TOP STORY: ISLAM IN AMERICA: For Muslim voters in presidential race, party lines are nothing sacred

c. 1996 Religion News Service WASHINGTON (RNS)-Ask Earl El-Amin about his choice for president and he’s quick to say that party labels have little to do with his selection process.”I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m a Muslim. That means if the candidate is aligned with my religious beliefs, I vote for them,”said El-Amin, […]

c. 1996 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS)-Ask Earl El-Amin about his choice for president and he’s quick to say that party labels have little to do with his selection process.”I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’m a Muslim. That means if the candidate is aligned with my religious beliefs, I vote for them,”said El-Amin, a Baltimore resident who works on juvenile justice issues for Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat.

Because his Muslim religious beliefs cut across party lines and the liberal-conservative divide, El-Amin said choosing a candidate can be tough. This year’s presidential campaign is no exception.

El-Amin’s situation typifies the political predicament of most American Muslims, members of a fast-growing faith that is struggling for mainstream acceptance and a place on the national political stage. Muslim concerns are so varied that neither of the two leading candidates-President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole-is a clear favorite among Muslim voters.”There is absolutely no such thing as a monolithic Muslim voting bloc,”said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.”With the Jewish community, there’s a consensus of agreement on the need to support Israel. Muslims may have an emotional feeling about Bosnia or Palestine because Muslims are involved, but there’s no real consensus. The community’s just too diverse,”he said.

About 40 percent of the nation’s estimated 3 to 6 million Muslims are African-Americans. Most of the rest are relatively recent immigrants and their descendants. One-quarter of the Muslim population is of South Asian descent-mostly Indian and Pakistani-and about 12 percent traces its roots to Arab nations. The remainder are Iranians, black Africans, Afghans, Indonesians, Malaysians, Turks, Albanians and others.

This myriad of ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds is reflected in the broad range of Muslim political viewpoints.”Muslims can be compared to Catholics,”said Sulayman Nyang, a professor of African studies at Washington’s Howard University and a close observer of the American Muslim scene.”They are as different as Mexican-American Catholics in Southern California are from Polish and Italian Catholics in Chicago or Philadelphia.” Muslims from the Middle East, for example, follow closely what Clinton and Dole have to say about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians-and are generally disappointed by both men, who they say show favoritism for Israel in a play for American Jewish votes.

But for South Asian Muslims, the more important foreign policy issue is Kashmir, the Muslim state that Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan have fought over repeatedly. On this issue, said Nyang, the Republicans’ Cold War tilt toward Pakistan still plays well among Pakistani-born American Muslims. Conversely, Muslims from India view the Republicans with suspicion for the same reason.

African-American Muslims, on the other hand, tend to focus on domestic issues, particularly those that impact inner-city communities.”My heart goes out to Muslims in Lebanon, but that’s not the main issue for me,”said Melvin Bilal, an African-American Muslim who in 1986 lost a bid to become lieutenant governor of Maryland running as a Republican.”We’re from here.” The Muslim community is also far from unified on domestic issues.

African-American Muslims tend to support increased aid to public schools, for example. While Muslim religious schools have begun to spread across the nation, most African-American Muslims still send their children to public schools.

That position puts them in conflict with those suburban, white-collar South Asian immigrants who want Washington to approve a school voucher plan that would help them pay their kids’ private school tuition.

However, two common threads to some degree bind American Muslims together politically.

The first is their deep conservatism on matters of personal morality, a reflection of Islam’s traditional teachings on such issues. Muslims generally oppose abortion and homosexual rights and support positions that they feel will strengthen families.”Middle-class Muslims in particular see themselves as defenders of morality,”said Nyang.

The second is a desire to see Islam accepted as a major American faith. Islam, often called the fastest-growing religion in America, is expected soon to surpass Judaism as the nation’s largest non-Christian faith.


