Last week eight leading American-Muslim Organizations joined hands to create an umbrella group: the US Council of Muslim Organizations. Media response has been limited, with Middle East news outlets more interested than local ones. A few nervous peripheral news sources introduce it as the Muslim political party on its way to impose sharia law. If mainstream media was interested it was not in the organization but in the USCMO’s 1st agenda “the conducting of a census of american muslims to create a database that will be used to enhance Muslim political participation in upcoming elections.” Speaker Talib ‘Abdur-Tashid, deputy amir with the Muslim Alliance in North America, along with the other eight representative members, hoped this would enhance political participation.

Whatever their goal journalists, analyst, and politicians are anxious to hear the numbers and records. The “American Muslim” has ben widely discussed but somewhat elusive to pin down. Islamic Horizons sights eight to ten million Muslims in North America, Pew Research Center tallies the number to 2.6 million in 2010, NationMaster.com claims 6 million, and the CIA Online World Factbook’s has the number at 1.8 million. The USCMO claims that as the representatives and leaders of the American Muslim community they are better equipped to do what others have been unable to. The one thing they, the politicians, and the analysts all recognize is the Muslim American community could be an influential player either as allies or enemies in the fight for the White House.

Last election Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) analyzed a decades worth of survey data on Muslim political incorporation and concluded that “as minority votes become increasingly important, the data in this report suggests that the American Muslim community can be a pivotal player for some candidates in key swing states. The recent shift in demographics and continued population growth of minority groups are making them increasingly important to American politics.”

9/11 to Boston Bombings: the Political Play Off

78% of Muslims voted Republican the year before 9/11, with the leading Muslim organization supporting Bush’s campaign and helping to put him in office. Bush was intentional with inclusive language directed at those who worshiped at “church, synagogue, or mosque” pulling the Muslim community, which had jumped back and forth between liberal and conservative political views. The Islamic values of family and social conservative stance had them mainly behind the Democrats in history.

The American Muslim was not just voting but according to the American Muslim Alliance the 2000 elections saw an all time high of Muslim involvement with 700 candidates for various offices, but 2002 recorded a tenth of that number.

“Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith…. [O]urs is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for.” – President Bush

In the post-9/11 Bush was very specific that terrorism and Islam were not the same “Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith…. [O]urs is a war against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for.” Despite the supportive rhetoric he signed in the Patriot Act leaving most of the Muslim community feeling betrayed by what appeared to be the legalization of religious discrimination.

In the 2004 elections the Muslim voters were widely divided between independents, Republicans, and Democrats and the 2008 elections showed a huge majority behind Obama. In the book “Obama’s Race”, by political scientist Michael Tesler and David Sears, they found that “general election vote choice in 2008 was more heavily influenced by feeling about Muslims than in was in either 2004 voting or in McCain-Clinton trail heats.” These feelings were not positive judging from anti-muslim sentiment and hate crimes, which had hit an all time high in 2001 with 1,600 percent increase. The number had mellowed out in the early 2000’s but began to grow again with the new decade.

A pinpoint for this tensions is the Lower Manhattan Islamic community center, Park 51. In 2010, a year after the plans had first been mentioned, media began attacking the idea of a mosque, which it did not claim to be, blocks away from where the twin towers formally stood. It was dubbed the Ground Zero Mosque and became the target for the discussion and fear of the growing Muslim community in America. Out of this came the concept of Islamaphobia, and the terms use in the political arena.

In response to wave of anti-muslim sentiment and attacks on muslim communities American Civil Liberties Union published a report Nothing to Fear: Debunking the Mythical “Sharia Threat” to Our Judical System. The ACLU report studied judicial cases where the sharia law had been referenced and declared the cases evidence that the American judicial system was healthily functioning to uphold religious freedom, contrary to some fears. But the fears were still very much alive, and American Muslims were a political topic now. In March 2011 Rep. Peter King held a congressional hearing on “the Extant of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.” The Muslim community response was to point out that no statistics were actually cited, instead the hearing had relied on stereotypes and individual stories. This hearing, however, was in good standing with the American public as a survey on the Congressional Hearing by Public Religion Research Institute showed 56% of Americans considered the hearing a good idea. But at least 72% thought that Congress “should investigate religious extremism anywhere it exists and not just focus on the American Muslim.” This qualifier for Congress represents the 49% of the community that believes Muslims have been unfairly targeted.

