William Fisher Huffington Post 1/16/08

In an electoral campaign system tactically dominated by “niche politics,” major candidates for their party’s presidential nominations are running as fast as they can from one potentially influential constituency.

The constituency is the seven-million-strong American Muslim community. And the reason for the politicians’ flight is the fear of being seen as “soft on national security.”

Arguably, presidential wannabe John McCain, the “straight-talking” Republican Senator from Arizona, has become the poster child for the denigration of American Muslims. In response to a question about the possibility of a Muslim’s running for president, McCain said that his faith probably offers better spiritual guidance than that of a follower of Islam.

“Since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, that’s a decision the American people would have to make, but personally, I prefer someone who I know who has a solid grounding in my faith,” he said in a speech on the campaign trail.

McCain, and his rival, Mike Huckabee, an evangelist Baptist minister and three-term governor of Arkansas, have arguably been the most outspoken against Muslims. But the theme appears to be tacitly embraced by virtually all White House hopefuls of both parties.

In Michigan, site of this week’s Republican primary contest, one American Muslim businessman said, “They’re all falling over each other to demonize Muslims and Islam. They’re trying to appeal to the power of prejudice and hate. … And it’s brainless. Everybody knows we have a problem with terrorism. Let’s focus on how to deal with it, instead of focusing on a faith or a people.”

This view is shared by many in Michigan’s sizable Muslim and Arab-American communities. Local Muslims feel under siege as candidates scramble to bolster their national security credentials with words Muslims say slander their religion.

In a recent TV ad for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, images of angry Muslim men and women appear on screen with a voice-over warning of “a people perverted.”

Most American Muslims say they have no problems with talk of fighting terrorists. But they find Republican candidates consistently equating Islam with terrorism and crossing the line into bigotry.

Among candidates, the single exception appears to be Democrat Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio congressman and former mayor of Cleveland. He has reached out to American Muslims by including mosques in his campaign itinerary. But his chances of winning his party’s nomination are judged to be less than nil.

According to Ibrahim Hooper, strategic communications director of The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an advocacy group for Muslims in North America, “It should be clear to any candidate that American Muslims are a key group of voters who defy simplistic labeling and maintain an independent streak that should be taken into account by all those running for public office.”

But this is not happening, says Corey Saylor, CAIR’s national legislative director.

“There is virtually no sign of outreach by candidates for the presidential nomination,” says Saylor. He told us he doubts such outreach will occur until the American Muslim community becomes a lot stronger politically.

To encourage that development, the Washington DC-based not-for-profit organization has recently launched a voter education program with its own website.

CAIR’S Saylor told us, “American Muslims are basically conservative. They voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but switched to John Kerry in 2004, because they felt their civil rights and liberties were under attack” by politicians who equated Islam with terror.

The exact number of American Muslim voters is not known. But Saylor says a conservative estimate can be found in the 400,000-strong database CAIR developed for a 2006 attitude survey of this constituency.

CAIR says that today American Muslims are viewed as potential swing-voters in key battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The 2006 survey profile reported that American Muslims are young, highly educated, professional, middle class, family oriented, and religiously diverse. The survey found that there was no clear majority in party membership: 42% said they considered themselves Democrats; 17% said they were Republicans; 28% said they did not belong to any party.

The survey also showed that Muslim voters believe anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is a serious problem, one that can only benefit from the unique perspective and input of American Muslims.

In the current election cycle, CAIR says, Muslims still are evaluating the candidates. Saylor disclosed that a new soon-to-be-released CAIR survey indicates that almost half of Muslim voters remain undecided about their choice for president.

But Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, thinks that American Muslims, like many other U.S. voters, will eventually make their choices. He believes that “Muslim voters will turn out in large numbers on election day – possibly more than at any other time in the nation’s history, and with enthusiasm.”

He says he expects that a large percentage of American-Muslims are supporters of Obama for several reasons: First, the majority of American-Muslims are African-American; second, Obama is viewed as more fair and balanced when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict than Hilary Clinton, for example; third, Obama was against the Iraq war from the very beginning, unlike Hilary Clinton despite her spin.”

Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina, and one of the founders of the Progressive Muslim movement in the U.S. and Canada, says candidates’ reticence to talk to Muslim voters is matched by a profound distrust of politicians by members of this community.

He told us, “All the candidates talk about Muslims, but very few talk with Muslims.” If they did, he added, they would discover that “all the same issues of education, environment, economy, healthcare, etc., that affect all Americans also affect American Muslims.”

He says, “None of the Republicans get serious attention from American Muslims. And as for the Democrats, it is remarkable how little interest Hillary Clinton generates, mainly because many Muslims do not trust her ethics. She has done everything in her power to antagonize Muslims by embracing ardently pro-Israel positions. There is great interest in Obama among many American Muslims.”

Prof. Safi decries what he sees as a “Jesus litmus test” for political candidates this year. “Even Hillary and Obama think they have to prove themselves faithful Christians,” he says.

“The issue is not whether they are Christians or what kind of Christians. The issue is what kind of country we are, what kind of country we want to be. Candidates should not be running to be the Christian president of America. They should want to be the President of the United States of America,” he says.

He adds, “There is a profound disgust with the erosion of civil liberties, policies of rampant militarism, systematic corruption, and arrogance that the Bush administration has displayed.” The result, he says, is that “in 2000 the majority of American Muslims voted for Bush, and eight years later his support would probably be in the single digits among the same community.”

Samar Jarrrah, the Palestinian-born American author of Arab Voices Speak to American Hearts, strikes a more optimistic note. She believes that candidates will eventually acknowledge the American Muslim community and that the political influence of that community will grow over time.

She told us, “It is an uphill battle, but it will never be as tough as it was for the Jews, black Americans, and women. Our interests as American Muslims are intertwined with millions of Americans who care for the constitution, justice as well as fairness in foreign policy.” She believes the time will come when candidates will stop feeling that “endorsing a Muslim group is a kiss of death.”

Maybe so. But it’s clear that such a time is still well over the horizon. And will likely just stay there until politicians and their campaign advisors no longer think they can score political points by pandering to our civic ignorance.