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www.amperspective.com Online Magazine

Executive Editor: Abdus Sattar Ghazali


AMP Report – November 2004

American Muslim Task Force’s role in 2004 election

On February 17, 2004, in Washington, a number of American Muslim organizations announced the formation of the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), to concentrate on helping Muslims become "full partners in the development and prosperity of our homeland," defending the civil rights of all Americans and developing alliances "on a wide variety of social, political, economic, and moral issues."

Task force organizers said they will put forward a "civil rights plus" agenda for the 2004 election cycle in which civil rights is the most important issue, but not the only issue. The AMT election plan states: "We remain equally committed to (the issues of) education, homelessness, economic recovery, environmental and ecological safety, electoral reform, crime, and global peace and justice."

The AMT, after eight months of deliberations, met in Washington on Oct. 19, 2004 to discuss endorsement of a presidential candidate. However, nine-hour marathon meeting failed to bring any results that led to speculations that the AMT will not endorse any candidate. After days of confusion, a split in its ranks and an intensive pressure from the Muslim community, the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections - Political Action Committee (AMT-PAC) on Oct. 21, 2004 called on Muslims nationwide to vote for Sen. John Kerry. However it called its move as a ‘protest vote’ to safeguard civil rights of the Muslim community. An AMT-PAC statement issued in Washington stressed that “because pluralism is based on partial agreements, support for Sen. Kerry is premised on our overall effort to help restore liberty and justice for all.”

The AMT pointed out that despite disagreements with Sen. Kerry on some domestic and international issues, including the war in Iraq, it is willing to work with him to help restore due process and equal justice in accordance with the U.S. Constitution. However, the AMT acknowledged the considerable outreach to the Muslim community by Sen. Kerry's campaign, particularly by his campaign co-chair Sen. Edward Kennedy and appreciated the ongoing dialogue with Muslim leaders about problems posed by the USA PATRIOT Act.

The AMT’s belated endorsement was a welcome development because it responded to the aspirations of the Muslim community. However, the question remained, how the qualified endorsement of AMT influenced the Muslim voters, majority of whom had already made up their mind to support KerryMichael Meehan, a Kerry campaign spokesman, has made this point very clear when he said endorsements were helpful, but "at this late point in the election cycle, we are trying to turn supporters into voters and recent polling shows we have support among American Muslims 10-to-1."

The AMT endorsement came after a major split in its ranks when the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) a major component of the AMT quit the coalition quietly after it refused to support endorsement to any presidential candidate. MPAC was one of the three organizations that envisaged, at the ISNA convention of 2003, the establishment of AMT as a successor to the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC) that announced its support to Bush in 2000 elections. The other two groups were American Muslim Alliance (AMA) and Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Apparently, a unanimous AMT decision was not possible in the presence of MPAC, hence it was forced to leave the coalition. Only one day before the AMT endorsement, the MPAC issued a long statement about its decision of not endorsing any presidential candidate saying: “An endorsement is far too important to give away without delivering solid promises to the community that their interests will be of paramount importance to the next President. Leaders of other religious and ethnic communities throughout our country do not endorse unless they receive such promises. We should not be any different.”

Alluding to the many opinion polls and persistent media reports, the MAPC statement acknowledged that it trusts the political judgment and maturity of American Muslim voters and added: “In this election, Muslim voters must vote their conscience based on what is best for themselves, their communities and their country. Our decision not to endorse a candidate in the 2004 Presidential election must not be viewed as a directive for American Muslims to reconsider their decision. Rather it is a reminder that although candidates are willing to take our votes, they are not yet willing to announce such to the country.”

Despite MPAC’s departure, the AMT still maintained 10 members as a marginal group, Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA), was quietly inducted to fill the MAPC slot. AMT includes: American Muslim Alliance (AMA), Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA), Muslim American Society (MAS), Muslim Ummah of North America (MUNA), Muslim Student Association-National (MSA-N), Project Islamic Hope (PIH), and United Muslims of America (UMA).

The qualified endorsement of Kerry by the AMT stirred the Muslim community and drew sharp reaction from many intellectuals and writers. One analysis said: American Muslim Taskforce Insults John Kerry and Alienates George Bush. While another comment was entitled: Flip Flopping AMT (Alluding to the earlier reports that the AMT was unlikely to support any candidate.)

The AMT leadership, following the qualified endorsement, spent all its energies in defending its decision and claiming that there was no rift among its ranks, despite disassociation of the MPAC, one of its major component. The AMT chairman Dr. Agha Saeed described the community reaction as a marginal matter. (The AMT is the successor to American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC) that supported Bush in 2000 election. However, the AMPCC ignored the Muslim community’s opinion when it refused to endorse Syed Rifat Mahmood, a Republican Congressional candidate from California, apparently because he was not electable against the Democrat incumbent Pete Stark.)

The post-decision developments did not augur well for the AMT. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a well-respected organization that included in the list of AMT components posted the following announcement on its website: “ISNA firmly stands by and reiterates its standing policy, in its capacity as a religious, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, to (1) not support, endorse or oppose the candidacy of any persons seeking election to public office, and (2) not permit any organization to support, endorse or oppose any political candidate in its name.”

