The Political Agenda Of American Muslims In 2002: A Strategic Overview

From The Arab Voice

February 25, 02

By Ala’ Buyuhi

This series of articles will examine the political agenda of American Muslims: how it has developed over the last two years and what is to come in 2002 (C.E.). It will also cover the most significant national and international political developments affecting the goals of American Muslims and their activities in the political arena. In the past two years, we have witnessed a number of momentous events. The largest, of course, was the incident of September 11, which stunned Muslims both here and abroad. We believe that these events require us to develop a fresh agenda for Muslim Americans in the coming year.

The Origins of the Muslim American Political Agenda

It is widely recognized that the political agenda of American Muslims matured a great deal in the last decades of the 20th century of the Christian era, especially following the establishment of four important political organizations, namely: the General Council on Islamic Affairs, founded in 1977; the American Muslim Council, founded in 1990; the Council for American-Islamic relations, founded in 1994; and the American Muslim Association, also founded in 1994.

The establishment of these four organizations reflected the growing power of Muslim Americans, who now number approximately seven million, and resulted from their growing influence in the economy and the media and as a significant political demographic. A study of American mosques and the demographics of American Muslims, published by Council for American-Islamic Relations in 2001, points to the high degree of education boasted by Muslim congregants in these mosques, with 81 percent obtaining at least a high school diploma and 48 percent with a college degree. It is a demographic notable for its youth, with 47percent under 35 and only 11percent over the age of 60. The study also indicates that this trend will continue, and that 20 percent of mosque congregants are new converts to Islam.

The establishment of these organizations therefore heralded a new phase in the political life of Muslims in America, a new generation that would devote its energy to realizing its political goals in American society in a much more organized and effective way. The first signs of a coordinated Muslim American political agenda emerged very rapidly in the late 1990s. The agenda was built on four basic principles: to encourage Muslims to participate in American political life, to protect the rights of Muslim American citizens, to influence American foreign policy towards the Arab and Muslim worlds, and to combat efforts to present negative images of Muslims in the American media.

It is to be expected that these four principles will remain at the forefront of the Muslim American agenda in 2002 and into the foreseeable future, but this does not mean that the agenda will not continue to evolve. These are general principles that reflect the basic political needs of Muslim Americans, and their political organizations will need to make these their first priority over other important political issues.

The 2000 Elections and the Maturation of the Muslim Agenda

It¹s clear that the Muslim American agenda achieved an unprecedented level of maturity at the end of 2000. The growth of interest in the political process led Muslims to follow the presidential elections very closely and to register greater numbers of Muslim candidates for public office, and to form the first unified Muslim voting bloc in history, which endorsed one of the presidential candidates.

In the area of civil liberties, Muslim Americans played a major role in opposing laws permitting the use of secret evidence as the basis for arrests and the detention of foreigners by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as set forth in the antiterrorist legislation of 1996. Assuming this responsibility was another sign of growing political maturity. Previously, Muslim Americans concern about these issues had been marked by lack of focus and a strategic agenda, so that opposing this legislation was a major advance in the community¹s ability to influence legislation and the legislative process, especially in the Congress, in a systematic and concrete way.

In the area of foreign policy, and especially in the area of Middle East policy, Muslim Americans have been chiefly concerned with the situation of the Palestinians following the setbacks to the peace process during 2000, which led to the outbreak of an intifada over the issue of the al-ŒAqsa mosque at the end of the year. They also voiced concern that economic sanctions against the Iraqi people be eased and humanitarian aid to Iraqi children be resumed.

In the area of media and public relations, Muslim Americans increased their contributions to political parties and presidential candidates and began to express their opinions in greater numbers in other ways as well, with the aim of playing an important part in the 2000 presidential elections. They spoke out against reports in the American media about Islamic affairs that perpetuated false and negative images of Islam and Muslims in general, such as reports about slavery being practiced by Muslims in the Sudan against the peoples of the south and the depiction of Muslims in the Middle East as violent extremists.

The Muslim American agenda came of age in 2000, by which we mean that it was able to overcome the factionalism that had divided the four major organizations. This was thanks in large part to George Bush, a presidential candidate at the time, who sought the support of Muslims in order to lure them away from the camp of his opponent, Al Gore. Bush promised Muslim and Arab Americans that if elected he would support their efforts to oppose curtailment of civil liberties. Muslims believed that a victory by Gore, who had failed to seek their support, would be bad for Muslims at home and abroad, and especially for Palestinians, since Gore was known as a wholehearted supporter of Israel. Bush¹s courting of Muslim votes seemed to represent the success of the Muslim agenda, because his victory, according to the story Muslims told themselves at the time. This would mean a solution to their concerns about civil liberties, and the success of their efforts to put Bush in the Oval Office, and of their efforts to defeat Al Gore because of his support for Israel.

