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www.amperspective.com Online Magazine

Executive Editor: Abdus Sattar Ghazali


American Muslim political activism

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Although the population of Muslims in America increased substantially by the1970s because of massive immigration from the Middle East and South Asia but the new Muslim immigrants showed little interest in domestic issues. Instead, their focus remained on their homelands and U.S. foreign policy issues affecting the Islamic world such as the Palestine-Israel conflict; U.S. sanctions against Iraq; and conflicts in Kashmir and Chechnya. Their community activities were confined to the building of mosques and Islamic centers.

African American Muslims, on the other hand, generally tend to focus on domestic issues, such as urban development, education, and economic and racial justice. Given their disparate interests and priorities, formulating a united political platform between the two Muslim groups was not easy.

In the 1980s, as the Muslim Americans began to take the initial steps toward political participation, some questioned whether Islam even permitted them to participate in the political life of a non-Muslim country. That concern all but disappeared starting in the 1990s. Today this debate has taken a backseat as the majority of Muslim-Americans face the political reality that nonparticipation could lead to exclusion and denial of rights. (1)

For the first time, Muslim Americans flexed their political muscles in different constituencies in 1990s. In New York, Pakistani taxi drivers organized an alignment and campaigned to defeat Congressman Stephen J. Solarz. The nine-term congressman was the most vocal leader of the Indian lobby in Congress. He lost his congressional seat to some determined Pakistani activists who were still learning the ropes of politics in the Big Apple. Although his campaign fund was greater than the aggregate of all five opponents, he was defeated. Pakistanis' campaign against him paid off in favor of one of the Spanish candidates in a newly constituted seat. That was 1992. The first time, probably, when any Muslim group made a successful effort in any US election. (2)

In 1996 Bill Clinton (at least as compared with Bob Dole) had earned the vote of U.S. Muslims because he had gone further than any other president in U.S. history to give Islam some standing as an integral part of American society. But this was Clinton not as a Democrat but as a pro-Muslim initiator. He had started the process of going beyond the political convention of treating the United States as a Judeo-Christian community only. In personal behavior Clinton fell below Islamic standards of family values, but in official behavior he was a particularly ecumenical President of the United States. (3)

Under his watch, President Clinton recognized a major Islamic institution within the U.S. - the fast of Ramadan. He sent an open letter to believers wishing them a blessed fast. Under the Clinton watch, the White House for the first time ever celebrated Eid el Fitr to mark the end of Ramadan at which the first lady recognized the increasing expansion of the Muslim community within the United States and wished Muslims well. (4)

Under Clinton's watch the first Muslim chaplains of the U.S. military were appointed - with the major participation of the American Muslim Council. Under Clinton's watch Arab and Muslim Americans met with the President of the United States and discussed issues of Arab and Muslim concern. Under Clinton's watch Muslim representatives were received by Anthony Lake of the National Security Council and explored with him the implications of U.S. policy towards Bosnia. (5)

However, the Clinton-Gore administration did not come the rescue of Salam Al-Marayati, an American Muslim whose appointment to the National Commission on Terrorism was reversed due to Zionist pressure on Democratic Congressman Richard Gephardt? (6)

While in foreign policy Clinton was no less friendly to Israel than any other U.S. president, in domestic policy he was more Muslim-friendly than any other president in the history of the United States. Those Muslims who voted for him in 1996 instead of for Bob Dole might have taken some of such factors into account. (7)

In 1996 also, Muslims in New Jersey endorsed Richard Zimmer, a Republican candidate in an open Senate seat. But concerned about Jewish votes, Zimmer announced that he did not ask for the Muslim community's endorsement. Upon hearing this, Muslims withdrew their endorsement and put their support behind the Democratic candidate, Robert Torricelli. This candidate won the elections with a slight margin and publicly acknowledged that his success was due to the support of the Muslim community. (8)

Muslims in New Jersey, in 1990s, continued to make good electoral choices through their bloc votes. While doing that they have effectively created a counter voter bloc on which candidates can rely upon. Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey is a regular guest at Muslim events in New Jersey, of course with a scarf covered head. New Jersey was the first state in which Halal food laws were passed. (9)

”Muslims beginning to embrace politics” was the title of an article written  by Mary Otto in Free Press Washington on October 31, 1998. He wrote: “America's millions of Muslims -- adherents to possibly the nation's fastest-growing religion -- are gradually learning to embrace politics. The change can be seen in the hopeful politicians who flock to meet voters in Detroit-area mosques and in California Islamic centers. At Muslim gatherings across the country, thousands of people have registered to vote. And, in a departure from the past, some Muslims are entering politics themselves, and the professionals among them are learning to exercise their financial clout.”

In May 1998, four major American Muslim political organizations – American Muslim Alliance, American Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Affairs and Muslim Public Affairs Council – formed the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC) to coordinate their policies. And on January 23, 1999, a  joint meeting of Council of Presidents of Arab Organizations and the American Muslim Political Coordination Council, in Washington, DC, brought together nine major political organizations which included: the Arab American Institute (AAI.), the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG), the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), the American Muslim Council (AMC), the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Coalition for Good Government (CFGG), the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council (MPAC), and the National Association of Arab Americans, (NAAA).  They identified 4 areas of coordination and cooperation: The future of Jerusalem; Civil and human rights; Arab and Muslim participation in the electoral process; and Access and inclusion in political structures.

