Muslim Americans and the Presidential Election
Since the 2008 campaign season started, both Barack Obama and John McCain have visited churches and synagogues but neither presidential candidate has visited a mosque. The reason is that they fear being labeled as “soft on national security” and this would hurt Obama more than McCain since the rumor that the former is secretly a Muslim continues to thrive in the media.
Muslim Americans are eager to flex their political muscles in the upcoming presidential election but are discomfited by presumptive presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain.
In a year when the political landscape is very different from previous elections with the country more polarized than ever, the demographics have shifted, making the Muslim vote more critical than ever before. With no easy choices to make, Muslim Americans are conflicted about McCain and Obama, and this voting bloc, capable of tilting the upcoming election in some battleground states, has yet to make up its mind.
This swing voting bloc chose heavily Republican in the past because they identified with economic and social issues of the GOP. According to the 2000 Census Report, there are sizeable Muslim populations in closely contested states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia. The leaders of Muslim American organizations believe that their voting bloc will determine the outcome of the 2008 election. Muslim leaders argue that the 50,000 Muslim voters in Florida are the ones who propelled George W. Bush into the White House in 2000. This constituency has tilted the results in previous contested elections and community leaders believe that it will do so again this November.
Muslim Americans were excited when Obama launched his campaign but now the community is ambivalent; Obama’s denials that he is a Muslim, emphasizing that he is a proud Christian, have caused concern among many Muslim Americans. The Obama campaign remarked that the satirical cover of The New Yorker magazine, depicting Obama as Muslim constituted “fear mongering” or a “smear campaign”. Such comments were an affront to some Muslim Americans.
Many Muslims think Obama’s comments negatively conveyed the Muslim religion and they waited for him to speak out on behalf of the Islamic faith. Days later, Obama told CNN’s Larry King, “You know, there are wonderful Muslim Americans all across the country who are doing wonderful things. And for this to be used as sort of an insult or to raise suspicions about me I think is unfortunate. And it’s not what America’s all about.”
Given the stereotypes, Obama is trying to walk a narrow line, working to maintain his broad-based coalition without alienating constituencies, including Muslim Americans. Neither he nor McCain can afford to alienate Muslim American voters. One major threat to both candidates is how Muslim Americans will react to the third party candidate Ralph Nader. A substantial number of Muslim Americans who did not vote for Bush in 2000 actually voted for Nader over Gore as his Arab-American roots appealed to those in the community. The nearly three percent of votes that Nader took away from the Democratic Party cost Gore the election and gave Bush the upset. The Arab-American Institute released a report in 2004 revealing that approximately forty percent of Ralph Nader’s votes came from Muslim Americans of Arab descent.
It is important to note that the approximate number of Muslim Americans is uncertain, as the Census Bureau does not collect data on religious orientation, most estimates range from 2.35 to 6 million. The Muslim Electorate Council of America estimates that more than 2% of the country’s 100 million registered voters are Muslim Americans.
Despite feeling neglected by Obama, many Muslim Americans quietly support the Illinois senator, fearing that visible allegiance might only incite further rumors. Early in the campaign, Muslim Americans were drawn to Obama’s support for civil liberties, as well as his diplomatic approach to the Middle East. His multicultural message of “change” and “hope” has appealed to the growing immigrant community as does the fact that his biological father and step-father were both Muslim.
“The joke within the national Muslim organizations is that we should endorse the person we don’t want to win,” says Safia Ghori, of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Muslim Americans identify with Obama as the son of a Muslim immigrant, since this gives them a sense of hope for their own future prospects. “I don’t appreciate Obama pandering to the Israeli lobby and refusing to meet with Muslim groups. But I voted for him in the primaries and plan to do so again in November. He has worked hard to reach where he has, so I feel obligated to give him my courtesy vote, says Fawad Qaderi, an Afghan-American Muslim.
Despite Obama’s denials, and with all the controversy surrounding Pastor Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama’s membership in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, one in ten voters still believes that the senator from Illinois is Muslim, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. In response to a question about the possibility of a Muslim running for president, McCain said last year in an interview, “This nation was founded primarily on Christian principles. I prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith.” While that may be the case, Islam is the fastest growing religion in America. Although the oldest mosque in America was built in 1934, a large number of Muslims are relatively recent immigrants to the U.S. who are focused on starting new lives; however the September 11, 2001 attacks galvanized Muslims because news stories thereafter often linked terrorism and Islam, making Muslims targets of bigotry and intolerance. Muslim Americans quickly realized they had to stand up for their civil liberties and become active participants in the political process.
