Kentucky is among several states this year targeted for a Republican takeover. The GOP is hoping to win a majority in the House, a chamber currently controlled by Democrats 54-to-46.
But with all eyes on the House, there’s a different battle brewing in the state’s Republican-run Senate—one candidate is testing to see if the commonwealth is ready for its first Muslim lawmaker.
“A man with a foreign accent, Muslim name, walks into Kentucky state Capitol, files his application, nobody says, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,” says Siddique Malik, reminiscing on a Saturday afternoon about filing his election papers earlier in the year.
“In my country of my birth, if a non-Muslim has walked into the election office and filed his or her papers for the office of president or prime minister or something, they would have arrested him for breaking the law.”
Malik is a Democrat running for Kentucky’s 36th District Senate seat, which covers eastern Jefferson County.
If elected, he would become the first practicing Muslim elected to the General Assembly.
Malik emigrated from his native Pakistan more than 40 years ago as a teenager, moving with his wife to Canada to pursue his studies in computer science, and bounced around the Midwest until finally settling in Louisville, where he started a family.
He started taking graduate courses in political science at the University of Louisville “as a joke,” he says. Now, he’s two courses shy of a master’s degree, and is putting the finishing touches on his thesis about Muslim subculture in America.
The father of college-aged children, Malik also reminisces about his own father, who grew wheat and cotton on a farm in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Malik’s father inspired him at an early age with stories of America’s icons, including one from Kentucky.
“Lincoln. The word Lincoln was a trigger for him,” Malik says. “You say Lincoln around him and he’ll forget everything he was talking about or doing, he’ll just start talking about Lincoln and America. So you had to be direful around him; don’t utter the word Lincoln.”
Muslim’s are a minority in America, and in Kentucky, with a population of about 11,000, concentrated in Louisville. But their presence is nearly nonexistent in elected government.
“The Muslim community, and nor can any community—but the Muslim community in particular—cannot remain silent, must be engaged in the political process, must get involved,” U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who in 2006 became the first practicing Muslim in the U.S. Congress.
“We must come together with other people of the community to talk about the importance of civil and human rights in this period of time in which our rights have been so fragile.”
Ellison has since been joined by Andrew Carson of Indiana.
Malik echoes Ellison’s sentiment, saying his candidacy will in part be to educate the state about the role that Muslims can have in civic life, and to dispel rumors about Muslims in general.
But since 9/11, those rumors have run rampant, and have even influenced policy. A handful of states have passed laws aimed at curbing a perceived Islamic infiltration of government. In Kentucky, state Rep. Kim King has filed legislation that would prohibit Kentucky’s courts from basing their decisions on foreign law, including the Muslim Sharia.
“In New York state and in Michigan state, judges are deciding court cases based on foreign law: European law; Middle Eastern law, but not citing U.S. law,” says King, a Harrodsburg Republican. “And it hasn’t been a problem in Kentucky yet, but I want to make sure that we continue to use U.S. law to determine court cases in Kentucky.”
But Malik has other problems, too. Daniel Logsdon, chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, says he’s never heard of the candidate, even though Malik is running unopposed in the 36th district Democratic primary.
And to compound matters, he’s running against Julie Raque Adams, an incumbent Republican in the state House with name recognition and support from her party. The largely middle-class-to-affluent district affords Raque another edge: nearly 1,000 more registered Republican voters than Democrats, reflecting a larger trend toward a GOP advantage across the state.
Siddique says this is more of a disadvantage than his personal background.
“Just because there are a lot of Republicans in my district does not mean that they dislike me because of my Muslim background,” Malik says. ”They might dislike me because I’m a Democrat. And most Republicans and Democrats have their work cut out for them”
And his political views—much of them outlined in a column he wrote for The Courier-Journal —put him at odds with the vast majority of Kentucky’s lawmakers.
I would push for universal health care, to tell you the truth,” Malik says. “That is what President Obama wanted to do, but he ended up diluting his legislation so much that it turned into something that God knows what it is. Even Obama doesn’t know what it is.”
He also supports marriage equality—currently a hot topic in Kentucky politics due to a recent federal order that overturned portions of the state’s 2004 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage—one of many views that he says strains his relationship with other Muslims.
“I am just in fully support [sic] of all human beings being able to do whatever their heart desires; whatever they want to do as long as of course it’s not to hurt somebody else, then of course we have laws to protect against that,” Malik says.
“Yes, I’m absolutely in favor of that. Gay marriages, gay people, they’re just as much human begins as you and I, and they deserve equality and protection. Absolutely.”
Despite the odds, Malik is optimistic he will make history.
“Donald Trump is not going to come here and ask me for my birth certificate, because it’s in a language that he probably does not know… this will be an election campaign based on issues, and that’s the way Democracy works, and that’s the way it’s gonna work in 36,” he says.
Spoken like a true American politician.