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Politics Mondays: Interpreting the Muslim vote

Of all the groups scrutinized since the election, one has been overlooked: Muslim-Americans. For whom did they vote? Were they motivated by moral or religious values? Which mattered more to them, foreign policy or domestic issues?

These questions have not been asked in part because exit polls did not provide data about Muslim voters. Nonetheless, there is much fragmentary evidence offering valuable insights.

According to James Gimpel at the University of Maryland, registration levels for individuals with Arabic names in places like San Jose, Los Angeles, Tampa, and Queens increased dramatically since 9/11. If such new registrants voted, then record numbers of Muslims overcame long-standing misgivings about their political participation in a non-Muslim society.

Pre-election surveys indicate that between 70 and 80 percent of Muslims voted for John Kerry. This is hardly surprising, given that most Muslims, certainly most leaders, accuse President Bush of betraying his 2000 campaign promise to protect them from racial profiling and other infringements on their civil liberties.

Pre-emptive war in Iraq and Bush's staunch support for Israeli Prime Minister Sharon also contributed to this lopsided outcome -- although Muslims generally did not discern much difference between Bush and Kerry on Mideast issues.

One surprise is that the partisan shift of Muslim voters since 2000 is not quite as dramatic as claimed. Then as now, there was no reliable exit poll data. Then as now, the void was filled by leaders claiming to have delivered a bloc vote -- as much as 72 percent to Bush. But a more reasonable estimate, based on pre- and post-election surveys, is that in 2000 Bush received about 50 percent of the Muslim vote, Gore about 25 percent, and Ralph Nader 10 percent.

Nevertheless, does this year's vote suggest an emergent Muslim unity? Not exactly. Many national-origin, linguistic, and sectarian fault lines continue to fragment Muslims here. Not the least are those between immigrant-origin Muslims, primarily from the Mideast and South Asia and often well-educated and affluent, and African-American Muslims, native born but much less well off. The latter comprise about one-third of all Muslims in America, and among these the largest contingent are Sunni Muslims led by W.D. Mohammed, who over the last 30 years has steered his followers away from the cultish racism of the Nation of Islam, founded by his father, Elijah Mohammed.

Relations between immigrant-origin and African-American Muslims were strained in 2000, when immigrant leaders endorsed Bush without formal input from their African-American counterparts. In 2004, immigrant leaders tried not to repeat this mistake. But their efforts to include African-Americans were only partially successful.

For example, W.D. Mohammed did not participate in the deliberations. And while relations among leaders are cordial, tensions persist, especially at the grassroots. These were evident at a meeting in Cleveland last July, when Agha Saeed, the Pakistani-born political science professor who has spearheaded these unity efforts, cited the need to "mainstream the American Muslim community." A local African-American Muslim leader soon jumped up and angrily demanded to know: "How do you `mainstream' oppression?"

Saeed could not have been unaware of such sentiments. Early in 2004 he and his colleagues had organized their endorsement deliberations under the banner of the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections, which then convened meetings like in Cleveland to get feedback on its "Civil Rights Plus Agenda."

This emphasis reflected an understanding that Muslims were not going to get much from either candidate on foreign policy -- whether with regard to their opposition to the war in Iraq or to the Palestinian question. Yet by focusing on civil rights, Muslim leaders gave the Kerry campaign the opportunity to reach out to them, however tepidly, on a traditional Democratic issue that minimized the risk of alienating Jewish supporters.

Finally, civil liberties is an issue that rank-and-file Muslims consistently list among their concerns -- not surprising in light of the detentions and deportations that several thousand have experienced since 9/11. Muslims now routinely recount to outsiders and to themselves the civil rights struggles of other minorities -- blacks, Jews, wartime Japanese-Americans. The message is invariably a hopeful one: "If all those groups could overcome bigotry in America, then so can we." Such is the new Muslim-American mantra.

Ironically, events since 9/11 and America's preoccupation with foreign policy have led Muslim leaders here to highlight domestic issues. As with other groups before them, the struggle of Muslims for civil rights and full inclusion will be a critical strand of their bond with America. With that in place, however, foreign policy concerns will emerge more prominently on the Muslim-American agenda.

Peter Skerry, professor of political science at Boston College and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is working on a book about Muslims in America. Devin Fernandes is his research assistant.

This article appears in The Boston Globe

Peter Skerry and Devin Fernandes

Monday, November 29, 2004

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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