American Muslims have had a rough time during this election campaign. The suggestion that Barack Obama is a Muslim has formed part of a concerted smear campaign, as if being a Muslim was an insult to what it means to be an American. Here American Muslim playwright and author Wajahat Ali argues that we are witnessing the emergence of an engaged, diverse and progressive Muslim voting community - one that candidates will spurn at their peril.
By Wajahat Ali
The emerging Muslim American electorate resembles the unpopular prom date that is used for a ride, but upon arrival is quickly abandoned to save face and maintain popularity. Meanwhile, the jilted date waits in the parking lot, observing the festivities from outside and hoping she'll be invited for a dance someday.
According to many, the Muslim American electorate's "official" coming out party was in 2000 when they emerged as a small but powerful voting bloc. This new group consisted mostly of first- and second-generation South Asian and Arab immigrants, who favored George W. Bush. (In the 2000 election, George W. Bush garnered 42% of the Muslim vote versus 31% for Democrat Al Gore according to Zogby International and Project MAPS, which conducted the first American Muslim Poll in November 2001.)
Upon the advice and counsel of Republican lobbyist extraordinaire Grover Norquist, President Bush actively sought these votes by pledging to repeal the use of "secret evidence" in detaining immigrants, personally reaching out to mosques, imams and Muslim community leaders for their support. A delighted Norquist boasted, "George W. Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote."
In hindsight, many Muslim Americans liken that myopic decision to a naïve, well-intentioned prisoner personally polishing and loading a rifle and handing it to his own executioner.
Even Muslim Republicans like Hesham A. Hassaballa, a Chicago-based physician and Beliefnet columnist, concedes that fateful decision to vote for Bush paradoxically correlates to the new, progressive Muslim political identity:
"The disastrous Bush presidency - the fruits of which we continue to see on an almost daily basis - has energized all people, not just Muslims, to come out and bring change. I think this is the major thrust for American Muslims this time around."
Basim Elkarra, Executive Director of the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), says that unlike the 2000 election, this new Muslim American base is "progressive, young, and engaged. After eight years of psychological internment, American Muslims are finally coming out of hiding."
However, Muslims' initial zeitgeist of "change" and "hope," as popularized and branded by the Obama campaign, gradually transformed into one of cautious optimism, apprehension and, for some, apathy.
Parvez Ahmed, Professor at the University of North Florida, suggests, "The emergence of Obama, a [biracial, African American] minority, has provided them with reasons to be optimistic. However, the manner in which Obama was goaded with the "Muslim" label and his hesitancy to stand up to the bigotry has dampened enthusiasm in the Muslim community."
Indeed, the shameful use and abuse of Obama's name to pillory and smear him as a terrorist - a tactic used by both Republicans and Hillary Clinton - is so virulent that nearly 13% of Americans think the Baptist Obama is an "undercover" Muslim, and as a result many will not vote for him.
The political toxicity of the "Muslim" label is so poisonous that Shahed Amanullah, founder and editor of Altmuslim.com, voluntarily decided to truncate his "MuslimsforObama.com" advocacy site, and instead use it purely for voter registration and GOTV [Get out the Vote] efforts as to avoid a "boomerang" negatively affecting Obama's campaign.
Naturally, some Muslims grow defensive and cynical, humiliated by the reality that in some sectors "Muslim" is equivalent to a scarlet letter. An oft repeated joke in most Muslim American circles highlighting this cynicism - undoubtedly born from a relentless "War on Terror" and what many perceive to be racially-tinged infringement on civil liberties - is the following:
"Who should we vote for - the Democrats or the Republicans? Well, I guess the Democrats will kill us less. So, we'll vote for the Democrats."
However, Reema Dodin, Democratic aide, disagrees with this bitter assessment and offers:
"American Muslims are not kryptonite, but they are certainly not gold. They are somewhere in between but quickly learning their civics and rising to the call of hopeful politics."
Also, Dodin and other Muslims point to the election of two Muslim American Congressman, Keith Ellison [D-MN] and Andre Carson [D-IN], as proof that America and the political parties are beginning to welcome Muslims to the dance.
"The election of two Muslim congressmen (Reps. Ellison and Carson) has given the Muslim-American electorate some points of light to look towards and feel part of the system, even when the system may not always make them feel that way," says Dodin.
However, one of the most interesting transformations is the jettisoning of a vocal minority's antiquated belief that voting in America is "haram" [forbidden] since America is not an Islamic society overseen by a Caliphate. When asked if Muslims should vote in the 2008 election, every single person I interviewed responded exactly the same way: "Absolutely!"
Hady Amr, a fellow at the Saban Center at Brookings, gives a non-partisan view of the situation:
"I am not a Muslim scholar. I am an American Muslim. As an American, it is my social obligation to vote. It is my religious obligation to make the world a better place. The best way to make the world a better place is engage in civil society. Voting is the most basic element of civic engagement."
And so we see the emergence of the Muslims neither as kryptonite, lepers nor political Morlocks. Instead, they resemble the quintessential American literary character Boo Radley: Harper Lee's misunderstood and feared outcast, prone to salacious gossip and isolated by his reclusive eccentricities. However, when Boo decides to leave his home, he does so only with the intention of helping his neighbor, Scout. Instead of being portrayed as the menacing outsider, the 2008 elections are showing us a proactive Muslim American community: one that is energized in helping themselves, and America, by engaging the democratic system and fulfilling their civic responsibilities.
Wajahat Ali is an American Muslim of Pakistani descent. He is the author of the first Muslim American play, "The Domestic Crusaders," [www.domesticcrusaders.com] which premiered in 2005 at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, and runs a blog, goatmilk www.goatmilk.wordpress.com.