The coalition of the nine American Muslim and Arab-American groups, in 1999, launched an effort to register Muslim voters in anticipation of the year-2000 election. The American Muslim Council has assembled a voter registration kit to facilitate the registration process. The American Muslim Alliance devoted its second annual leadership conference in Detroit to political education and to raising awareness in the minds of elected legislators of the presence of the Muslim community in America. They covered skills related to campaigning, critical evaluation of local politics, comparison of the political programs of the major parties and coalition building. (10)

But how should the Muslims vote?
According to a John Zogby poll of 2000, 46 percent of Muslims said they are Democrats, compared with 39 percent of all Americans, and 16 percent said they are Republicans, compared to 34 percent of all Americans. The number of independent Muslims, at 26 percent was almost exactly the same as among all Americans. The liberal, moderate, conservative and very conservative numbers, as well, mirrored the general American population.

Research shows that prior to 1990, Muslims voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party and the American Muslims continue to display conservative tendencies on a range of economic and social issues.  A 1996 survey commissioned by the American Muslim Council and the Middle East Broadcasting Company showed that just over 50 percent of those polled supported recently enacted welfare reforms while only 26 percent opposed the legislation.  At the same time Muslims tend to be strongly pro-family, fiscally conservative, anti-abortion and do not oppose the death penalty. (11)

During the last six years, however, a significant shift has taken place in the voting habits of American Muslims.  In 1996, most of the roughly one million who are registered have set aside their conservative inclinations to vote for Bill Clinton by a margin of two-to-one (in some polls the ratio was three-to-one). This dramatic shift should not be overstated, however Clinton’s relative success among Muslims despite their natural antipathy towards his policies and values is the result of a vigorous campaign on the part of the White House combined with a sense of alienation by the Republicans.  Muslim have, by and large, felt unwelcome in the Republican Party in recent years as a result of widespread, stereotypical and xenophobic attitudes towards Islam and Muslims at all levels of the Party. (12)

Dr. Ali Mazrui argues that the Muslims should avoid the mistake which African Americans have made for much of the twentieth century - that of being predictably for one political party and having nowhere else to go. In recent decades African-American votes have been too predictably identified with the Democratic Party - with the result that neither party has tried very hard to court their vote. They have simply tried not to alienate them completely. Muslim voters should behave differently. They should use the vote as a leverage to reward those who take Muslim concerns seriously and to punish those who ignore those concerns. In some years more Democrats may deserve Muslim support than Republicans; in other years the Republicans may turn out to be the more Muslim-friendly. (13)

Muslims, in keeping with traditional Islamic teachings, are usually conservative on moral issues. Muslims in America tend to oppose abortion and homosexual rights and espouse some version of the "family values" so often touted by American conservatives.  However, many Muslims feel caught between the two major political parties. According to Sulayman Nyang, an African studies professor at Howard University and a frequent commentator on Muslim issues, "Muslims are Republicans on family values, but Democrats on social welfare." (14)

American politics is, at once, simple as well as very complex. The domination by the Democratic and Republican parties simplifies the ideological spectrum. If you are on the right, you go with the Grand Old Party (GOP), and if you are on the left, you go with the Democrats. As Muslims, we can be on both sides of the spectrum. Remember Amir Muawiyyah (RAH) - he was very much on the right. And remember Abu Dharr (RAH) - he was very much on the left. However, the freedom that politicians enjoy to vote their conscience, while making the matter interesting, brings complexity and unpredictability to the system. To navigate through this unpredictability, we must not only closely follow the issues; we must follow the records of politicians too. (15)

The good news is that the deliberation over policy issues has become more and more publicized and inclusive. Candidates participate in literally hundreds of town meetings to present their views and hear from the public. We as Muslims must go to these meetings and participate. Let the candidates hear our concerns. Most importantly, we must let them know that we are there and that we are as powerful as any other American. We must exercise our political rights and demand that they accommodate our needs and interests. (16)

In the 2000 presidential elections, Muslim Americans made history when, at the advice of their leadership, voted in bloc for George Bush. At the present moment, some Muslims support the social justice agenda of traditional Democrats while others support the Republicans' conservatism on social issues. Still others find that Green Party has the best policies, an excellent record and provides them with the protest vote option. However, if Muslims' voting choice is based solely on policy issues then their votes are bound to be divided. On the other hand, if the goal is to empower Muslims as one voting bloc, then Muslims will have to look at which vote will get them recognition as political players. A bloc vote does not mean 100 percent of Muslim votes. If Muslims are able to deliver 60 to 70 percent of their votes to any candidate, that will be a milestone in the process of empowerment of Muslims in America, whether that candidate wins or not. (17)

Throughout most of their American experience, members of the Muslim community have refrained from fully engaging in civic society. This is now changing. American Muslims are moving from the margins to the mainstream. At the beginning of  2004, we see that the American Muslims have overcome many formidable obstacles in their struggle for political enfranchisement. However, the journey is far from over.

References:

1. Media Guide to Islam,  San Francisco State Unviersity. 
2. How a bloc vote will empower Muslims in America? by Abdul Malik Mujahid - Palestine Times - November 2000
3. On Being An American and a Muslim: Dilemmas of Politics and Culture By Ali A. Mazrui
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Our Community Has Never Been More Powerful! By A. Omar Turbi Washington Report on Mideast - October/November 2000
7. Mazrui
8. Mujahid
9. Ibid.
10. American Muslim engagement in politics By Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad of Minaret of Freedom Institute
11. Islamic Institute
12. Ibid.
13. Mazrui
14. Ira Rifkin, "Muslims and the Ballot Box: Party Ties Nothing Sacred for Believers in America," Dallas Morning News 17 August 1996
15. How Can Muslims Impact American Politics? By Muqtedar Khan – Islamonline.com - April 11, 2000
16. Ibid.
17. Mujahid.

January 1, 2004

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