Muslim-Americans say they are more interested than ever before in the political process, in part because their religion has been reduced to a talking point in the presidential campaign.
Like many other Americans, the estimated 2.3 million Muslims living in the U.S. have been hurt by a limping economy, a problematic healthcare system and an unclear immigration policy. And the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also hit close to home.
Fatema Biviji, 32, had never given much thought to politics until she received an e-mail earlier this year that said — falsely — that Sen. Barack Obama is a Muslim. The Internet hoax, its origin unknown, was apparently intended to tie Obama to terrorism and swing support to his opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain.
“I was so mad,” Biviji said. “The premise of that email is that a person’s religion should decide a person’s character.
“We’re America, the melting pot, the land of diversity, and that Americans would be buying into that psychology [of the e-mails] was upsetting,” said the New Jersey-born Muslim, whose parents are from India. “The e-mail offended my American ideals.”
Obama has stated repeatedly that he is a Christian and emphatically pledged his patriotism.
Biviji began to research Obama and could relate to his international background, his years in Indonesia as a young man, and his father’s Kenyan roots. And his views on the issues aligned with hers.
So she began chatting with members of her community in Irving, Texas, encouraging people to register to vote and become more active. She began blogging about the presidential election and formed a grassroots organization with about 100 members who have helped register dozens of people to vote, she said. Her blog is featured on Obama’s campaign Web site.
But Biviji said it hasn’t always been easy for Muslim-Americans to support candidates who don’t usually seem to support them.
“Neither candidate has visited a mosque,” said Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil liberties and advocacy group. “It might not be a gesture that’s the politically right thing to do, but it’s the morally right thing,” Rehab said. CAIR has registered thousands of Muslim voters across the country.
He said he was approached by one of the major parties to run for office this year. But he decided against it.
“If you have one guy [Obama] who has a Muslim father that he really never knew and who isn’t a Muslim being hounded, then imagine a guy like me who works so publicly in support of rights for Muslims,” said Rehab. “I’m not sure I want to go through that.”
But Asma Hasan, a 34-year-old from Colorado writes the blog “Glamocracy” for Glamour magazine, said she thinks Muslims are more likely to jump into the political fray. “I think people tend to be more open to different points of view now than they were before,” she said. “It’s not a perfect environment, but it’s getting better.”
Her brother Mohammad Ali Hasan, 28, is Muslim and Republican.
He is running for a Colorado state Senate seat.
“If I don’t win, it’s not because I’m a Muslim,” he said, laughing. “It will likely be because I’m a Republican.”
Asma Hasan said it can be a challenge sometimes to reconcile being a Republican and being a Muslim.
“A lot of this election is about the Iraq war, the GOP’s support for the war and ultimately how we handle that war now,” she said. Several younger voters have e-mailed her about her blog items filed from the campaign trail with thoughtful, substantive political comments and questions. They are excited about the election and they plan to vote, she said.
“But that’s the beauty of politics because it doesn’t matter what your religion is or your cultural background or who your family is,” she said. “You make decisions on who to vote for based on a lot of different factors — not just one. And I think people are interested this year. There are definitely a lot of younger people, and a lot of younger Muslims, who are going to vote.”
Asma Hasan echoed Rehab’s frustration about the occasional fumbles of the candidates toward the Muslim community. She pointed to a June incident at an Obama rally.
Two women were told not to sit behind Obama because they were wearing head scarves. Campaign volunteers thought it would would look bad if the women were seen behind the candidate in a photo or on television.
The Obama campaign quickly apologized, and a campaign spokeswoman said that the incident was not reflective of Obama’s message, according to the New York Times.
More recently, a woman at a McCain rally in Minnesota stood up and faced the candidate. She said she doesn’t support Obama because “He is an Arab.” McCain shook his head and replied, “No ma’am, no ma’am.”
Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a Republican, endorsed Obama for president on Sunday, praising Obama as a candidate who is “inclusive.” Powell said he had heard members of his own party suggest that Obama is a Muslim.
“What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” Powell said. “No, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim kid believing that he or she can be president?”
Powell made the endorsement on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and went on to say that he was disturbed by recent attacks the McCain camp had lobbed at Obama.
“It troubled me. We have two wars. We have economic problems. We have health problems. We have education problems. We have infrastructure problems. We have problems around the world with our allies. So those are the problems the American people wanted to hear about, not about [1960s radical William] Ayers, not about who is a Muslim or who’s not a Muslim,” Powell told reporters after the endorsement.
“Those kinds of images going out on Al-Jazeera are killing us around the world,” Powell continued. “And we have got to say to the world, it doesn’t make any difference who you are or what you are. If you’re an American, you’re an American.”
“That was over the top. It was beyond just good political fighting back and forth,” he said. “And to sort of throw in this little Muslim connection, you know, ‘He’s a Muslim and, my goodness, he’s a terrorist’ — it was taking root. And we can’t judge our people and we can’t hold our elections on that kind of basis.”
After Powell’s announcement, McCain told Fox News he considered Powell and himself “longtime friends” and that he respected him.
Powell also referred to a photo essay from a magazine featuring a photo of a mother resting her head on the tombstone of her son at Arlington National Cemetery. The tombstone lists the soldier’s awards, including a Purple Heart, that were earned in Iraq. The solider was Kareem Khan, a 20-year-old Muslim from New Jersey.
The soldier’s father, Feroze Khan, said he wants to personally thank Powell for his statement.
“All my son wanted to do was serve his country,” he told CNN. “Since he was a boy, he wanted to be in the Army. That was his dream. That’s the only thing he ever wanted.”
“It was not about how he was Muslim, it was about who he was and what he stood for,” Feroze Khan said. “He told me, ‘I am going to fight for my faith, not against it.'”
Feroze Khan doesn’t want to talk about politics. What the candidates say about his religion is of little importance to him. His son defined what he believes in..
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