Monday, October 1, 2007

How much political power does the Muslim American Society wield? Depends on whom you ask — and when.

“Ask Jim Webb what kind of impact we have. Ask the governor of Virginia what kind of impact we have,” Mahdi Bray, the Muslim American Society’s executive director told The Washington Times last week.

The Muslim American Society (MAS) claims credit for helping Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, defeat incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen in 2006, and Democrat Tim Kaine defeat Republican Jerry W. Kilgore in 2005. MAS said it has registered 65,000 voters in Virginia since the 2005 gubernatorial race, and most of them backed Mr. Webb in a race decided by fewer than 8,000 votes.

“The Democrat’s win hinged on the Muslim vote,” Mr. Bray said during interviews Tuesday and Wednesday about the organization’s political activities planned for upcoming elections in November and the 2008 presidential race.

On Thursday, however, the clout established by MAS was put to a political test.

The appointment last month of MAS President Esam S. Omeish to Mr. Kaine’s immigration commission was suddenly withdrawn after Steve Emerson, head of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, posted videos on YouTube showing the Northern Virginia surgeon making references to the “Israeli war machine” and the “Jihad way.”

Mr. Kaine asked for his resignation, and Dr. Omeish complied without complaint. He said that day that he did not wish to interfere with the committee’s duties, but later blamed the fracas on a religiously motivated “smear campaign.”

According to other Muslim leaders, the dust-up probably will lead MAS to shift the focus of its political clout, although it isn’t clear what the overall effect will be on its efforts to register thousands of voters nationwide and to recruit future policy-makers and politicians from within its ranks.

“The fiasco associated with the appointment and resignation of Dr. Esam Omeish may actually empower MAS more within their own limited activist Islamist community because it allows them to trump up their victimization agenda even more,” said Zuhdi Jasser, a physician and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

“The majority of Muslims, who I believe do not associate with Islamist organizations but rather look at politics through a secular national lens will, I believe, become even more reluctant to associate with Islamist organizations like the MAS, which primarily carry an agenda of political Islam,” Mr. Jasser said.

There is some debate as to how influential Muslims have been in past elections, as well as on the number of Muslims residing in the U.S. because religion is not a census question. Population estimates run from 2 million to 8 million and include noncitizens, American-born, and foreign-born Muslims.

Religion is part of the exit polling by newspapers and television networks on election day, but the percentage of Muslims is too small to analyze closely, said Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. In 2006, his group did 6,000 exit-poll interviews that noted the respondent”s religion.

“Muslims made up less than 1 percent of those, so it was less than 100 voters,” Mr. Lenski said.

Muslim are gearing up for the 2008 presidential campaign through a dress rehearsal this fall in nearly two dozen states where key local and state elections are being held. The 21 states targeted by MAS include Virginia, Maryland, California and New York.

“We will focus on areas where Muslims are a large concentration of the population and increasing registration where Muslims have the highest possibility to win tight races,” Mr. Bray said. “We are getting our people to understand you don’t build your house from the roof down, but from the ground up. You have to be active at the local level, and this off-season election is a tuneup for the national election.”

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