At the CAIR Leadership conference on September 29, 2012, a significant section was devoted to the Muslim Vote. The forum’s panelists included Shireen Zaman, executive director of Institute of Social Policy (ISP); Abed Ayoub, Legal Director of the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC); and Todd Gallinger, Director of Chapter Development at Council on Islamic Arab Relations (CAIR). The panelists emphasized the need for American Muslim organizations to use the information provided to improve awareness within their communities. They stressed that continued civic engagement is important.
The ISPU reports studied existing poll data Zogby, Gallup, MAPS from 2002-2010 and has released these findings. Muslims in America are politically involved;70 percent of them pay attention to politics most or some of the time. 86 percent said that it is important for them to participate in politics. Among those citizen and are eligible to vote, American Muslims have some of the highest rates of voter registrations.The data suggest that American Muslims are concerned with domestic issues, with the economy in particular.
Being active members of their faith-based communities results in higher acts of civic engagement. The higher the rate of religiosity or actively involvement in the masjid , the more involved Muslims are in political participation.
The Muslim Bloc Vote
The American Muslim Taskforce (AMT), a think tank with a Political Action Committee (PAC) is set to conduct its own poll and may endorse a presidential candidate by late October. “Muslim voting block is very critical.” Naeem Baig, Chairman of American Muslim Taskforce said as he addressed a leadership conference for young American Muslim activists and emerging leaders in Virginia.
Earlier in the election cycle, AMT urged voters to use the following criteria to select a presidential candidate: Position on Civil Rights, Performance Record, Funding Sources, Campaign Coalitions, and Inclusiveness.
Omar Zaki, President of CAIR National said he is seeing mobilizing in key states.” Look at 2000 and today, there is a difference in night and day in American Muslim activism. We have to control the issues. People need to understand the concerns and stop being pawns.” Affluent American Muslims must vote as a bloc and not change side from election year to election year, he told a packed hall at the CAIR Annual convention.
“We are emotional we need to take the emotions out otherwise we won’t make a difference. We will see the differences in 10-15 years. Patience and perseverance as the Prophet Sallallahu 'alyhi wa sallam taught us.”
DC political activist Talib Karim quotes classical scholarship when he emphasizes the need to vote as a community, on there being an agreement based on the best interest of the community. ”If we are acting independently on our own that is against the proper protocol of engagement. As I understand the allowances in being allowed to vote in non Muslims land, one of the criteria is that Muslims vote as a bloc for the benefit of all Muslims.” said Karim. His organization, the Muslim Democratic Caucus is not formally a part of AMT; he felt that they should be invited to join.
As the November election date comes closer Muslim Democrats are in full swing. A record number of Muslims delegates attended the Democratic convention this year. A recent action alert sent by the Muslim Democrats stated that Muslims have far more voters in these states than the margin of victory. It means if Muslims vote and mobilize other Democratic votes, they can actually make a huge difference by swinging a state and determining the results of a national election.
Groups like Muslims for Obama are using social media like Facebook to encourage young Muslims to volunteer time at The Democratic National Convention Headquarters phone bank. Asking them to “exercise your active role as an American Muslim and take part in one of the most historic political campaigns!”
After 9/11 the community as a whole started shifting away from the Republican platform after throwing themselves behind George W. Bush and voted for John Kerry in 2004. In the 2008 election Muslims put their overwhelming support behind Democrats.
Obama’s Report Card and the Muslim Vote
This year the challenge that civic leaders and organizations face is that many American Muslims are not too excited about either presidential candidate or party. This voter apathy is seen across the board, across ages, professions, ethnicities. Much of this results from Muslims putting their hopes on President Obama, expecting a wave of change, only to be disappointed.
Many of the points the Muslim community asked President Obama to address after his election were not met. Obama failed to remedy civil rights problems with the immigration enforcement program, "Secure Communities.” He has failed to reform Guidance Regarding the Use of Race in Federal Law Enforcement, which allows racial profiling in national security and border integrity investigation and opened the door to the FBI's racial and ethnic mapping program. He backtracked on his promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay. He has voted to extend the Patriot Act, calling it a useful tool and recently passed the National Defense Authorization Act which allows for indefinite military detention. The failure to end secret evidence, halt the application of ex post facto laws and Electronic Surveillance, coupled with his foreign policy, use of predator drones on civilians in in Muslim countries and extrajudicial killings of American citizens rankles many prior Muslim supporters.
