The Muslim vote may carry new meaning at the general election ballot box this November, particularly in key swing states such as Florida and Michigan, according to a January report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Washington.
But the power of numbers isn’t the only push behind this “Muslim swing vote.” Rather, the study suggests a swing in overall political participation: higher levels of political engagement, increased tendency to value domestic policy over foreign policy when making voting decisions, and a link between masjid involvement and voting likelihood.
“American Muslims are invested in the U.S., increasingly engaged in its political process and have a real stake in its future,” ISPU Research Director Farid Senzai, said. “As second and third generation Muslims mature and reach voting age, the community is becoming far more sophisticated in its effort to bring about political change.”
Although the U.S. Census does not measure religious affiliation, estimates suggest Muslims comprise 0.6 percent of the U.S. population. Though this population is miniscule, experts believe there is potential for increased levels of political engagement, particularly in battleground states.
Voter turnout rates are at 66 percent, 13 percent lower than the general public. But these numbers may increase as most of the American Muslim population is relatively young – almost 60 percent are between 18 and 39 compared to 40 percent of the general public, the study shows.
The study, which aggregates randomized surveys from sources such as the Pew Research Center, Gallup, and Muslim American Public Opinion Survey (MAPOS) between 2004 and 2011, is the first of its kind, but is hampered by a limited nationally representative sample of the Muslim population and limited ability to breakdown changes and responses based on subgroups, the study concedes.
Maryland and Virginia sport some of the highest concentrations of Muslims, the study shows. Maryland may have a 2 percent adult population of Muslims, while Virginia may have 1 percent.
9/11 is credited with galvanizing this community – with over 70 percent Muslims paying attention to politics most or some of the time, according to a Pew survey.
“It was a watershed moment,” Senzai said.
What followed was a shift from the right to the left, fueled by Muslim estrangement as a result of former President George W. Bush’s policies, including the Patriot Act and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
This estrangement tied Muslim party affiliation to the Democratic Party or cemented stronger ties to being an independent, the study indicates.
Now, as Nov. 6 inches closer, Muslims are expected to vote for President Barack Obama once again - despite disappointments in Obama’s foreign policy and due largely to what some voters call a necessary default position to avoid an unappealing Republican presidential candidate.
“Obama has done a good job of alienating the Muslim community, not reaching out to the Muslim community as much as some would have liked,” Senzai said. “Our foreign policy also continues to be quite consistent with the Bush administration.”
However, 76 percent of Muslim Americans continue to support President Barack Obama, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll.
This strong party affiliation, despite disappointments, suggests Muslims may have begun to favor the Democratic Party over being an independent, particularly as Islamophobia is being used to garner votes in congressional campaign, as in the case of Allen West (R-FL) in Florida’s 22nd congressional district and prominent Tea Party members.
“Many Muslims have also come to realize that it is better to affiliate with a party rather than be an independent in order to have some political clout, resulting in more identification as a moderate in their views,” Senzai said.
Despite this swing toward moderation, it is still very unclear as to how unified a Muslim bloc vote can possibly be.
“You look at the Muslim community and you realize it’s not one person. If there will be a unified Muslim bloc is a very open-ended question,” Jen’nan Ghazal Read, associate director for special initiatives at Duke Islamic Studies Center, said.
The report shows that Muslims place emphasis on a candidate’s domestic policy over foreign policy by 11 percent when voting, a trend spurred on as immigrant communities and their native-born children become more vested in the country.
Muslims also have similar stances to the general public on hot button issues such as homosexuality, immigration reform, and the Middle East. African American Muslims have the highest levels of civic involvement, including voter retention rates.
This similarity in voting, however, is offset by differences across the board in voting patterns.
“This is one of the most diverse religious communities. An effort to bring them together under one umbrella is probably misplaced,” Dr. Senzai said.
While the existence of a Muslim bloc is still in question, it is certain that masajid are key building blocks in the push for more political engagement. Higher levels of involvement in masjid-related activities are associated with participation in American politics, opening up an opportunity for masajid to encourage participation.
Masajid, like synagogues and churches, may not explicitly encourage civic engagement, but may simply encourage political participation by providing a platform for community exchanges, lectures, and discussions, Muslim Community Center (MCC) Chairman Arshad Qureshi said.
The community center encourages voter registration by setting up tables during Sunday and Friday services, he said.
“In the end, it’s a battle for ideas,” Senzai said. “If you have one, be part of the conversation. Don’t sit back.”