Muslims Learn to Pull Political Ropes in US

ON a cool and breezy day last summer, 50 Muslim leaders retreated to a maple-floor gymnasium in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to consider an old American axiom: Politics starts at home.

The meeting of humanitarians, educators, social workers, and mosque leaders was part of a new push among Muslims to develop a political lobby. At the gathering, organized by the American Muslim Council (AMC) in Washington, Muslims were urged to participate in school boards, city councils, and state legislatures.

Both the African-American and immigrant Muslim communities agree that civics is not only smart politics, it is part of being a good Muslim.

For now, the phrase "Muslim voter" means little in US politics. But with an estimated 4 million Muslims in the country, a new breed of more assertive American Muslims wants to change that lack of clout and secure a toehold in the American power structure.

"We are witnessing the beginning of an important process," says AMC director Abdulrahman Alamoudi, "but there is a long way to go."

Though modest in size and funding, Muslim groups are slowly gathering a scattered and diverse community, leaving behind old suspicions about involvement in government, and making modest inroads in local, state, and national politics. Muslims, few of whom have experience in civic culture, see themselves at the start of a long road.

Omar Dajani, owner of Falafel King cafe in Orlando, Fla., says he and his friends "increasingly feel we need a lobby, something like the Jews have, or the gays, that is effective in getting your point across."

In the 1994 elections, Muslim groups backed 77 congressional and gubernatorial candidates. This year, for the first time, a coalition of Muslim groups will back a presidential candidate.

Like any ethnic or religious newcomers in America, Muslims have won elected office mainly at the local level. They are on city councils in metropolitan areas such as Oakland, Calif., Charlotte, N.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn. But this year, Muslims will tie a presidential endorsement to a promise to appoint a Muslim to a high-ranking post in the next administration.

In part, Muslims are shifting from support of overseas causes to a broader and more carefully defined domestic agenda. The idea to form a Muslim lobby dates to the 1980s. It is spurred by a fear that if political clout is tied to public perception, the constant linking of extremism with Islam will unfairly marginalize Muslims from the political process.

Besides the Washington-based AMC, other leading groups in this effort are the Committee for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, and the Los Angeles Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) (See story, below). These groups specialize in public relations, lobbying with minimal use of religious rhetoric, and shaping positions on issues such as abortion, hate crimes, and Bosnia.

Increasingly, the new groups are helping develop a grass-roots lobby that educates local Muslims about their rights, and advises them in shaping their media image. CAIR, for example, recently put out a "Ramadan Publicity Kit" and a media handbook for activists.

At the national level, Muslim inroads are mostly symbolic.

Vice President Al Gore visited a mosque last fall, the highest-ranking US official ever to do so. President Clinton's July 12 speech on religious freedom mentioned Muslims several times. Black Muslim leader Warith Dean Muhammad recently read the invocation at the US Senate; popular New York imam Saraj Wahhaj did so at the House. AMC staffers met with State and Justice Department officials at the White House to lobby against provisions they felt unfairly targeted them in the recent anti-terrorism bill.

The first Muslim chaplain to serve the 10,000 Muslims in US armed forces, Abdul-Rasheed Muhammad, was recently sworn into the Air Force. Chaplains are a marker by the American religious community of a group's standing.

AS a group, American Muslims have traditionally voted Republican - though Muslim groups are bipartisan.

But the community, complex and diverse, defies pigeonholing. Muslims tend to be liberal on minority rights and immigration laws. But they link arms with conservatives on family values in attacking sex and violence in Hollywood films, for example.

In California, home to the largest Muslim community in the nation, many Muslims backed the election of conservative GOP Gov. Pete Wilson. But they joined with liberals to fight Proposition 187, one of Mr. Wilson's favorite bills, which would cut services to illegal aliens. MPAC, for example, joined with the California Council of Churches and argued on First Amendment grounds that the law would violate an Islamic mandate to provide hospitality to strangers in trouble.