Still journalists Michael Scott Moore aptly pointed out that in the 2012 elections “Americans are learning what Europeans have known for years: Islam-bashing wins votes.” The difference being that in Europe its the liberals who do the ‘Islam-bashing’, while in the U.S. the greater part is credited to the Republicans. The Muslim Republicans webpage had an article evaluating each of the GOP 2012 presidential candidates and found that only Ron Paul could possibly garner Muslim support. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were vocal about the threats of “stealth jihad” and view that not only is radical Islam a threat but the “stealthy ones attending the mosque down the street” is as well. Rick Santorum is well known for his Muslim response theory of “educate, engage, evangelize and eradicate.” This kind of language has been dubbed “Islamaphobia” and showed up consistently in the 2012 elections.

 “an open invitation to reassess your party’s current relationship with American Muslims.” – Council on American-Islamic Relations and 10 other groups

December of 2012 saw the Council on American-Islamic Relations and 10 other groups placing an add, in the Washington Times, giving the Republican party “an open invitation to reassess your party’s current relationship with American Muslims.” But the Republican Party is not fully against the Muslim community; show cased in Republican Sen. John McCain’s strong response to Rep. Michele Bachmann suspicions about Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison. McCain viewed the suspicion as a “…specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for.”
Either way the Islamic Monthly pointed out it has become the political trend with “Republican and Democratic candidates alike are finding it increasingly easy and even beneficial to bash Muslims to garner some extra votes.” This follows the trend that Pew Research found in the rise of the belief that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence. In 2002 only 25% of the public believed that, but by 2013 42% believed that, and almost twice as many Republicans believe so than Democrats. The other shaping factor of Americans view on Muslims is age, with six-in-ten younger than 30 disagreeing with the idea that Islam is more likely to encourage violence verses the 53% in the senior camp who believe just that.

The Pew Research found that the American public recognized Muslims higher on the discriminated against chart than gays and lesbians, Hispanics, and African Americans.

Islam-bashing is not with out its cons in the political world though. The Pew Research found that the American public recognized Muslims higher on the discriminated against chart than gays and lesbians, Hispanics, and African Americans. Perhaps this is why the Muslim American community was presently surpised in the wake of the Boston Bombings when the American public did not react as badly as was expected. Some of this was due to the fact that while the Muslim communities first reaction was to fear the accusations, the second was to start the PR response fast. Executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’, Nihad Awad, statement “American Muslims, like Americans of all backgrounds, condemn in the strongest possible terms today’s cowardly bomb attack on participants and spectators of the Boston marathon” was echoed from Mosques and Islamic organization across the nation. The Muslim community jumped in to action, organizing blood drives for victims and holding prayer vigils. Clearly they are more experienced at navigating the American political arena than they were in 2001.

A Powerful Minority?

This history brings us to why the new US Council of Muslim Organizations’ first agenda of charting the communities political face is of so much interest: politically, ethics aside, is the Muslim community worth bashing when it comes to counting votes? Harsh as this sounds the reality is that the answer will impact Republicans and Democrats upcoming decisions. USCMO’s new Secretary General, Oussama Al Jammal told the Arab Daily News that he believes the Muslim community can be influential in American politics. “The Republicans lost the last presidential elections because they lost the minority Latino vote” and he wants to see the Muslim community become that make it or break it minority group. Small as the community may or may not be they do have the potential to do so, history says so. The 60,000 Muslim in Florida votes in 2000 is what won Bush that state.

78% of Muslim voters reside in just 10 states, and many of them are swing states, including Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. “In the swing states, where every vote counts, the Muslim vote can be an influential one, even if they are a minority in that state,” said Kassem Nabulsi, a CSUN professor of political science. “If they vote by large numbers, their vote will be more influential than in any other states.” The idea of block voting is a major USCMO goal.

