U.S. Elections 2006 American Arabs and Muslims Begin to Flex Political Muscle

Arab and Muslim Americans, long in the shadows of American politics, are building on the activism they began in 2004. Next month’s likely election of the first Muslim to Congress, coupled with increased campaign donations and a voter registration drive, indicate that the groups are continuing to raise their profiles after briefly becoming less politically active after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

As of Sept. 30, seven Muslim and Arab political action committees had contributed a total of $160,000 to federal candidates, up from $130,000 at the same time during the last election cycle.

There are 52 Arab Americans seeking office this year, up from 49 in 2004, according to the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based lobbying and advocacy group.

At least 35 Muslims are seeking office, according to the Web site of the Muslim Alliance, a California-based advocacy group. Keith Ellison, who is heavily favored, would become the country’s highest-ranking Muslim elected official if he wins an open U.S. House of Representatives seat from Minneapolis.

The Washington-based Muslim American Society has launched a renewed effort to get the nation’s 2.2 million Muslim registered voters to the polls. The strategy includes a revamped Web site, more voter education programs and more voter-registration machines in mosques.

In 2004, 84 percent of registered Muslims voted — far above the national average — compared with 41 percent in 2000, according to the Muslim American Political Action Committee. University of Akron political scientist John Green said participation levels increased because Muslims and Arab Americans were frustrated by what they felt was the singling out of some community members for harassment after Sept. 11.

The Arab American Institute has a voter registration and get-out-the-vote effort as well. It includes placing signs in English and Arabic in neighborhoods with many Arab Americans, reading, “our vote is our power.”

“The threats to civil liberties from the Patriot Act and concern about the war in Iraq are sources of great concern in our community. That is really motivating our members to vote in greater numbers,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

His organization has formed alliances with a broad array of politicians, including Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, a Jew, because Rendell has been responsive to Arab American concerns on economic and civil rights issues.

Zogby said campaign giving has been strong this year, but victims of the war in Lebanon are receiving some funds that might otherwise have been donated to U.S. political candidates.

Officials of four Muslim advocacy organizations did not return requests for comment.

Of the 3.5 million or so Arab Americans in the United States, 60 percent are Christian. Significant concentrations of Arab Americans live in California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all of which have closely watched races this year.

Approximately 4.7 million Muslims live in the United States, more than 80 percent of them black Muslims or non-Arabs from South Asia. California, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas have the largest number of mosques, according to the U.S. State Department.

“The Muslim and Arab communities around Detroit can make a significant difference in individual races, but elsewhere they don’t have the numbers. But they can make a bigger impact by raising money and joining broader coalitions,” the University of Akron’s Green said.

In 2004, Arab Americans and Muslims supported Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over President Bush by 72 percent to 28 percent. In 2000, Bush received 46 percent of their support, according to exit polls.

Efforts by conservative activists such as Grover Norquist to include Arab Americans in the Republican coalition were complicated by Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq.

Both parties face obstacles in attracting Muslims and Arab Americans to their permanent support bases.

Bush has made several well-publicized visits to mosques and has gone to great lengths to note that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are against terrorism, not against Islam. But he angered Muslims and Arab Americans in several speeches by referring to some terrorists as “Islamic fascists.”

Many Democrats have criticized the war in Iraq and what they see as Bush administration attempts to restrict civil liberties at home. However, the strong influence of Jews in the party could make it difficult for Democrats to be overly receptive to the agenda of Arab Americans and Muslims.

The Arab American Institute says its top priorities include a more “balanced” U.S. approach to the Middle East, including advocating for a Palestinian state. After Sept. 11 it opposed racial-profiling efforts that the group said unfairly targeted those of Arab background, and opposed the war in Iraq.

A survey of 1,000 registered Muslim voters by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, released Tuesday, found that 69 percent believe a “just” resolution to the Palestinian cause would improve America’s standing in the Muslim world; 66 percent support working toward normalization of relations with Iran; 55 percent are afraid that the war on terrorism has become a war on Islam; 12 percent believe the war in Iraq was a worthwhile effort; and just 10 percent support the use of the military to spread democracy in other countries.

There currently are five Arab Americans in the U.S. Congress, all of them Christian: Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.).

Two others are seeking to join those ranks. In Michigan, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard is the GOP challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Republican businessman Ahmad Hassan is seeking to defeat U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) in a Houston district. Both parties have ranked those races as likely to go Democratic.

While Arab Americans have made progress in fund raising, they lag considerably behind pro-Israel groups.

From 1990 through 2004, Arab Americans gave $788,968 in individual donations, political action committee contributions and soft money to federal parties and candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

During the same period, pro-Israel groups and individuals donated $56.8 million.

The candidacy of Ellison, a black convert to Islam, has been a source of both pride and discomfort for some Muslims. A state representative and lawyer, Ellison has past ties to the Nation of Islam, including work on the Million Man March. As a student, he wrote articles defending Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan against charges of racism and anti-Semitism. He has since repudiated Farrakhan. Ellison has earned the endorsement of the American Jewish World, the local Jewish newspaper.

Sumbal Muhammad, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Minnesota, told Newsweek that Ellison’s candidacy was “bittersweet,” because while it has increased the level of pride in the Muslim community it also has triggered increased criticism of the Muslim political agenda.

Claude R. Marx is a political columnist for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.

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