaign) is very brave and a bold step, but again, when I go out, I feel confident. For the most part, I get support from people because they believe in American values. Mostly I’m getting support that’s not negative,” Farooqui said.
Farooqui wears a hijab – a headscarf – and has been harassed while going door-to-door for her campaign. But any negativity she experiences only fuels her zeal for public office, she said. One person chased her off a porch, someone set a dog on her and others have made derogatory remarks about her faith.
“Most of the time, that negative confrontation is kind of like a fuel for me – it just keeps me going because I believe we are better than this and I believe that there is no room for hate or even discrimination here,” she said.
Farooqui works full-time as a member of the technology team “Geek Squad,” and gets help from family, friends and sometimes co-workers to run her grassroots campaign. She is also the secretary of the Florida chapter of the American Muslim Democratic Caucus.
“I don’t really have staff, but my family and friends, they are the backbone to my campaign,” Farooqui said.
Some people call Farooqui brave, and though she acknowledges the compliment, she brushes it aside.
“In the Trump era…almost everyone has been targeted and really no one feels safe. When I go out and knock on the doors, I feel brave but, on the other side, there’s always a little fear somewhere in the corner of my heart that, ‘OK, I don’t know at the next door someone opens what kind of response I’ll be getting,’” Farooqui said.
An estimated 125 candidates who are Muslim are running for office nationwide this year, according to Ghazala Salam, president of the national American Muslim Democratic Caucus. Salam said increased involvement in politics by American Muslims is a response to Islamophobic rhetoric and policies in recent years which “lit a fire under people” who needed to raise their voices. She said some voters group all American Muslim candidates together, but that ignores the diversity of the candidates’ positions.
“Folks like to put all Muslims in one bag…I think that, regardless of who the candidate is, we’re all Americans,” Salam said. “We need to make sure we’re not electing someone to represent just one community, but all Americans.”
Voters should consider the candidates and their qualifications to represent the people, no matter the candidate’s faith, Salam said.
“I think constituents need to look at who is more qualified…Or, if they’re new, see what their platform is, because a lot of people are running for the first time.
Farooqui has lived in her district for 13 years and raised three children with her husband. She has a degree in business and has worked in the tech industry for over a decade.
“I feel I’m approaching the finish line – a month and a half left – so I’m just very excited and I’m happy that, so far, I have achieved a lot of recognition and support and that makes me feel so good about that…I’m very positive that in the coming years we’ll be seeing more young people from the Muslim community on the ballot,” she said.