Muslim Americans work to make their vote heard

Wooed in several swing states their profile rises

At a time when many Americans are blase or cynical about the political system, many Muslims are energized by a desire to find their place in US society and to press domestic and foreign policy concerns.

Among this burgeoning Muslim-American movement to get active in politics are people like Mustafa Tameez, an advertising rep in Houston, who is an enthusiastic participant in the political process. Working his way up in the Texas Democratic Party, he's now on the state nomination committee. His wife, Selma, joined 50 other Muslims as delegates to this year's Democratic National Convention.

"I grew up in this country. My parents migrated here, and I was always told this was the land of opportunity," Mr. Tameez says.

Tahir Ali, a software engineer who chairs the Massachusetts chapter of the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), is active in state Republican circles and was an adviser on a 1996 Republican presidential campaign task force.

Karreim Muhammad, an African-American Muslim from Detroit, ran this year for the Michigan state house. He lost in the primary, but the experience has encouraged him to try again in two years.

Muslim Americans are grabbing the attention of both parties in the presidential campaign because of where they reside. Concentrated in "battleground states" such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, and Texas, Muslims could make a difference in the outcome, pollster John Zogby says.

With the two candidates running neck and neck in Michigan, for example, both George W. Bush and Al Gore have courted local groups of the estimated 275,000-strong Arab-American community (one-half Christian) and the 450,000 Muslims in the state.

Two organizations from these Michigan communities recently endorsed Governor Bush. "A lot of it is access," says Kay Siblani, of the Michigan chapter of Council of American-Islamic Relations. "I think people here feel the Republican party in general and Bush in particular will prove to be more flexible on foreign policy in the Middle East."

Encouraged by their potential to be a swing vote, a coalition of national Muslim organizations is urging their communities to consider voting in a bloc. On Oct. 23, the political action committee of the American Muslim Political Coordination Committee (AMPCC-PAC) also endorsed Bush, citing his outreach to the Muslim community, his stand on an important domestic issue, and their expectation of greater flexibility on foreign policy issues.

"Many Muslims were very happy that Bush spoke during the second debate against profiling of Arab-Americans and about the issue of secret evidence [in hearings of the INS]," says Syed Ahsani, AMA chairman in Texas.

The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) recently released results of a poll which showed a major shift in Muslim preferences since June. In the latest poll, 40 percent of eligible voters support Bush, 25 percent favor Ralph Nader (of Lebanese descent), and 24 percent support Gore.

Muslims' efforts to enter the political mainstream can be fraught with difficulty. In the New York Senate race last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton returned campaign contributions from members of the AMA after it was charged that Agha Saeed, a professor of political science and chair of the AMA and AMPCC, was a supporter of armed force against Israel. In the highly charged atmosphere, Bush also returned some contributions.

Dr. Saeed insists past comments are being misrepresented and that he has always supported the peace process. Other Muslims have run into similar challenges, and many feel there is an intense effort to keep them from making political gain.

Many Muslims have long shied from any participation in politics, seeing it as haram, or forbidden by the Koran, since the US is a non-Islamic state. But that has changed considerably, many say. Mostly "that was first-generation Muslims," Tameez says. "Their kids growing up here don't have that cultural baggage."

But there was also the pressure of events. "Ever since the Oklahoma bombing, when Muslims and Arabs were falsely accused, the community felt alarmed and vulnerable," Saeed says. "They decided they must participate."

Spearheaded by CAIR, the Muslim community has carried out a massive voter-registration drive at mosques and community centers.

Mr. Muhammad, a partner in an employment-benefits firm, says it's also important for Muslims to run for office. "If we don't give people a definition of what we represent, other people will define us," he says. "As a Muslim, I share the same desires for health care, education, public safety that anyone else does."

Muslims have tended to align themselves more readily with the Democratic Party (a Zogby survey showed 46 percent Democratic, 18 percent Republican, 26 percent Independent). But they are often very liberal on some issues (i.e. using budget surplus for health insurance, Social Security and Medicare) and very conservative on others (supporting school vouchers and banning abortion except to save the life of the mother). So they have become active in both parties.

Dr. Ahsani, a former Pakistani diplomat who is an active Democrat, is a fan of America's open political process. "The system is so open I was able to go up to the national level as a convention delegate."

Ali, a Republican, is excited about the future. "Voting is a power that has to be used, and we are trying this year to put ourselves on the political map."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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