Still, said Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council,”all this talk about how fast we’re growing hasn’t translated into political influence yet. Muslim political development in the United States is still embryonic. We’re still the new kid on the block.” Pollster George Gallup Jr. said the scant attention that’s been paid to Muslim voting patterns is evidence that they have yet to be taken seriously by the political establishment.

No one, he said, has ever statistically separated out the community’s voting history.”Muslims are still lumped into a very large group known as `other,'”he said.


Muslim social conservatism works in favor of Republican candidate Dole because Muslims perceive his party to have a corner on family-values issues.”Muslims want to be associated with people who take a moral stand,”said Bilal, who runs a temporary employment agency in the Washington suburb of Landover, Md.”That puts them on the same wavelength as the center of the Republican party.” Working against Dole, however, is the feeling of some Muslims that the GOP is taking too harsh an approach to cutting back welfare and other public-assistance programs. While Islam teaches self-reliance, it also stresses compassion and social justice.”Muslims are Republicans on family values,”said Nyang,”but Democrats on social welfare.” Muslims-particularly the nearly 60 percent who are members of immigrant communities-are also put off by Republican efforts to sharply reduce immigration.

In addition, many Muslims are concerned by the influence they feel conservative Christians have over Dole and the Republican party. Muslims fear that conservative Christians regard them as non-believers whose growing numbers represent a threat.”We’re not sure how they feel about us,”said Imam Abdulmalik Mohammed, national spokesman for the Ministry of W. Deen Mohammed, by far the largest movement within the African-American Muslim community, claiming more than 2 million followers.”There is a concern they want to impose their beliefs on others.” Imam W. Deen Mohammed-the son of Nation of Islam pioneer Elijah Muhammad-supported Republican President George Bush in the 1992 campaign. This year he favors Democrat Clinton, according to Abdulmalik Mohammed.

One reason for that is Clinton’s attempts to reach out to American Muslims to a degree unmatched by any previous president.

In February, the White House hosted its first-ever reception to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, which signals the end of the holy month of Ramadan. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Eid celebration”an American event.” Her words spoke directly to the Muslim community’s desire for full acceptance. Even Republican Bilal said he was impressed by the Eid reception.”Regardless of whether you agree with Clinton or not, you have to admit he’s given Muslims more respect than they have ever received from a president,”said Khaled Saffuri, deputy director of the American Muslim Council, a leading pro-Islamic lobbying group in Washington.

Still, Clinton has plenty of negatives for Muslims, said Saffuri, an acknowledged Clinton supporter.

Clinton has not appointed a Muslim to his administration and”still doesn’t include mosques along with churches and synagogues”in his pronouncements, said Saffuri.

Clinton also is perceived by Muslims to be too liberal on abortion and other moral issues and opposes organized school prayers-another position favored by many Muslims.

But the issues over which Muslims find the greatest fault with Clinton are in the area of foreign policy-particularly what they regard as his overwhelming bias toward Israel in its struggle with the Arab, and overwhelmingly Muslim, world.

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL TRIM TO END)”President Clinton is beyond the pale on this one for Muslims,”said Yvonne Haddad, a University of Massachusetts professor of Islamic and Middle East history.”A great many Muslims believe the American government is anti-Muslim.” However, Dole also holds no great attraction for Muslims on this issue. Last year, the Kansas Republican pushed legislation to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Muslims looked upon the bill-which was approved-as a bid by Dole for Jewish political support that undercut Palestinian and Muslim claims to Jerusalem. “When Dole spoke up on Jerusalem, he threw people for a loop,”said Haddad.

For Al-Marayati, the Jerusalem issue is proof positive that neither of the 1996 presidential candidates is a strong supporter of Muslim interests. Yet, Al-Marayati-who will be a Clinton delegate from California at this summer’s Democratic party nominating convention-is far from discouraged.

That’s why the emphasis during this presidential election year for Al-Marayati’s organization, as well as other politically oriented Islamic groups, will be voter registration and education.”The American lesson is you have to earn your way into the political process. You can’t expect change overnight,”he said.


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