Amani Al-Khatahtbeh knows how to amplify marginalized voices to accomplish a common goal. In 2009, the then-teenager launched Muslim Girl, a digital space by and for herself and her friends, that soon grew into a media powerhouse where Muslim girls and women are both centered and pushing the conversation forward. Over a decade later, she’s taking the skills she’s learned and applying them to a new kind of national stage: a congressional run.
On April 4, the Rutgers graduate formally announced her bid to represent the 6th congressional district of New Jersey. She’s primarying 16-term incumbent Frank Pallone (D), who has held the same seat since before Al-Khatahtbeh was even born, because she believes that not only is it time for someone new to represent the district, but that she is that person.
While Al-Khatahtbeh isn’t the only person gunning for Pallone’s seat, she’s already navigating challenges that her opponents are not. Her campaign manager was sidelined after he began presenting symptoms for COVID-19; a few days later, an attorney for fellow challenger Russell Cirincione challenged her petition to run at all. (That challenge was later dropped.) And the 27-year-old is ready to take on whatever tries to come between her and a dream she’s had since she was a teenager.
“I've been through so many battles just to get to the starting line,” she told MTV News about the hurdles she’s faced to even appear on the ballot come July 7. “It's really incredible to witness, especially within our own progressive movement, the adversity that women and communities of color have to endure just to be included. It's my hope that our campaign really makes a statement that it’s no longer going to be acceptable and that challenges like this will not intimidate us.”
During a recent phone conversation, Al-Khatahtbeh told MTV News about campaigning for federal office in the middle of a pandemic, why social media is like her “first language,” and the conversation she had with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) the night before her history-making launch.
MTV News: What inspired you to run for office?
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: The experience that the communities I represent and I have had, has served as my main inspiration to really help bring about the change we need to see in congress. We have to push for progressive values harder than ever, especially because of this moment of crisis that we find ourselves in. It almost begs for us to really step up and take on the moral responsibility of taking the lead, and help guide the country towards that future that will benefit the most marginalized of our communities, first and foremost.
MTV News: There are so many different positions to run for — why did you pick Congress?
Al-Khatahtbeh: I'm running for a congressional seat in the district where I went to school. I went to Rutgers University and I'm a product of the political science program, and that community is really what made me. I grew up in central Jersey, and my college campus is really where my activism started and where I became acquainted with what is possible when people unite and dream about what the future should look like for us. So it was very, very natural to want to represent the place that I call home on a national level.
The congressman who has been representing our district since I went to school there was elected when I was born, and has been the representative for our district for my entire lifetime. I'm really hoping to create a coalition of voices that haven't been spoken to in a very long time, to have that seat at that table.
MTV News: What issues do you care about, and how do they align with the issues young people in the area care about?
Al-Khatahtbeh: Definitely the environment. Over the past several years, there has been a divestment coalition forming amongst a lot of student groups, and part of that initiative has been to really push where we see our representative land on these issues because [Pallone] happens to be the chair of the Energy and Commerce committee and he's also been one of the roadblocks to [the] Green New Deal. In the midst of this global pandemic, it's more important than ever for us to make sure that we are holding those leaders responsible.
One thing that I've been personally impacted by, that also impacts the young people in my district, is student debt. I'm really hoping that we push these issues to the forefront. But most importantly, the way that we're seeing our government respond to the coronavirus, it's really important that we respond to this moment ourselves as a people, by pushing for Medicare for All, once and for all. I mean what more could be really asked for in terms of having this underlying need — especially for communities that don't have access to the resources they need in order to get the help and the care that they are entitled to?
Editor’s note: In July 2019, Pallone and other House Democrats introduced a climate plan with a later deadline to achieve net-zero emissions than as proposed in the Green New Deal. MTV News reached out to Pallone on this and other issues discussed in this piece, but had not heard back as of publishing time.
MTV News: We're already seeing data that shows that Black and brown people across the country are being impacted by the pandemic, at rates that their white counterparts are not — and that is echoed by the ways systems tend to fail minority groups first. Is there anything that you think Rep. Pallone has done — both right and wrong — by minority communities in particular?
Al-Khatahtbeh: I personally don't think that the current representative has spoken to minority communities for the majority, if not the entirety of his political career. I think that right now we're reaching this boiling point where young people across the country are not settling for just what is good enough or what is being handed to us. We really want accountability, [and for] our leadership to land on the issues the way that we feel is right.
Our generation is so passionate about issues that impact minority communities, like racial justice. We are fast approaching a moment where minorities are becoming a majority in the United States. And a belief that I've held my entire life, is that a society is only as strong as its weakest faction. When we look at the communities that are disproportionately neglected, I think that that's where we have to start. If we're not doing right on those issues by those communities, then we're simply not doing enough.
MTV News: You founded MuslimGirl.com — what lessons has leading that effort taught you that you hope to bring to this campaign?
Al-Khatahtbeh: I think that Muslim Girl definitely has instilled in me this deep, deep value of elevating narratives that we don't always get to hear from. I come from a community that has been often silenced and sidelined, especially in discussions that directly impact us, especially when it comes to policies that are built on a lot of misinformation, that don't draw members of our community to the table, when they're literally about us. That has been really the lived experience that has formed a lot of my motivation for making change happen on a policy level.
