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US Muslims, Arabs becoming political faithful

world Updated: Aug 23, 2008 09:49 IST
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Faced with a choice of White House hopefuls they fear are not entirely sympathetic to their issues, American Muslims are stepping up their activism to unprecedented levels in hopes they can influence the upcoming administration in its infancy. The efforts stem in part from difficulties many Muslim- and Arab-Americans say they have experienced since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, in which they have found themselves on the defensive and struggling to convince at times skeptical fellow citizens that they can be both Muslims and loyal U.S. citizens.

"I've never seen the level of activism I now see," said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast scholar at University of Maryland and fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"The number of people who have become more active and visible on the national political front has increased dramatically because people have suddenly sensed that they have to be more active in order to ... defend themselves as Americans, defend themselves as Arabs and Muslims," he said.

While not all Arabs are Muslims or vice versa, they face similar problems and share many of the same concerns.

Tarek El-Messidi, 27, of Cincinnati, went door-to-door in South Carolina campaigning for Democratic candidate Barack Obama. But he had an unusual mission for a Muslim: the volunteer had to assure voters that Obama is not Muslim.

El-Messidi said younger Muslims in particular lean more toward Obama than Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, but neither candidate should take that for granted.

"In talking to Muslims, they're really struggling between two things: They don't know whether to view Barack Obama as a lesser of two evils or a really good candidate that they are excited about," he said. "A lot are apprehensive whether to fully endorse Barack Obama (but) there's no doubt they view him as a better candidate than McCain."

Unease with McCain seems to stem as much from the conservative Bush administration's legacy as the candidate's own views. Arab-Americans are particularly concerned about laws, such as the post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism Patriot Act, that activists argue have led to racial and ethnic profiling and eroding civil liberties. McCain has, however, distanced himself from some conservative Christians whose comments about Islam were derided by critics as divisive and inflammatory. And both he and Obama have campaign-affiliated groups of Arab-American supporters. Still, Obama has his own challenges.

El-Messidi's campaign-trail experience underscores young Muslim voters' dilemma. They felt an immediate connection with him _ partly because of his background _ that led to increased political involvement.

"He has a funny name like we do," El-Messidi said. "He has Arabic in his actual name."

"If he can do it, we can. We can reach very high goals. ... For many Muslims, especially after 9/11, have felt discriminated against. He has given us a lot of hope and inspiration." But it also has led to disappointment.

The first-term Illinois senator, while a Christian, is the son of a Kenyan man. He has Muslim forebears and his middle name is Hussein, but he has aggressively debunked rumors that he is Muslim _ even labeling the claim a "smear" on a campaign Web site. While he has said that some rumors about him also have been insulting to Muslims, the vehemency of his denials has stung the community.

In June, two Muslim women said they were separately refused seats directly behind Obama _ and in front of TV cameras _ at a Detroit rally because they wear head scarves. Obama called the women to apologize and issued a statement saying the actions were unacceptable and do not reflect campaign policies. One of them, Hebba Aref, 25, said she is grateful for the apology and remains an Obama supporter, but she stressed it is up to the Arab-Muslim community to empower itself.

One of the biggest obstacles Obama faces is that expectations may have been set too high, said James Zogby, president of the nonpartisan Arab American Institute.

"People may have thought, this will be perfect and very different," he said. "It is different but it's not perfect because politics isn't perfect."

He said incidents some incidents have dampened, but not doused, enthusiasm for Obama among Arabs and Muslims. He sees the heightened level of Arab and Muslim involvement as a reflection of the broader population and evidence of a maturing community.

"Change is the issue _ and change is a word I think that (refers to) the economy, civil liberties and foreign policy and the general mess people think we're in," Zogby said.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said neither candidate has officially met with Muslims in Michigan, an important swing state with one of the largest Muslim populations in the U.S. Walid said that may lead Muslim voters past the "lesser of two evils," to a third-party candidate or no candidate at all. In broader terms, it also raises concerns about both candidates' foreign policy skills, he said.

"If the candidates cannot engage the American Muslim community in a healthy way, which is the world's most educated Muslim community, then how can they strengthen economic ties or have a meaningful successful diplomacy in the Muslim world?" he said. One fledgling group is more optimistic.

The American Muslim Democratic Caucus plans to debut at the Democratic National Convention Monday with a reception that organizers expect will draw delegates and Islamic leaders from across the country, including Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison. "This is a way of raising our voice in a Democratic society," said Syed Fayyaz Hassan, a caucus board member from Dallas who also serves as president-elect of the Texas Muslim Democratic Caucus. The Pakistan native traces his political involvement to the 2001 terror attacks _ one week after gaining his U.S. citizenship. "Since we're a Democratic Party group, we are sold on the idea of being Democrat. But we would raise concerns of the Muslim community in the Democratic Party."

El-Messidi, who leads activism training workshops for Muslim students, said taking a consistent stand against discrimination would be wise for both candidates, even if it engenders hostility. "Part of being a leader is taking stances that are difficult _ standing up for what's right," El-Messidi said. "What's right is a vast majority of Muslims ... love this country and feel very blessed to be in this country.

"We are as American as anyone else is."