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More US Muslims run for office

The number of Muslim American political candidates dropped considerably after 9/11, but is now beginning to grow again

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2003


They have precious little IN common, if truth be told.

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She: a petite private-school principal and mother of three. He: a suave immigration lawyer with a faint streak of peroxide in his hair. She's a Democrat; he's a Republican. She was born in the US, the daughter of an educated immigrant from Kashmir. He, a Palestinian, was born in Bethlehem and came to the United States as a refugee, without knowing a word of English.

And yet, Afeefa Syeed and Kamal Nawash, who each ran in local elections in Virginia Tuesday (she was running for the Potomac seat on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors; he wanted to be a state senator from the 31st District) have more in common than both having lost their races.

As two of only a handful of Muslims running for elected office in the US this year, Ms. Syeed and Mr. Nawash's singular bids underscore the general lack of Muslim participation in political life in America.

But because there were two more Muslim candidates running for office in Virginia this year than five years before - and two more than 10 years ago - Syeed's and Nawash's bids also point to a new trend.

"More and more of us are realizing that it is time for Muslims to stop shying away from the political process," says Mukit Hossain, a Bangladeshi-American businessman and director of the Platform for Active Civil Empowerment (PACE), a new Muslim political action committee. "The way to advance our agenda is in the traditional American way: by gaining more political power."

Muslim Americans first began running for office in sizable numbers only in the 1990s, says Agha Saeed, national chairman of the American-Muslim Alliance, a civic education organization. But by the time elections rolled around in 2000, close to 700 Muslim Americans were candidates for a variety of offices.

That year, 153 Muslims - split almost equally between African-Americans and immigrants - were elected, including four to state senates and assemblies. And Muslims were coming out in increasingly large numbers to vote and support "their" candidates.

It seemed there was no looking back. But, as it happened, the numbers of candidates plummeted in the wake of 9/11 - with only a handful of Muslims running for election in 2001 and 2002.

The decision to start PACE came in the wake of raids by federal officials on Muslim organizations and families in Virginia last year - raids that were meant to uncover people with ties to terrorist organizations, but which led to no charges. "That was when I realized if we want to have a voice in government, we have to speak up early on. We can't wait until someone comes knocking on the door, to look for a voice," Mr. Hossain explains.

"The question is, what are Muslim issues?" asks Syeed, a religious woman who wears a traditional head covering and who helped found one of the only Muslim elementary schools in the state, Al Fatih Academy.

She ran on a purely local platform, rarely making reference to her religion. "I don't need to," she says. "I am clearly a Muslim and that speaks for itself. I need to explain what I want to do for the community."