A number of surveys and studies clearly show that historically, Muslim Americans lean more towards the Democratic Party. By looking at Muslim voting behavior over the years, we can try to identify patterns. We can also pose some questions and try to guess what is needed in the evolution of this behavior. Is the Muslim American vote the result of a well organized effort of forming a bloc vote? Or is it more haphazard, where as members of a minority group, we independently arrive to similar conclusions? Do Muslims vote based on “lesser of two evils”, or based on principles and values? It seems to be a combination of all these factors. But as of yet, there seems to be no coherent platform that one can identify as being “Muslim”, whether on the national or local levels.
Local elections are important, but voting trends in Presidential elections are a good way to gauge the collective mindset of communities around America. The first attempts at organizing Muslim Americans into a national bloc vote probably occurred in the 1990’s. In 1992 a handful of Muslim leaders and organizations recommended that Muslims vote for the Republican candidate George Bush Sr, and then in 1996 they supported Democratic candidate Bill Clinton. In 2000, a better organized Muslim community rallied around the domestic policies and social values of the Republican candidate, George W Bush. Muslims correctly identified the Republican Party as standing for issues we can identify with: social and economic conservatism, support for entrepreneurship and family values, and high regard for religion. These were all things that attracted a large portion of the Muslim vote. Bush’s outreach to the Muslim communities, a pledge to pursue a “humble foreign policy”, and an agreement to end the government’s use of secret evidence solidified commitment of Muslims to support him. There are estimates that as much as 75% of Muslim voters voted for Bush in 2000, despite less than 25% of them being registered Republicans.
Bush’s extremely narrow win in Florida, by just a few hundred votes, put him into the White House in 2000. 60,000 Muslims in Florida voted for him. They were considered the swing vote that put him over the top because it was the first time the Muslim community united politically in such an organized and effective manner. Muslim Americans prided themselves on placing a vote that “counted”. But Muslim leaders and communities failed to realize that they were officially inducted into the politics of pandering. Bush and his election campaign had agreed to adopt the demand of Muslim political leaders, which was to end the use of secret evidence. But Bush adopted this not because he was a principled individual who thought it was the right thing to do, but rather because he found it politically expedient. His desire to get elected pushed him to persuade Muslims, and others, to vote for him by saying things that will guarantee their vote. And because of the desire of the Muslim community to be recognized and have influence on an election, many ignored Bush’s personal and family history (which includes involvement in war and big business).
This type of mutual political pandering turned out to be detrimental to the Muslim community. The community was not prepared with the type of political infrastructure and influence needed to maintain any sort of national pressure beyond an election season. Without any significant lobby group, policy think-tank, media resource, or insider access, the Muslim community was in no position to compete with other communities. This was especially true with right-wing power elites, such as AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), PNAC (Project for a New American Century), and Fox News channel. It was difficult for the Muslim community to realize that a neo-conservative takeover of the Republican Party was in progress. And it was almost impossible to foresee the types of difficulties that Muslims were about to encounter over the next 10 years.
After 9-11, Muslims reacted to the over-aggressive military and security policies by vowing to never vote Republican again. It seemed like a justified reaction to the right-wing power elite that started the wars and oppressive policies against Muslim people. It was also a reaction to the increasing intolerance and hostility of some Republicans towards Muslims and the Islamic faith. The 2004 presidential election saw many Muslims placing a protest vote against Bush by voting for John Kerry, who did no direct outreach to Muslim voters. They viewed Kerry as a “lesser of two evils”. This was despite Senator Kerry voting in Congress for the wars, the Patriot Act, the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), and other bills that started and expanded the “war on terror”. But Muslims ignored the fact that the Democratic Party was just as responsible as the Republican Party in enabling the transgressions of government.