On foreign policy, Muslims tend to scrutinize and shift support based on what the US is doing abroad more than most mainstream American voters. Presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, was a darling of the Muslim community due to a strong pro-Bosnia stance. But lately many Muslims have left Mr. Dole over his introduction of a bill to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem.

But having an influence on US foreign policy still largely remains beyond Muslim political grasp. Thirty years after the first wave of immigrants, Muslims do not have the money or experience of most ethnic lobbies. The American Jewish Congress, to cite one of many, has a budget of $6.5 million and employs 100 people. The AMC has an operating budget of $400,000, and a staff of 10.

"We are still struggling," says a Harvard-educated Muslim economist. "You hear about 4 or 5 million Muslims. Those of us involved long enough know that everything is done by the same 3,000 people."

The emerging lobby has also fought Muslim attitudes, dating to the 1960s, that politics would corrupt the Muslim soul and identity. Yet the lobby has grown, partly out of necessity. Muslims need a place to turn as their mosques, for example, come under attack. In the past 18 months six mosques, including those serving hundreds of families in Greenville, S.C., Springfield, Ill., and Yuba City, Calif., have been damaged or destroyed by arson, according to police authorities.

CAIR, which deals with these cases, last summer produced a detailed report on 227 hate crimes against Muslims after the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168. The report was the first of its kind. CAIR increasingly finds itself dealing with local issues like workplace discrimination, or defamation.

One of the most controversial cases now concerns a Muslim couple of Albanian-extraction in Dallas whose two children were adopted after a single witness reported the father sexually abused the child in the front row of a sporting event in 1990. The father was later acquitted in criminal court and the mother never charged. But the kids, ages four and nine, were taken by the state and put up for adoption. On Jan. 22, 300 local Muslims held a vigil outside the governor's mansion in Austin to have the children returned.

SPEARHEADING efforts to coordinate and bolster Muslim political power is the AMC. The group monitors and coordinates action on Capitol Hill. AMC is looked to and given legitimacy by the two leading American Muslim immigrant organizations, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Jamaica, N.Y., and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) out of Plainfield, Ind. It is also turned to by the Muslim Mission of black leader Warith Dean Muhammad in Chicago. These three groups supervise a national network of thousands of mosques and schools.

AMC watches developments inside these groups, and often acts as honest broker and counsel in their development.

Both the ISNA, formed by the Arab Muslim Brotherhood, and the smaller ICNA, more conservative and Indo-Pakistani, were student groups in the 1960s. But their goals changed as students became citizens, breadwinners, and taxpayers. When ISNA took no position on the Gulf war in 1990, the Saudi Royal Family cut its funding. Members today see this as a blessing since the group then had to stand on its own feet.

One of the best known Islamic leaders in America, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, is a controversial figure in the US Muslim community. Mr. Farrakhan's Million Man March on Washington, under the auspices of his group, the Nation of Islam, has made him a powerful force in the black community, and among many black Muslims.

Yet the separatist black nationalism of Farrakhan, and his openly racist rhetoric, ranging from "bloodsucking Jews," to disparaging comments about Palestinians and Koreans, has made Farrakhan a difficult figure for many American Muslims to support. A basic requirement of Islam is to treat every person as equal in the eyes of God.

Privately, no leading Muslim groups or leaders acknowledge Farrakhan's credentials as a "sound Muslim." In their eyes, he and his followers defy central tenets of the faith, including the dates of Ramadan. He is lax about the prayer regimen. And he does not demand a pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslim sources say. "The Nation does some good things in the cities. But Farrakhan is impossible to work with," says one leading Muslim. "He changes his mind and his agenda all the time."

Farrakhan could not be reached for comment.

AMC staffers have joined in meetings with Farrakhan but the AMC coalition has no plans to join the Nation in its current lobbying effort. One AMC official, Khalid Saffuri, says the most resistance to Farrakhan, "comes from inside the African-American Muslim community."

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