In 2009 Muslim leaders, under the umbrella of AMT, highlighted their concerns to the Obama Administration facing the Muslim population in America.
1. Stop Infiltrating and Spying on Mosques -- Failed
2. Stop Entrapment, Agent Provocateurs --- Failed
3. Stop Targeting Legitimate Organizations --- Failed
4. Eliminate Guilt by Association -- Failed
5. Disassemble Fusion Centers --- Failed
“The challenge is that Muslims are not too excited [about the Presidential Election]. Obama’s tone is softer, however Islamophobia has increased, The extreme right was let loose. The Republican platform has openly attacked and questioned our loyalty. There were 742 Muslim under watch under George Bush administration, today there are more than a 1 million people on the terror watch list under the Obama Administration.” Baig stated.
“You have two individuals that campaign against each other spending millions and millions of dollars on advertisements, talking about how they promise a change in the country when in reality nothing is in their hands. In my eyes the presidential election is just two animals facing off on who should be king of the jungle. But in all honesty the president is just a puppet. Whether it would be Obama or Romney as President nothing will change for the Muslims. We are ruled by a corrupt government and by changing the president, nothing happens. Its a waste.“ Mustafa Abdul Rahman, 18, College Student.
Yalla Vote! is a project of the Arab-American Institute. They say that “ the Arab-American community has been organized and engaged more than ever before, and we're not the only ones that are noticing.” On Friday, October 12, 2012, they endorsed Mitt Romney and the Romney campaign announced “Arab Americans for Romney,” a national coalition of Arab American supporters of Gov. Mitt Romney’s bid for the presidency of the United States. This comes as a surprise to many Arab-American Muslims, who look at his choice of Middle Eastern Advisor, Walid Phares and see a war criminal.
Another leading national organization, MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council) has been hosting presidential debate viewing parties in their national headquarters in Washington D.C. Recently, the Muslim Public Affairs Council conducted a national online poll of American Muslims to determine the top 10 concerns in this election. According to their results, immigration, the environment, taxes and the federal budget, and national security were the highest on the list. This was an online poll, so the demographics reached may have been different if a different methodology was used. Results may have been vastly different as well.
The diversity of American Muslims is a challenge for leaders, as accurate numbers are difficult to gather and language and cultural differences make identifying and educating the Muslim voter a challenge. Thus ethnic, political and civil rights organizations play a crucial role in reaching out to voters.
Members of ADC (Anti-Discrimination Committee) and SAALT (South Asian American Leading Together), two ethnic based organization which see a major overlap in the American Muslim demographics are both on the ground raising awareness, helping with voter registration.
Teaching about the history of voting rights serves a purpose in the South Asian community. Voting Rights did not come easy and should not be taken for granted; anti-naturalization laws were challenged in the 1900s by South Asian immigrants and it wasn't until 1965 that most immigration and naturalization restrictions against South Asians were lifted, campaigns SAALT.
Manar Waheed is the new policy director for SAALT, she says their effort have largely focused on spreading voting information in specific languages, before the elections, as mandated by law. “People are excited to get information in their native language” There are 3.4 million South Asians in the country, with 1 million eligible to vote. in our outreach, we have found the community with a high volume successful. registrations.We have been setting up tables in localities with a high density of South Asians, markets, mosques; engaging people and religious leaders; Imams have been very supportive,” said Waheed.
Virginia is a Swing State : Every vote counts
Northern Virginia has one of the highest concentrations of American Muslims. There are currently 60,000 to 70,000 Muslims in Virginia according to a report released by the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). They can create a voting bloc in Northern Virginia. Battleground states such as Virginia with such a high concentration of Muslims could tip the scale for candidates.
According to the recently released Zogby poll, sponsored by the Arab American Institute (AAI), recent immigrants are more likely to be independents and do not have a party affiliation, coupled with the data, from other studies, that most Arab Americans and South Asian Americans are undecided, leads many to believe that blocs such as these could decide the election for the president. According to poll, 100K voters are up for grabs in key states including VA.
