Muslims seek a role in 2004 election

By ANWAR IQBAL, UPI South Asian Affairs Analyst   |   March 8, 2004 at 11:14 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 8 (UPI) -- Muslim political groups in the United States have launched an ambitious campaign to register 85 percent of an estimated 2.7 million to 3 million Muslims they believe are eligible to vote in the coming presidential election.

"Muslims can play a significant role in the November election if they register and vote in large numbers," says Aslam Abdullah whose Los Angeles-based Muslim Electorates' Council of America leads the campaign for registering Muslim voters.

The council estimates that between 2.7 million to 3 million American Muslims have reached the legal voting age but all of them are not registered.

Some Muslim organizations estimate that there are already 1.8 million registered Muslim voters in the United States, and they predict that their number will increase significantly as a new generation of young Muslim Americans comes of voting age.

"There are 7 million Muslims in the United States, and they will play an increasingly effective role in electoral politics," says Agha Saeed, who chairs the San Francisco-based American Muslim Alliance.

Abdullah agrees but says that the Muslims can be effective only if they register and vote. "Our goal is to register 85 percent of all eligible Muslim voters and then encourage 70 percent of them to exercise their right to vote," says Abdullah, a Muslim leader of Indian origin who learned parliamentary politics in his native India.

"Yes, of course, Muslims must vote but not as a bloc," says Faiz Rehman, former director communications of the now-disbanded American Muslim Council.

"They should vote according to their political inclinations. Those who support the Republicans should vote for the Republican and those for Democrats should vote for Democrats," he added.

Rehman believes that if they vote as a bloc, the Muslims may earn the sympathies of the group they vote for but they will alarm other political groups who "may see them as an emerging threat and join together to work against them."

"We should spread out and be present in every political spectrum."

During the 2000 election, majority of Muslims voted for George W. Bush, partly because the Bush campaign made an effort to reach out to them. Al Gore and the Democratic Party were shy of contacting the Muslims. They feared that if they solicit Muslims, they may lose the influential Jewish support. Republican leaders, particularly Secretary of States James Baker III who openly courted Muslim voters, made them believe that if elected, Bush would address the concerns of the Arab and Muslim Americans.

"Many Muslims also voted for the Republican Party because they felt more comfortable with the party's family-oriented, conservative values and with their stand on issues like gay marriages. Like the Republicans, many Muslims have a very conservative approach to these issues," says Naushaba Ali, a Virginia resident and women activist who voted against Bush in the 2000 elections.

"What they do not understand is that a conservative person has a conservative approach to all issues. Most people opposed to gay rights or abortion also are not very welcoming to immigrants," she said.

Although people like Ali did not succeed in weaning away Muslim voters from the Republicans in 2000, they say that few Muslims will vote for Bush in 2004. The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, they argue, have changed the entire scenario.

"President Bush has always said that all Muslims were not responsible for the terrorist attacks and that American Muslims were as devastated by the terrorist attacks as other Americans. But most Muslims feel that the administration does not distinguish good Muslims from bad Muslims. It views all of them as suspects," says Rehman.

"The U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the registration of Muslim visitors, additional restrictions for Muslim travelers at U.S. airports, all these have contributed to the feeling of isolation that most Muslim Americans suffer from. They are disappointed with the Bush administration," he said.

Abdullah, whose Muslim Electorates' Council of America has recently conducted a survey of Muslim voters in several states, says "the majority of Muslim voters is not inclined to vote for President Bush although some rich Muslims, who generally support the ruling Republican Party, might vote for him."

The survey also reveals that most Muslim voters are unhappy with the Muslim leaders for their hasty decision in endorsing President Bush in the previous election.

They also complain that most Muslim leaders do not discuss electoral politics with their leaders.

The study also shows an increasing interest among the Muslim voters in the coming presidential election.

During the survey many Muslim voters said they expect Democratic candidates to hold town hall meetings with them.

Most Muslim voters also want to see a significant Muslim presence in elected offices, the study says.

According to this study, of the nearly 3 million Muslim voters in this country, about 60 percent are registered voters. Among the registered voters, South Asian Muslims constitute the largest voting block.

The ethnic breakdown of Muslim votes is as follows:

South Asians (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc.) 39 percent, African Americans 27 percent, Arabs 17 percent, Central Asians (Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, Tajikistan, and former Soviet Union) 11 percent, Africans (Nigerians, Sudanese, etc.) 3 percent, White Americans 1 percent, Hispanics 1 percent, and others 1 percent.

The women are a majority -- 51.3 percent -- among America's Muslim voters while men voters are 49.7 percent but a large number of women voters do not exercise their right to vote.

Age wise, the largest group is that of youths -- 18-25 years -- who constitute about 33 percent of Muslim voters. The second largest group, about 29 percent, is that of middle-aged people, 35-55 years. The third group, 19 percent, is that of young men and women, 26-35 years. Those 55-65 years are 16 percent and 65 and above are 3 percent.

About 73 percent of these voters can speak English and about 27 percent have problem in expressing themselves in this language.

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