When I started Muslim Girl, I did so in the hopes that maybe if we had a space for us to reclaim that narrative on our own terms, then we can potentially shift public opinion in a way that will make people more informed, that will increase tolerance, that will build bridges between communities that might otherwise have not had that bridge built between them, in a way that could eventually impactpolicies that are directly geared towards our community.
Ultimately it's a win-win, because by including those voices in the discussion, we make sure that we come up with the best policies possible, that we are taking into account factors of inequality. One thing that I've really taken away from the incredible women that I've gotten to work with and learn from and read through Muslim Girl, has really been the sheer value of that.
I grew up in a post 9/11 era, so I knew firsthand what it does to your sense of belonging in society when you don't feel like you see reflections of yourself in the world around you. And I wish I had a space like Muslim Girl when I was growing up. Now as a young adult myself, I get to have role models like Representatives Rashida Tlaib [(D-MI)] and Ilhan Omar [(D-MN)], national organizers like Linda Sarsour, women that have really paved the path to allow a seat at the table for more women like myself. The legacy that we're building on, really is just continuing to pave that path and allow more people to follow.
MTV News: You're already making history as the first Muslim woman to run for Congress in New Jersey. How does it feel to be that boundary breaker? What are your thoughts on the fact that it's 2020 and those barriers still need to be broken?
Al-Khatahtbeh: That's literally what my first reaction was when they told me that I was the first Muslim woman to ever run for federal office in New Jersey. I'm like, "Are you kidding me?" It's 2020, I didn't even believe it at first. But New Jersey didn't even elect its first Black woman to Congress until 2015. It's really phenomenal to see what our progressive and feminist movements have been able to accomplish, but women of color in general have just been so left behind.
I never really imagined carrying that title at all. Our run for these seats is really to just ensure that the best people possible are representing our communities. A side effect of that has been breaking glass ceilings and old barriers, in order for us to really keep pushing. Hopefully, titles like that will eventually become obsolete.
MTV News: The coronavirus pandemic is changing a lot in terms of campaigning. How do you plan on connecting with voters in light of the fact that nobody can really knock door-to-door, or host town halls right now?
Al-Khatahtbeh: It's because of this unprecedented moment that we are launching an unprecedented political campaign. My entire campaign is going to be digital and one of the things that we're kicking the campaign off with is a campaign quarentour, which is basically a lineup of virtual town halls that we are going to be hosting over live stream with a collection of issue-based organizations, both at a local and a national level.
Our campaign has also been directly impacted by COVID-19. Our campaign manager was hospitalized and tested for coronavirus. He had to take a step back away from the campaign that he's worked so hard on. It really underscored just why I'm even running in the first place. As difficult as it's been, it's forced us to think very innovatively about what a political campaign in the 21st century looks like.
There's still so much in terms of the possibilities that we can explore, and how we can use social media to harness political power. It feels like this is our home turf — I consider social media to be my first language. It really is marking the direction we're headed, in terms of what political campaigning is going to look like for the foreseeable future and how we can evolve after that.
MTV News: The internet can be particularly dangerous for Muslim and other minority women who use their voice. We’ve seen that happen with Representative Omar a lot. How do you work through that noise, and also make space to care for yourself?
Al-Khatahtbeh: Interestingly enough, Rep. Omar called me the night before we filed my petition for the ballot and she gave me such an inspiring pep talk. She reminded me that it's going to be hard and you are going to deal with a lot of adversity being who you are and being in such a contentious space. But the ways that people might disappoint you will definitely be out balanced by all the incredible people that are going to come from every corner to step up and stand by you in your fight.
Those moments that remind you what's important. I’m following in the legacy of people like Representative Ilhan and Representative Rashida. As a younger Muslim woman that witnessed what they've had to go through just to break barriers, it can be scary. These spaces were not made for women like us. Fighting for the space that we are entitled to has informed a lot of the strength and confidence of the Muslim Girl community. I think that that's really prepared me for what's to come.
MTV News: The federal legislative body is slowly but surely getting more diverse and younger. How do you hope that your views and ideals can help inform legislation that will impact the entire country?
Al-Khatahtbeh: I am very excited for the idea of actually allowing the people impacted by these policies, to lead the conversation. So many problems in our country can be resolved if we were to let people lead. That's a philosophy that I'm applying to my own campaign: Really following the lead of the people that are directly impacted and allowing them to direct how we land on those issues.
I think that speaks to what my lived experience has been growing up, and feeling completely alienated, like I'm not an American even though this is the only home I've ever known, and like I'm not seen by the very people that are supposed to be representing my best interests. I think that what this new generation of congressional representatives has been trying to do and the direction that I hope we continue fighting towards, is putting those people first.
MTV News: New Jersey, for better or for worse, has something of a reputation. What do you think people get wrong about New Jersey and why are you excited to represent the 6th district?
Al-Khatahtbeh: I mean, to the contrary, I think that we live up to our reputation, whatever that means to you! But I do think that especially with Jersey politics, our reputation precedes itself. What it feels like to me is, if we're able to make these changes happen within Jersey politics, then they can happen anywhere. It's more important than ever for us to just go for it and make necessary changes happen. But for the record, I grew up on the Jersey Shore — my dad had a business on the shore during the summers. So every summer of mine was spent on the beach there and I will always defend the Jersey Shore. That's something I will take with me literally to my dying breath.
This interview has been edited for length.