At the voter registration drive outside a Falls Church, Va. mosque, some Muslim Americans were skeptical — but Mustafa Sayid was downright angry.
“I pray to Allah to punish them because they're voting for enemies of Islam.” he said of voting Muslims. “Muslims have nothing to gain for voting in this country – nothing.”
He said the United States is plagued by centuries of racism, and its Iraqi embargo is killing millions. Sayid complained that the media only reports negative news about Muslims – never, ever anything positive – and said the media would never publish his statements.
Surely, he said, voting for the same politicians who passed legislation such as the Anti-Terrorism Act would do no good.
Watching a handful of reporters filming Sayid and taking notes, and dreading more possible press attention, two Muslim Americans unsuccessfully pleaded to Sayid to be quiet. They agreed there were problems, but said the most effective way to get an improved public image and better political treatment is to get out the vote.
Niwad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agrees. On Sept. 15, the CAIR organized the national “Muslim Americans Voter Registration Day” to register new voters outside the United States' estimated 1,500 mosques, and it plans to continue further election year activities – including training activists in media relations and political lobbying, and producing voter guides.
One of CAIR's specific objectives is to push for passage of the Secret Evidence Repeal Act – a bill that would repeal a provision in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act that empowers the federal government to detain suspects and withhold evidence from them. The government can keep a case in secret indefinitely if it can convince a judge that the nation's security at risk. Also because of the act, investigators can order a search or wiretap without notifying the subjects. Awad said the Anti-Terrorism Act – a reaction to the bombing of a Oklahoma City federal building in 1994 – is used primarily against Muslims, and that about 20 Americans are being detained. The bill has stalled at the U.S. House Committee level.
“We believe stereotypes have become policy,” he said, and “the way to fight this is to become politically involved and to have a voice – to vote.”
During airport security checks, Awad said, many Muslim Americans are subjected to racial profiling – suspected of being terrorists because of their names, their ethnicity, or destination.
“The victims are the ones who look different than the general public,” he said. “These are American citizens.”
But Muslim Americans will have many minds to change if they hope to improve their public image and policy, according to a Pew Research Center poll on religion and politics. The poll, conducted Aug. 24 to Sept. 10, asked 1,999 registered voters whether they held favorable or unfavorable perceptions of religious groups in the United States, and had an error margin of 2.5 percentage points.
According to the poll, 50 percent of all Americans held favorable views of Muslims and 21 percent held unfavorable views. For Jews, it was 77 percent to 8 percent; Catholics 78 percent to 9 percent; for atheists, 32 percent to 52 percent.
About 6 million, or 2 percent, of Americans practice Islam – about equal to Judaism, making the two religions the two largest non-Christian denominations in the country. About 84 percent of the country practices Christianity, and 8 percent is atheist. The cities with the largest Muslim populations are Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York City. The CAIR says 6 million is a low estimate.
“We haven't been heard in proportion to our population,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of CAIR. “That's changing.”
The Muslim-American population may be as high as 8 million, said Robert Fernea, anthropology professor emeritus at the University of Texas and co-author of “Arab World: 40 Years of Change,” a 1997 book based on his 40 years of researching Muslims and studying in the Middle East. Muslim Americans have lived in the United States since the first boats of slaves arrived in the country, but the highest amount of immigration occurred after World War II, Fernea said. In 1948, many Muslims fled, or were forced out of, their homes as Israel absorbed Palestine. Many educated and wealthier Muslims immigrated into the United States the last decade, he said.
Politically, said Fernea, Muslim Americans views are difficult to generalize – “many are well to do, many are working class,” therefore “you got a pretty broad range – left wing to right wing.”
After walking away from Sayid at the registeration drive, Abdul Almasry eagerly pointed out that the vast majority of Muslim Americans are proud U.S. citizens and not nearly as angry as him.
“He isn't the norm in the Muslim community,” Almasry said. “He's saying we shouldn't take part in our civic duty in our country – and I object to that.”
Politically, Almasry is a typical Muslim American voter – he is listening to both major presidential candidates, evaluating how their stances effect him and other Muslim Americans, and has yet to firmly decide which presidential candidate will earn his vote on Nov. 7.
Presidential campaigns are nothing new to Almasry, who immigrated 20 years ago from Yemen. Like many other Muslim Americans, Almasry may not be born in the United States, but “I'm from here now – I'm here to stay.”