March 24, 2006


American Muslims gaining a foothold in politics (Jill Lawrence, 3/24/06, USA TODAY)

[T]he 9/11 attacks jolted Muslims into realizing that they needed to make themselves known to their neighbors and heard by their government. They are voting, running for office and getting more involved in civic and political life at every level, from PTAs and school boards to town councils and state legislatures. At least two — Texas Republicans Amir Omar and Ahmad Hassan — are running for U.S. Congress.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which promotes Muslim political activity, has opened 23 of its 31 U.S. chapters since 9/11. In the 2004 election, two studies found, one in five Muslim voters were first-time voters.

"There was a silver lining. We became more public," says Aref Assaf, president of the New Jersey-based American Arab Forum.

This large-scale entry of Muslims into public life is not only testing the courage of Muslim candidates and the tolerance of voters. It's also prompting politicians to take notice of a community that has growing clout and is open to appeals from both parties. [...]

Mosques, numbering more than 1,200 across the country, are "the grassroots center of our political empowerment," Assaf says. They hold voter-registration drives and policy discussions. They invite candidates to speak, offering access to large crowds at Friday prayers.

Up to a third of American Muslims are African-Americans who vote mostly for Democrats. The rest come from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. Many lived in dictatorships or theocracies and did not participate in politics in their homelands. "It is definitely a new idea," says Mohamed El Filali, outreach director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson.

The immigrants are in tune with Republican conservatism on issues such as abortion, gay rights and religion, say analysts such as Georgetown University professor Zahid Bukhari. But they agree with Democrats on civil liberties and government social programs.

At this point, Muslims aren't firmly allied with either party. Bush won backing from Muslim leaders in 2000, before 9/11, and outperformed Democrat Al Gore among Muslim voters, polls and studies found. Four years later, dismayed by the Iraq invasion and what they saw as civil liberties abuses under the USA Patriot Act, the leaders endorsed Democrat John Kerry, and he won a majority of Muslim voters.

Sherine El-Abd, 60, an Egyptian immigrant and prominent Republican who lives in Clifton, personally tried to convince a number of Muslims to switch back to Bush. It was, she admits, an uphill battle: "There were more that didn't go."

Analysts say the shift is likely to be temporary. "I wouldn't call it a realignment," CAIR research director Mohamed Nimer says. "What we've seen is just a one-time deal."

Muslims are comparable to Hispanics, a much larger swing voter group, in their diversity and their compatibility with positions of both parties. Analysts say they're also similar to Hispanics in that they are young and likely to wield increasing influence.

Mohamed Elibiary, president of the Freedom and Justice Foundation in Dallas, a statewide Muslim advocacy group, cites a 2002 Cornell University finding that 60% of the U.S. Muslim population is 30 or younger: "You have this huge bulge that over the next 10 years is going to mature politically" and be far more active.

Just as it was America that Reformed the Catholic Church--getting it to accept that the End of History was a natural fit with Christian theology--so too is the Reform of Islam being driven from the States.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 24, 2006 8:04 AM

Not going to happen unless Muslim immigration to the US matches Catholic immigration.

Which is unlikely.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at March 24, 2006 10:20 AM

The key will be the wider races where Muslims will need to convince non-Muslims to vote for them, instead of smaller races where Muslims could simply vote as a bloc to put someone on the school board. It will drive American Muslims to develop a comprehensive theology to reconcile their religion with American Enlightenment values, or simply not get elected. I don't know whether this new school of Islamic jurisprudence would have much effect elsewhere - at least until the Wahhabists run out of oil wealth.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at March 24, 2006 12:56 PM

Speaking as former resident of Clifton, NJ, my home town, your Clifton Muslim is in most respects a typical suburbanite, minivan and all. Many Clifton Muslim women wear hijab but otherwise they're part of the wallpaper. Modesty is not thought odd in a town where Dutch Reformed Churches are commonplace.

Live and let live.

Posted by: Ed Bush at March 24, 2006 2:42 PM