In the 2000 elections, it made sense for Muslims to vote for Bush. Many Muslims who had immigrated to the United States under the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations brought with them entrepreneurial ideals that made free-market economic views more appealing than those of the repressive homelands they left behind. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush was outspoken against the ethnic profiling of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, and the socially conservative values of the GOP harmonized with Islam’s traditional and religious values. Many Muslims favored the idea of school vouchers so they could send their children to Islamic schools rather than public institutions. When viewing the democrats, many Muslim leaders suggested that Al Gore’s choice of Joe Lieberman for the vice presidential slot had an unsettling psychological impact on many Muslim Americans. Qaderi says, “Honestly, the possibility that Al Gore could be assassinated and the American President would be an Israel first supporter was nerve-wracking so I like many Muslims voted for Bush.”
But Muslim Americans quickly found themselves ignored by Bush administration as their communities were rocked by the implementation of the USA Patriot Act, the detention and deportation of Muslim immigrants, and other security measures after September 11. Muslims advocacy organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations and Muslim Public Affairs Committee defend civil liberties by focusing on issues of civil liberties, racial profiling, discrimination, and hate crimes in order to politicize their community into activism and participation. Khalim Massoud, President of Muslims Against Sharia, an activist group based out of Washington D.C, believes that some of these issues are exaggerated by the American Muslim establishment. Massoud says, “Personally, I don’t mind getting extra attention at the security line at the airport. It’s when TSA agents start searching grandmas in wheelchairs and
people who like me go unchecked, then I get worried.”
In the 2004 elections, after the curtailment of civil liberties at home and all the foreign policy mishaps in the Middle East, many Muslim Americans had become Democrats or Independents and voted en for Democratic candidate John Kerry. In his book, Silent No More, former Congressman Paul Findley recorded that seventy-two percent of Muslims voted for George W. Bush; while ninety-three percent of Muslims voted as a bloc in 2004. Zahid Buhari, director of Project MAPS stated in an interview in 2004, “the political realignment in the Muslim community is unprecedented in all of American history.”
Regardless of the challenges of living Muslim in America since September 11, most seem to embrace American life and are more integrated into society than their European counterparts. The Council on American Islamic Relations found in a 2006 survey that nearly ninety percent of Muslim American voters said they vote regularly. “While most European Muslims live in ghettos, earn the lowest incomes, suffer high unemployment, and have fewer chances for social mobility, American Muslims in contrast are living the good life,” says Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the Arab-American-Anti-Discrimination Committee. A 2006 CAIR survey found that compared with the general U.S. population, Muslim voters were much younger and more likely to have advanced degrees as sixty-two percent (twice the national average) held at least a bachelor’s degree, making Muslims the most educated group in America.
Though part of the Muslim community is independent, Massoud says that, “The other part is going to do whatever it is told to do by Muslim ‘leaders,’ which are mostly bought and paid for by Wahhabi petro-dollars.” One of its main goals is “to educate Muslims about dangers presented by Islamic religious texts and to educate non-Muslims about the differences between moderate Muslims and Islamists so that proper reform of Islam can be made,” says Massoud.
One dilemma facing the Muslim American community is that Obama’s liberal social views conflict with the tenets of Islam. For example, gay marriage and gay rights contradict Sharia law and homosexuality is considered punishable by death, according to the extreme interpretation of the Koran. On this issue, there is a clear difference between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims and also a generational gap between the immigrant community’s conservative elders versus their more acculturated or American-born children who tend to lean towards the progressives.
The main concern for activist groups like Muslims Against Sharia is the rise of Muslim extremism, so-called Islamo-fascism in America and Europe. Regarding gay rights, Massoud says, “Wahhabi-influenced Muslims are more likely to temporarily not embrace gay rights as long as Obama is perceived to be weaker than McCain to stand up to Islamist expansionism. Therefore, independent Muslims will be somewhat evenly split. Followers of the American Muslim establishment will vote overwhelmingly for Obama.” The stakes are high for McCain and Obama as Muslim Americans calculate how their majority vote will determine who will become the next leader of the free world.