This trend is reflected in the larger Asian American voters as 1 out 3 Asian American are independents according to a recent study by University of California-Berkeley.
Ramakrishnan one of the authors of the study noted that the population of Asian Americans is growing in three swing states, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia, and their votes have the potential to tip the scale for either political party. He estimated that an additional 600,000 Asian-American voters would likely participate nationally in this year’s election, about as many new voters as they added in 2008.
With the passing of long term activist, Br. Muqit Hossain, Talib Karim thinks that GOTV efforts in Virginia may have slowed down. “I don’t know where they are at this point in their mobilization.” he said.However, next generation activists are emerging. Colin Christopher, 28, is a Muslim community organizer, working on voter registration in Virginia in masjids and on campuses for a non-partisan non-profit, All Hand on Deck. He believes that the turnout will be a lot less than 2008. “Foreign policy has been an afterthought in this election and there is less interest in the Muslim community.”
There are also a lot of challenges and the challenges differ from community to community, Islamic center to Islamic center. In Northern Virginia, “the community is extremely diverse, many do not speak English, there is a lack of enthusiasm and a lack of information especially amongst new citizens.” Many citizens, however, especially those who are recently-naturalized, are not fully proficient in English and, thus, cannot effectively participate in the electoral process. Barriers to understanding voting materials, such as voter registration forms, ballots and complicated referenda issues that appear on ballots, can discourage many citizens from exercising their right to vote.
Intrusion in privacy, racial profiling and government agencies spying on Muslim communities has led to a distrust in communities especially, in Northern Virginia. “Folks feel like they were targeted unfairly and don’t trust this aspect of society or the political process.” said Christopher as he prepares a last push to get voters registered after the Jumuah prayers.
However, “there is still a lot of opportunity that hasn’t been tapped,” said Christopher. “In some areas, other communities are much older and integrated and the political discourse is more nuanced. “ Individual Islamic Centers, such as the ADAMS have stepped in as the election nears, using town hall-style meetings to educate their congregants about the two national campaigns. President Barack Obama's Virginia Campaign Manager Brian Moran visited ADAMS on October 14, 2012.
According to ADC, seventeen states have passed restrictive voting laws that will impact the 2012 election ( including Pennsylvania, Rhode Island,Virginia and West Virginia). These states account for 218 electoral votes, nearly 80 percent of that needed to the presidency. Laws like these intimidate and deter minority voters. 11 percent of American citizens who are eligible voters do not possess a government-issued photo ID. That is over 21 million citizens.
Virginia changed its voter identification requirements by eliminating the option of executing an affidavit of identity when voting at the polls or applying for an absentee ballot in person, while expanding the list of acceptable IDs.. These laws purport to reduce voter election fraud however,according to New York University's Brennan Center Policy Report, statistically, Americans are more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than be involved in voter identification fraud in an election.
There are voices in the local Muslim community who still do not want to engage in the political process for various reasons. When asked if they would be voting in the election, some said no because it is a futile exercise. Other felt that their conscious would not let them vote. “No, I will not. I voted in the last one hoping for a change that never came. I do not want to be one of those who are somewhat responsible for killing my Muslim brothers and sisters in the world. As a Muslim, my voice is not even taken into consideration nowadays. If it was Ron Paul, maybe. “ Jameela Cattaneo, Homemaker, 36, Lanham, MD.
Some long time active voters are thinking of sitting this election out “I will not be voting. I have voted in every election for many years and this year will be the first I have not voted in quite some time. Basically, I won’t be voting because I don't believe Romney will make a good President for too many reasons, and I don't agree with his stance on certain key issues, and I fell for Obamas' "change" campaign last election and very little has changed. I admit things are a bit better now than they were, but not enough for me to vote and give him 4 more years to do very little more.” said Mujahid Ali, Martial Arts Instructor, Haymarket, VA.
Nationally Muslim activists and leaders continue to push civic engagement on the voters. “Every eligible person should register to vote. A person who is not registered to vote is politically non-existent and has no voice,” Salam al Maryati, MPAC President in Los Angeles. This voice is echoed on the East Coast by Nihad Awad, of CAIR National, “Muslims aren’t satisfied, but boycotting should not be an option for Muslims even if we don’t have the enthusiasm to vote Democratic or Republican.”
