Congressional elections haven’t meant much to Saadia Chaudhry, who, at 30, has never cast a midterm ballot. But this year Chaudhry is excited about voting in her suburban Maryland district, even though she admits — with a slightly embarrassed laugh — that she’s not even sure who’s running.
“I just know I’m voting for Democrats,” Chaudhry said.
Muslim American voters like Chaudhry, angered by policies they say abuse their civil rights at home and kill and injure Muslims abroad, are expected to turn out in unusually high numbers this year, throwing their support overwhelmingly behind Democratic candidates, observers say.
The boiling frustration with the Bush administration coincides with unprecedented voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns in Muslim communities. Meanwhile, other Muslim voters have been energized by what they see as anti-Muslim rhetoric.
While it is unclear if Muslim American voters have the numbers to tip any tight elections, many believe they have achieved unprecedented levels of political organization and electoral enthusiasm. Their political strength, they hope, will be remembered two years from now when the White House is again in play.
A 2001 poll by Zogby International found that 79 percent of the country’s estimated 2 million to 8 million Muslims are registered to vote. Mukit Hossain of the Muslim American Society told The Washington Post in October there are an estimated 2 million registered Muslim American voters.
Perhaps the biggest sign of growing Muslim political strength is the candidacy of Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who converted to Islam in his 20s and is poised to become the first Muslim ever elected to Congress. His Republican opponent, Alan Fine, said Ellison should drop out of the race because he helped organize the 1996 Million Man March, spearheaded by controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
But Ellison’s campaign has been buoyed by non-Muslim groups who have called Fine’s attacks mudslinging, as well as more than $20,000 in campaign contributions from donors with common Muslim names, according to a review of www.FECinfo.com, a campaign contributions Web site. More than $12,300 of the donations are from out-of-state.
On Long Island, perceived slights against Muslims are playing a role in New York’s 3rd congressional district, where Republican Peter King, a six-term incumbent who won the 2004 election with 63 percent of the vote, is running neck-and-neck with his 36-year-old challenger, Democrat Dave Mejias.
King has repeatedly alleged that 85 percent of American mosques are run by Islamic extremists, including the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, in the heart of his district.
That sort of rhetoric has many of the district’s Muslims making phone calls and ringing doorbells for Mejias, said Faroque Khan, chairman of the board of the Westbury mosque. About 20 donors with common Muslim names have given some $8,000 to Mejias, who has raised more than $664,000.
“I can tell you the community is energized,” said Khan, estimating he knew of “at least 20 to 30” local Muslims working in phone banks and on get-out-the-vote drives for Mejias. “His (King’s) attacks on the community are creating a reaction, as one would expect.”
King’s campaign did not return calls for comment.
But donors with Muslim-sounding names have given at least as much to King, who has raised almost $1.4 million. King has also taken money from members of the same Westbury mosque he accuses of harboring extremists, for which he has been called a hypocrite.
“That’s Congressman King’s campaign: The Muslims are terrorists, I’m protecting us from Muslim terrorists in our own backyard,” said the Rev. Mark Lukens, pastor of Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway, N.Y., who joined other Christian and Jewish leaders to condemn King at a recent press conference. “I can only assume that that resonates with somebody, but I think most people are turned off by that.”
Muslim activists say there have been similar reactions to comments made by incumbent Rep. Mark Kirk and candidate Andrea Zinga, two Illinois Republicans running in separate districts. Sadiya Ahmed, government affairs director for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), says Muslims still haven’t forgotten Kirk’s statement last year that “I’m OK with discrimination against young Arab males from terrorist-producing states,” nor comments Zinga, a former CNN correspondent, made that some perceived as supporting racial profiling.
“They’re not accurately representing their constituents, and that’s angering the Muslim community a lot, and they’re taking the smart approach by being politically active, and hitting them where it really hurts, and that’s with votes,” said Sadiya Ahmed, governmental affairs coordinator for the Chicago chapter of CAIR.
Kirk’s and Zinga’s campaigns did not return calls for comment.
Frustration with administration policies — policies they see as denying Muslims’ civil rights at home and hurting Muslims in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere — is motivating Muslim Americans across the country to vote Nov. 7, even in districts without tight races.
At the same time, many Muslim Americans say watching America’s image suffer abroad is as much a factor in their Democratic leanings.
“The Patriot Act was alarming, and then the war in Iraq clinched it for us,” said Rubina Inamdar, a physician in Jackson, Miss. “America used to be revered and now there’s this harsh cynicism about the big bully that forces people to do what it wants, but doesn’t really follow its own laws.”
According to a survey released in October by CAIR, 42 percent of Muslim American voters considered themselves Democrats, compared to 17 percent who considered themselves Republicans. Only a few years ago, Muslim Americans were largely seen as supportive of Republicans; groups like CAIR even endorsed George W. Bush in the 2000 elections.
The remnant of Muslims who remain Republican credit Bush and the GOP as the party that can transform the Muslim world for the better.
“The Democrats historically have sanctioned Muslim countries and bombed them,” wrote Muhammad Ali Hasan, who heads a Muslim Republican group called Muslims for America, in an e-mail. “The Bush administration and Republican Party have done a terrific job of cultivating the Muslim world as our American ally.”
Muslim American voters are also increasingly involved in state and local campaigns, a sign, some say, of their growing interest in issues like education, health care and the environment.
Parwez Wahid, who worked the phones on a recent night for Deval Patrick, the Democratic nominee for governor in Massachusetts, said getting better representation of Islam in school curriculums is one example of issues that concern Muslims at the local level.
“To get those types of changes,” said Wahid, who registered as a Democrat in 2002 and now heads his town’s Democratic committee, “you have to get involved in the system.”
With new political inroads made this year, Muslims already have higher hopes for the 2008 presidential elections.
“I think every election, it gets better,” said Ahmed, the CAIR official in Chicago, of Muslim political organization. “We started earlier this year and we have a lot more distribution materials than we did two years ago. I hope that we can expand two years from now and have an even bigger operation, and reach an even larger constituency than we did this year.”
Copyright © 2006 Religion News Service.