On the election eve, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) urged every eligible Muslim voters to got to the polls and vote for the candidates of their choice. The CAIR statement issued in Washington, did not refer to the AMT endorsement of Senator Kerry. Apparently at the last moment the CAIR objective was to bring out maximum Muslim vote. Many Muslim organizations and Muslim intellectuals and analysts have been urging the community that the most important thing is participation in the political process. What counts, is your vote.

The politics of bloc vote

This discussion leads us to the issue of bloc vote politics. Many Muslim Americans are opposed to the politics of bloc voting which they believe will be harmful for the American Muslim community.  But Many American Muslim leaders believe that the American Muslim community does not enjoy the same financial clout that is enjoyed by the American Jews. Therefore, the only alternative left for the Muslims to have an effective voice in the presidential elections is to vote in bloc. In 2000, African American Muslims, who are generally Democrat, were particularly upset that American Muslim organizations, instituted by the immigrant majority, had endorsed the Republican candidate without regard to their opinion and interests.  In 2004, the AMT tried to address African American Muslims complaint and brought Muslim American Society into its fold.

On August 11, 2004, theChicago-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding issued a paper the entitled:  Presidential elections 2004: What Should American Muslims Do?  The paper was written by Dr. Muqtedar Khan, the Director of International Studies at Adrian College in Michigan and a Non-Resident Fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

The paper pointed out that the African American Muslims have special relations with the Democratic Party. “The community must help and encourage them to develop and nourish this relationship further. Muslim organizations had developed links with the Republicans during the 2000 campaign. The community must renew and strengthen those links. It should avoid ridiculing or condemning those Muslims who may choose to work with the Bush campaign or the Republican Party.”

The ISPU paper provided an insight into the pros and cons of a bloc vote and the role of Muslim political organizations and groups in the election. It enumerated the following advantages of a bloc vote:

 (1) In a close election, a community can play a decisive role in determining the outcome.

 (2) In close elections, voting blocs can actually coerce political parties to change their electoral platforms.

 (3) If the politics of bloc voting were correctly applied, it could help unite the community.

 (4) Bloc voting gives American Muslim Organizations and leaders greater influence and access in mainstream politics. Politicians and the media will seek them if they think these leaders are capable of manipulating and delivering the “Muslim Vote.”

(5) One symbolic advantage of bloc voting is the recognition of the community as a whole being an important political player. It gives recognition and awareness to their leaders, organizations and issues. Sometimes, the media attention to these issues can be dangerous, while on other occasions, it can be salutary. American Muslims achieved this in 2000; its necessity in 2004 is debatable.

The ISPU paper pointed out that while the advantages of bloc voting have been pervasively discussed within the community, especially given its prominence as an issue in the 2000 elections, the negative aspects of bloc voting are less studied and comprehended. According to ISPU, “the risks and dangers” of a bloc vote are likely to be:

(1) The biggest danger of bloc voting is the likelihood of endorsing the eventual loser. In American elections the probability of doing so is 50%. By officially endorsing a single party or candidate, the community effectively alienates itself from the other party/candidate and in a way declares its opposition openly. In the eventuality of the defeat of the endorsed candidate, the community will then be vulnerable to reprisals or isolation from government access. If, for example, American Muslims officially endorse John Kerry, vote for him in huge percentages (92-93% as CAIR’s membership survey indicates) and George W. Bush still wins, the community could face further difficulty, given current administration attitudes toward American Muslims.

(2)  The community must learn to develop long-term and meaningful relationships with the two parties. Recent months have seen two parallel developments: American Muslim leaders’ rhetoric about the existence of a Muslim vote bloc and its use to vote against George W. Bush...Since American Muslims are not going to support the Bush-Cheney ticket, the Republicans may as well solicit - or manipulate - the American Jewish vote by appearing to be extremely pro-Israel. It is tragic that the Palestine issue divides the Muslim and Jewish communities into adversaries even though the two communities have identical interests on most domestic issues, such as defending America’s secular ethos by protecting it from the rise of Christian fundamentalism, strengthening the welfare state and the civil rights environment.

(3)  An additional risk for American Muslims if their leadership insists on bloc vote politics is the possibility of (a) exposing the absence of political unity within the community and (b) actually exciting existing minor fissures into becoming major cleavages. The marginalization of the African American Muslims through the endorsement of George W. Bush in 2000 likely led to the establishment of Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA), an organization that seeks to represent indigenous Muslim interests. The creation of MANA serves as an expression of a vote of no-confidence by indigenous Muslims in the legitimacy of the national organizations established and managed by immigrant Muslims.

(4)  American Muslims must recognize that the overall philosophies and political agendas of the two parties are pretty stable and enduring. Republicans stand for reducing taxes for the rich, pushing religiously motivated political goals – such as abortion; whereas Democrats seek to pursue social liberalization and strengthen the welfare state. If American Muslim values are stable then they too must have a long-term relationship with one party. Or there must be Muslim factions aligned with each party.

(5)  Excessive pontification about the power and impact of the Muslim voting bloc on American politics and policies may cause more anger, resentment and distrust within the general American population.

(6) The issue of endorsement also presupposes the ability of the so-called national organizations to set the agenda of all American Muslims. Many American Muslims are very distrustful of the national leadership.

(7) Bloc voting is a reflection of a superficial, instrumental understanding of, and attitude toward, democracy. Participation in democratic processes should not be viewed as a partisan engagement in a zero-sum game.