By shunning the Republican Party, many Muslims thought that the only alternative was the Democratic Party. They focused on finding a political home in the liberal inclusiveness of a party that now prides itself on its diversity and appeal to people turned off by Republicans. After all, the Democratic vote includes black, Jewish, gay and pro-choice voting blocs, among others. So why not include another group who are unwelcome in the Republican Party? Muslims engaged and supported the Democratic Party despite the conservative nature of Muslims, which puts them at odds with the party’s support for some socially controversial issues, and also puts them at odds with the party’s overwhelming support for the wars and unconstitutional laws. The only real agenda Muslims seemed to be pursuing was finding acceptance in a political party.
By the 2008 presidential election, Muslim Americans became even more disillusioned with the policies and rhetoric of the Republican Party. Public displays of Islamophobia had increased and were mostly coming from Republicans. But the Democrats had candidate Barack Obama who had qualities which superficially made him an attractive choice. Obama had a Muslim father, estranged Muslim family members in Kenya, and Hussein as a middle name which was all endearing to the Muslim community. 80-90% of Muslims voted for him in 2008.
After Obama was elected, Muslim Americans felt some hope that he would bring about the “change” he eloquently campaigned for. They thought that their vote “counted”. But Obama proved that he lacked principles and the moral resolve to make any change or to challenge the status quo. He extended the Bush policies of bailouts to big-business, continued war, and expansion of a domestic police state. He signed off on unconstitutional laws like the Patriot Act, NDAA and CISPA, which all embolden law enforcement in their profiling and targeting of Muslims. He escalated the war in Afghanistan and Yemen. He continues to sign off on a kill list which resulted in the assassination of three Muslim US citizens and hundreds of innocent people. And he approved sanctions on Iran, which collectively punishes all its citizens, even though Iran never attacked or instigated threats against America. Muslim Americans were let down in a way similar to what they experienced in 2000. Once again, Muslim leaders and communities failed to recognize signs from Obama’s past (like his Senate voting record, and associations with big business and lobbyists), which would have warned of things to come. But his after-election behavior was the clear proof the Muslim community needed for them to confirm that the Republican and Democratic parties are two sides of the same coin. Both parties have the same corrupt tendencies. What Bush and the war-party set in motion in 2000, Obama and the big-government party re-enforced in 2008.
One can only speculate as for the reasons of this level of unpreparedness on the national level. But a major factor was that the vast majority of Muslims who were involved in supporting the Republican presidential campaign in 2000 were from an immigrant generation who were new to this country. They were very successful at laying a foundation by building mosques, Islamic centers and schools, but they didn’t yet have a social infrastructure that can support long term political involvement. Without a historical context in American politics, they lacked the knowledge and experience needed to recognize political trends and know what role they can play. They also didn’t share the political identity of the indigenous black Muslim community who are well-established and have first hand knowledge of the psychology and history of America. The black Muslim community didn’t seem to participate in the political flip-flopping that the immigrant community has been part of for the past 20 years.
In previous years, the Muslim vote appeared unified simply because we independently reacted to events in a similar way. But after learning that both parties perpetuate the same harmful policies, it’s now time to re-evaluate things and face the challenge of how to engage this negative landscape. Do we ignore these negative aspects, and focus instead on playing the political game of pandering and lobbying? Do we try to compete with the other interest groups and industries in pressuring and embarrassing political leaders into listening to us? Or do we take a different approach where we stand on uncompromising principles of things like no war, no corruption, no reckless budget and no police state? Are principles and values prioritized over access and acceptance? Which one is worth it?
