Muslim Voters Acquiring More Political Clout
Dmitri Pikman, Daily Bruin Online, Jan. 26
There are 1.8 million registered Muslim voters in the United States, and that number is predicted to increase with a new generation of young Muslim Americans coming of voting age.
And politicians are slowly starting to take notice.
A Democratic forum in Michigan organized by the Arab American Institute last October was attended by all of the Democratic candidates, and Michigan will print its first Arabic language ballots for the upcoming February primary.
A Labor Day convention organized by the Islamic Society of North America included three of the presidential candidates, who showed up uninvited to talk in front of a crowd of more than 30,000.
On the university level, Muslim students are gaining attention as Monday marks the start of Islamic Awareness Week at UCLA.
Agha Saeed, national chairman at the American Muslim Alliance, said that the increased political importance of Muslim Americans should be expected.
“There are 7 million Muslim Americans in the United States, and in every close race, politicians realize that they can ignore large populations of potential voters only (at) their own expense,” Saeed said.
The importance of Muslim American voters first became clear to political experts during the close election of 2000.
During that presidential race, the American Muslim Public Council, a nonprofit organization, invited both the presidential candidates to discuss issues important to its members.
“The Bush campaign responded, while Gore kept postponing the meeting. The AMPC counseled their members to vote for Bush, and it did make a significant difference in the election,” said Delinda Hanley, news editor for the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Issues. The Washington Report is a magazine focused on providing information about U.S. policy in the region.
Another important aspect of the Muslim American voting block is its youth, with one-third of all Muslim votes coming from 18-year-olds to 25-year-olds and much of the political momentum coming from American-born Muslims.
“The immigrant generation is ambivalent and hesitant. They are not sure how to participate in the political process,” Saeed said. “The American-born generation is free of those illusions and concerns, very much ready to participate in every aspect of the political life.”
However, experts say even with a higher voter participation, Muslim Americans still face several hurdles before their voting block can truly begin to influence American politics.
The primary hindrance is the sheer diversity of the Muslim population in the United States. With the majority of Muslim Americans hailing from many different countries, making a joint consensus is difficult.
“Whether Muslim voters will influence American politics will all depend on whether the Muslim community will vote as a block,” said Jonathan Friedlander, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.
Sherifah Rafiq, national outreach coordinator at the Muslim American Freedom Society, a nonprofit organization that lists Muslim unity as one of its goals, also said the various Muslim American factions need to find common ground.
“Muslims in general would need to collaborate on things that just don’t concern foreign policy. Palestine or Iraq cannot just be our only cry,” Rafiq said.
Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a grassroots organization which responds to cases of anti-Muslim discrimination, also emphasized the importance of presenting a unified front in order to educate the non-Muslim community.
“People need to know what it means to be a Muslim; they need to have information on what Islam, the fastest growing religion in the U.S., means,” Al-Qatami said.
This path to understanding was severely hampered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Experts say the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act, which some activists say unfairly targets Americans of Muslim descent, may provide a new political rallying point for Muslim Americans.
“We suspect Muslim American organizations will try to get all their members involved in this upcoming presidential election, not only because of international issues, but civil rights issues as well, such as unfair profiling and the Patriot Act,” Hanley said.
All the experts, however, agree on one point: Muslim Americans should start playing a bigger role in American politics.
“We need to be heard to affect policy. Then, policy makers will take note,” Al-Qatami said.