Muslim American also expected that political success would reflect well on them, improving their image in the American media. This was the view of many before the surprising events of late 2000 and early 2001, when the American press made a special effort to cover the results of an opinion poll taken by Muslim American political organizations to gauge the political support of their constituency. This poll showed a marked increase in Muslim support for Bush, especially in the wake of a report published in August 2000 by a Muslim American policy institute that included the four major Muslim organizations among its members, which endorsed Bush¹s candidacy.

The Relative Success Of Muslim Political Goals In 2000

Muslims succeeded in creating the first unified Muslim American voting bloc in 2000 and shared in the victory of the Bush campaign, which began to seek their support during the election season. Their opposition to the curtailment of civil liberties also succeeded, both in terms of policy and in terms of public perception, as well as in the eyes of the American civil rights movement, after Bush pledged to support its opposition to the 1996 antiterrorism bill in the second televised presidential debate. Likewise Representative David Bonior of Michigan, the second-ranking official in the Democratic party in the House at the time, promised decisive action to oppose the secret evidence provisions of the antiterrorism law in that body, even as the country¹s most prominent civil rights organization continued to insist on the injustice of these provisions and worked to oppose it.

In the area of foreign policy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, American Muslims enjoyed great successes in building a grass-roots movement opposed to American policies on Iraq and Palestine by mobilizing American citizens disturbed by the suffering of Iraqi children and calling for a just solution for the Palestinian people, and by cooperating with a number of civil rights and peace groups and other groups who supported a solution through peaceful means.

An outstanding example is the American Friends Society Council, which opposes the continuation of sanctions against Iraq on humanitarian grounds. The American Friends Society Council reports that it is one of 150 humanitarian and religious organizations that have come out publicly against these sanctions since 1999. The Friends have nearly 2,000 volunteers working on this initiative.

One factor aiding Muslim Americans in achieving these successes was a marked increase in attendance at religious and community centers that shared their goals, especially with regard to civil rights and peace, and increased outreach to such community-based organizations. The Internet was also a significant factor, facilitating dialogue among American Muslims and Muslims abroad, as well as among Muslims and hostile native-born Americans. The pluralistic, politically liberal culture promoted by the Clinton administration was also helpful.

The Internet was also extremely helpful in the public relations phase of our campaign, helping us to increase coverage of our community in the native-born American media. Internet browsers displayed numerous images and articles in English about the sufferings of Iraqi and Palestinian children and others in the Islamic world.

The efforts of Muslim Americans to emphasize points of common interest between Americans and the Islamic world met with outstanding success as well. Among the most significant talking points was the idea that Muslim Americans are simply Americans, with the same rights as any other American, and that Muslim Americans are committed to the best interests of America and are striving to defend the image of America in the international community, just as many other American groups are doing. Muslims are anxious to serve their country by helping it to develop even-handed policies of cooperation with the Islamic world.

The public relations efforts of Muslim Americans also focused on depicting Islamophobia in America and the West as a dying trend confined to racist leaders whose influence is declining.

As a result of all these factors and trends, the Muslim American movement is gravitating more and more towards the Republican party, as demonstrated during the 2000 elections. Republican views on civil liberties were especially attractive to Muslims, as news about Muslims arrested on the basis of secret evidence, such as Dr. Sami al-Uryan and Dr. Mazin an-Najjar, began to circulate widely and their cases became a national cause célebre for Muslims. The decision by the Muslim American political leaders in August of 2000 to support George Bush was widely noted and widely accepted by the mass of Muslim Americans.

Finally, we must not minimize the issues on which some Muslim American organizations differ from their predecessors. A notable example is the support for George Bush. What we want to emphasize is that the absence of political consensus on this and other issues, which we seemed to have overcome in 2000, has not disappeared and remains a significant factor. The shift toward the Republican party did represent, however, the beginning of a new phase in the political life of Muslim Americans and will help us a great dealing in our efforts to repair the damage done to the reputation of the Muslim community in 2001 and 2002. Why this is so is a topic we will deal with in the next installment of this series.

Translated From Arabic by Colin Brayton.

Back to The Citizen page!