Where we go from here is up to us. By being relatively young in the American political scene, Muslims still have an opportunity to create an identity that is unique and that does not get absorbed into the status quo. It’s a chance to develop a communal voice that can be called Muslim and American. But there are many questions we need to answer. Is there a way to participate in politics and voting, while not compromising our morals and values? Is there a way to preserve our identity while improving American society? What are our goals of political involvement and what should shape these goals? Are we more concerned about pursuing “liberty and justice for all” (which is something America’s founding fathers dreamed of but no generation has been able to achieve), or more concerned about pursuing the American dream (by fighting for a “piece of the pie” and laying a claim to politics just for the sake of inclusion)? What is the role of government to begin with? Does the protection of “inalienable rights”, which is rooted in American governance, have any commonality with the intentions of Islamic law (maqasid al-shariah)? Is there a way to harmonize these two concepts so that we have some guidance in our involvement in politics? What role does the pursuit of ideals such as justice and liberty play in guiding our involvement? Without having clear answers, then our political involvement will be haphazard and ultimately misguided. If we don’t challenge ourselves by exploring these questions, then our condition will never change, and we’ll have only ourselves to blame.
For the Muslim vote to evolve into something productive, the first step that is needed is for us to abandon the defeatist attitude of “lesser of two evils”. It doesn’t make sense for people with morals and values to constantly rationalize endorsing evil, even if it’s a supposed “lesser evil”. To use this as a standard strategy of political involvement is a stark contradiction to the Islamic precept of ‘forbid evil’. It’s also time to stop thinking that winning is everything. Is it more important for us to be on the winning side rather than the principled side? We should remember that a vote is a reflection of your opinion, morals and values. Voting is your chance to give naseeha (advice) to those in power. If you resign yourself to continuously voting lesser of two evils, then you are voicing your acceptance of it. Nothing will change and you will actually contribute to perpetuating evil, which is forbidden for us to do. But if you disapprove of what those in power are doing, then elections provide an opportunity to give naseeha by registering your disapproval.
When it comes to voting at the presidential level, a vote for Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot or any other non-establishment candidate is a vote of conscience. By simply changing your vote to a non-establishment candidate, it will go a long way in developing ourselves as informed ethical voters. By raising the bar regarding the way we vote, it will make us more critical of the people we support and the issues we advocate. Maybe Muslims should vote for any one of the third party candidates. One example is Gary Johnson. He is a libertarian with some principled positions such as: immediately end all wars, reduce troop levels from bases around the world, end all foreign aid (including to Israel), end the Patriot Act and indefinite detention, reduce the powers of the TSA, reduce the federal budget, and oppose bailouts and lobby groups. Are these positions that an American Muslim should support? If you don’t support any of the third party candidates, then maybe join the write-in campaign for Ron Paul who has a proven track record of challenging the transgressions of the federal government on so many levels.
Another alternative for Muslims is to not vote at all. This can be just as powerful as a principled vote. A non-vote doesn’t mean political disengagement. You can still be a registered Republican or Democrat and be involved in political discourse. But a non-vote is an expression of dissatisfaction with the poor quality of available candidates. It’s a statement of ‘no confidence’ in the options presented to us. A non-vote can also be a disapproval of the political process as a whole. It can be a refusal to take part in electing a person who will legislate convoluted and unnecessary laws which effectively restrict your freedoms or someone else s freedoms in some way.
Whatever strategy one decides, it will be an approach based on principles and responsibility. An approach like this will help restore some dignity to our community and will train us to be more critical about the political process. We need to be resolved enough not to compromise our votes.
Come this November, and for most presidential elections to come, the choices of the two-party system will most likely be evil #1 or evil #2. Although many people feel a personal responsibility to vote in presidential elections, it’s actually more important to participate and vote in local and state elections. Our numbers are insignificant in most states for us to be a swing vote and have any bearing on a presidential election (the 2000 Florida election was a unique exception). But our numbers in many states are significant enough to sway local elections which are more relevant to our everyday lives. However, since the presidential election is fast approaching, and if you feel compelled to vote, then your best strategy is to vote by writing in the person whom you endorse and have faith in. Vote for someone who you believe can faithfully strive for justice and peace. If there is no one who meets your criteria and you have to write in Imam Al-Mahdi or Jesus Christ son of Mary (peace be upon them), then so be it. But whatever you do, do not endorse evil.
Ramy Osman lives in Northern Virginia. This essay appears on www.muslims4liberty.org .