Jameel Johnson, a longtime activist and former Congressional staffer says, ‘We cannot wait for the ‘perfect candidate.’”
“Where do we gain more than we lose, who can help us more than hurt us? My advice to use Prophetic model, what he (peace be upon him) did in Hudaibiyah. Look at the entirety of the situation . There were elements that were totally unacceptable in context of the larger picture, we have to use the same hikmah,” says Talib Karim, who is on the mayor’s staff in DC,“support does not mean endorse, we are obligated to voice our opposition to policies that oppose our values.”
Local Issues Galvanize Communities
In DC and Maryland, the Muslim Democratic Caucus and Prince George County Muslim Council are two local organizations very active in GOTV (Get out and Vote) activities. Maryland has the highest concentration of Muslims is where two percent of the adult population of Maryland is Muslim.
Even though many Muslims are struggling with overcoming apathy, getting past election information overload, local issues are galvanizing involvement in Maryland. “Personally, I have seen this apathy since I became a Muslim,” says Jameel Johnson, who is also the President of Prince George’s County Muslim Council. “It has gotten so much better over the years, as we have Islamic scholars behind American Muslim political activism. Local issues have also spurred Muslims into action, we see a huge amount of voter registrations. When the government is asking us what do you think, they know that they have an obligation to respond.”
Local mom groups, homeschooling groups and listservs are also using their social media to mobilize voters. Some of them may not even be aware of the term, GOTV, but are using their connections to encourage others to vote especially on issues that are important to them. Inayet Sahin is one such concerned citizen, she used her personal and community contacts to spread the word clarifying the language on the Maryland ballot.
“Engage local communities and educate around common agendas, especially local issues and candidates, ISPU’s Zaman instructed local leaders. Local elections for school and water boards . “Our local politicians need to know that we make up a major part of their constituency.”
PGMC is using the organizational strategy of ‘referring to the scholars’. “ We are educating our fellow Muslims on what are the scholars saying,and getting local imams to speak and support political engagement.” Quoting Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah, an Islamic Theologian who lived in the 13th century, Johnson says that Muslims have to safeguard Muslim life in non-Muslim lands.
Voters like Elizabeth Smith, a 32 year old teacher and mother, from Windsor Mill, MD says she will definitely be voting. “Insha Allah. Regardless of which opinion one follows as to the permissibility of voting for elected officials, for those living in MD, Allahu 'alim it seems to be a clear Muslim duty to vote this year. The reason is that there are 3 referendums that require a straight yes/no vote as to whether one supports the measure and thus it is an easy opportunity to encourage the good. One is whether same-sex marriage should be allowed in MD. Another is whether gambling should be expanded in MD. And the third is whether immigrant children who were brought to the US illegally, but who have graduated from school in MD and have lived here for several years, should be given the opportunity to attend community college and later university at the in-state rate. I will certainly be voting on these insha allah.”
Melvin Bilal who is a lawyer from Baltimore City, MD is an active member of the Maryland Marriage Alliance preaches,“Vote just on these issues, even if you never vote, you must on these local issues.”
Political Cooperation after the Election
The political process is not a once in four year event and many community leaders emphasize the need to develop long term strategies. Christopher sees the gap within the actual mosque; he feels that there is tension around the political process, even non-partisan engagement and this needs to be addressed before the next election. Even Muslim Student Associations, although supportive, are reticent to get involved.
Post-election SAALT plans on collecting post-election data on voter trends, xenophobic rhetoric, problems at the polls.
Calling on all Muslim organizations in the DMV area, Talib Karim of the Muslim Democratic Caucus highlights the need to build a constructive coalition of brothers and sisters on a yearlong basis, not just during election time. “There is need for political involvement on a year round basis. “We have to commit ourselves to maintain our political cooperation with one another in a holistic range of cooperation economic, academic, healthcare serves etc as needed by the community,” emphasizes Karim.
American Muslims especially this close to the nation’s capital need to do a better job in organizing themselves post-election, breaking down the walls of ethnicity, race, indigenous and immigrant status that impede social, economic and political development.
Talib Karim sums it up when he reminds Muslim voters, “our goal is much larger. an invitation to Islam to all people, to join our ranks or become allies.”