- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

What new political constituency is morally conservative, liberal on social-welfare issues and highly educated with a median household income of $69,000 a year?

Muslims.

Fueled by a cohort of Gen-X believers born in this country and educated in American schools, they're following the footsteps of Jews who arrived here a century ago.

"We've become more vocal in working within the system," says Neveen Salem, spokeswoman for the American Muslim Council, whose headquarters are on New York Avenue three blocks from the White House. "We're no longer these immigrants who've come to the States."

About 30 Muslim Hill staff have their own Islamic prayer meetings on Fridays in one of the House meeting rooms beneath the Capitol rotunda. Jemeel Johnson, chief of staff for Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat, is the highest-ranking Muslim staffer.

Two Muslim political groups put on a show of strength last month. On "Muslim Day on Capitol Hill" on June 22, two dozen members of Congress attended a dinner sponsored by the AMC. Five members of Congress and a Senate staffer attended an open house on June 14 at the Council on American-Islamic Relations' new $2.5 million Capitol Hill headquarters.

Rep. James P. Moran, a Democrat from a Northern Virginia district with a large number of Muslims, attended both.

All of the presidential candidates were invited to the AMC's annual convention in Arlington last month, which was covered by CNN. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, the only presidential hopeful who attended, downplayed his anti-immigration stance, Miss Salem said, and played up his opposition to abortion and his belief that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine.

"The political leadership now accepts Muslims as part of the American reality," says Sulayman Nyang, a Howard University professor co-directing the Muslims in the American Public Square project at Georgetown University. "But there's a great deal of prejudice at the popular level. The Muslims are still the new kid on the block."

There was a time when no candidate would be seen publicly with a Muslim group.

"Arab-American contributions used to be turned down by political candidates," says Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "Anyone who didn't do so was suspect. In 1988, [Democratic presidential nominee] Michael Dukakis rejected an endorsement from an Arab-American democratic federation. That was back in a different period."

That was then. Now President Clinton is presiding at a White House celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

"We're getting there," says Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR. "Muslims are taking their seat at the table in all aspects of public life."

Or at least they're trying.

About 700 Muslims are running for offices nationwide this election cycle, from city councils to mayor's offices to national party conventions, says Lubna Javaid, executive director of the 6,000-member American Muslim Alliance in Freemont, Calif. In Texas alone, she said, 100 Muslims have been elected as delegates to Republican and Democratic national conventions. A Muslim city councilwoman in Tuskegee, Ala., is running for mayor there, and a male Muslim is running for mayor of Selma, Ala.

The bulk of candidates are black. A few are Asian immigrants, Miss Javaid said. Blacks tend to run as Democrats. Immigrants tend to run as Republicans.

"Our goal is not only to activate American Muslims, but to send a message to mainstream America that Muslims care about politics," she said.

Muslims have yet to break into Congress. Eric Vickers, a Muslim candidate for Missouri's House District 1, based in St. Louis, faces a bruising Aug. 8 Democratic primary for the seat being vacated by Rep. William L. Clay. One of the six contenders is Mr. Clay's son, William L. Clay Jr.

"We're beginners," Mr. Awad says, "but we're good beginners. We're learning fast and a lot."

AMC's executive director, Aly Abuzaakouk, ticks off a decade of accomplishments since the group's founding in 1990.

In 1991, he says, a Muslim guest chaplain gave the first Islamic prayer in the House. The Senate followed suit a year later. In 1993, the Department of Defense began recruiting Muslim chaplains. The Clintons began observing the end of Ramadan in 1996.

"The highest executive officer in our land recognizes Muslims as a cornerstone of our society," he says.

In February 1999, the State Department began having roundtable discussions with about 20 Muslim leaders every six weeks, culminating in a request to put the word out for more Muslims to apply for U.S. government positions. On Dec. 24, during Ramadan, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright hosted a reception for Muslim leaders.

"Seventy years ago," Mr. Awad says, "there were no mosques in this country. Now there are 1,500. There are Islamic schools and political organizations. Until now, the Arab and Muslim vote has been absent. We've seen indications that interest is growing."

In fact, Sept. 15 will be an official Muslim voter-registration day at mosques around the country. Recent polls commissioned by both CAIR and the AMC show the country's 4 million to 5 million Muslims as largely undecided on candidates. "When we asked our community who they wanted, 16 percent said Democrats, 16 percent said Republicans and 68 percent were undecided," Mr. Abuzaakouk says.

"Domestically, Muslims are most interested in education. There are 400 full-time Muslim schools in the country. But that is nothing. That doesn't even house 5 percent of Muslim children, which means most Muslims must go to public schools."

"The more we participate," the AMC director says, "the more people will listen to us. We want our community to play politics, starting from the PTAs to Pennsylvania Avenue. We tell them, 'If you are voteless, you are weightless in this society.' "

Mr. Nyang believes ethnic blocs such as the Muslims will prove crucial in November.

"The only way the big parties are going to win is get the undecided," he says. "Small groups like the Muslims and other enclaves could become part of the swing votes. When it comes to family values and school vouchers, the upper-middle-class Muslims gravitate to the Republican Party. But when it comes to social justice and social-welfare issues, the Muslims go toward the Democrats."

Ethnically, Muslims divide into three major groups: Indian and Pakistani immigrants, Arabic-speaking immigrants and American blacks. Seventy to 80 percent of all Arab-Americans are Christians, says Mr. Zogby, whose parents immigrated here in the first part of the 20th century. They are sympathetic toward more recent Arab immigrants who are Muslims.

For instance, Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for president, is Arab-American.

"All the major campaigns have reached out to us," Mr. Zogby says. "As an Arab-American, I look back where we were 20 years ago today, and look where we are now and see a world of difference."

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