“This is the dream for every American Muslim, which is to unify the approach, the agenda, the aspirations and the vision of the Muslim community,” Nihad Awad, executive director for Council on American-Islamic Relations explained. “American Muslims, through this platform, are going to tell their own story, are going to define themselves through their own reality. A platform like this, we believe, is going to be representative of the reality of the Muslim community.”

“American Muslims, through this platform, are going to tell their own story, are going to define themselves through their own reality. A platform like this, we believe, is going to be representative of the reality of the Muslim community.”- Nihad Awad, executive director for Council on American-Islamic Relations

And he is not alone, according to an Emerge USA poll from 2010, two out of three Muslims like the idea of political unity and believe they should vote in bloc for presidents.

However Ibrahim Hooper, the National Communication director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, told the Arab Daily News that the main goal of the new organization, when it comes to politics, is “ mobilization” and “ get out to vote” campaigns, and not necessarily endorsing particular candidates.

Rachel Howes, a professor of Middle Eastern history at CSUN, isn’t convinced neither will matter
“They aren’t going to vote as a bloc,” Howes points out. “They have different perspectives on different issues, and that’s another reason why they won’t have any influence. Why would it be reasonable to assume a Muslim from Palestine and a Muslim from Indonesia have the same perspective?”

History, however, shows the Muslim community does generally vote in bloc, and because that is a widely valued goal made much simpler in the digital area it welds a real threat.
“(Muslims) are such a minute percentage of the US population and they’re so demonized, that even if they do make enough noise, they’re usually ignored,” Howes said. “Even if the population of Muslims doubled, even if it went from one percent of the population to two percent, it’s still a very small percentage of people, and my sense is that they really don’t have a big effect.”

Big effect or not the population is growing, according to U.S. Religion Census from 2010, Islam is the fastest growing religion in America in the last 10 years, with 2.6 million living in the U.S. in 2012. The analyst and political researchers have generally come to see the Muslim community in a different light: that they can and have been influential to American politics.

The Florida case study is a favorite to point to. With a long history of narrow victories, by less than 2.0% in the last four elections, and an estimated 124,000 registered Muslim voters, Florida is an example of just what USCMO, and everyone waiting to hear the results of their first project, see as evidence of the Muslim communities democratic potential or threat. A New York Times analysis came to the conclusion that “no campaigner can afford to disregard them.”

 “no campaigner can afford to disregard them.” – A New York Times analysis

The Average American Mohammad

“The Muslim community is one of the most diverse communities, if not the most diverse religious community in America,” said Khalil Meek, executive director of the Muslim Legal Fund of America, at the USCMO press conference. “We have a vast amount of resources and education and principles and values that we want to share with this great country. We want to contribute and we hope this platform is the beginning of that opportunity to better serve and unite our voice for the benefit of all.”

Their are options for both the liberals and conservatives at tapping into that democratic ‘benefit’ should they be interested to discover who the Muslim American community is. Pew Research Center’s report Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream found the Muslim community well assimilated into American life. One of their more recent studies showed that most Muslim Americans want to adopt American customs and ways of life and express more satisfaction with the way things are going in the country than the general public. They watch less TV but use more social networking sites than the average Joe. And they are interested in being political.

The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding report on American Muslim political trends stated that “Research has shown that American Muslims are well informed about politics and pay attention to what is happening both at home and abroad. The vast majority of them want to be politically involved, with 95 percent stating that American Muslims should participate in the political process.“

“Research has shown that American Muslims are well informed about politics and pay attention to what is happening both at home and abroad. The vast majority of them want to be politically involved, with 95 percent stating that American Muslims should participate in the political process.” – Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

The source of this interest was found through a study informing the 2011 Congressional Hearing, on alleged extremism in American Muslim Community, and proved quite the opposite. The report was in response to “the loyalties and patriotism of American Muslims have come under considerable questioning and scrutiny” but “Rather than build on emotion, as social scientists, we turn to empirical data.” The investigation was done in 2008 and reported “A large scale national survey of the Muslim American population finds that involvement with the mosque, and increased religiosity increases civic engagement and support for American democratic values.” The data showed that mosques “have been proven to be associated with a higher level of civic engagement, and to contribute greatly in creating a more informed citizenry.”

The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding research also found that generally Muslim Americans were more interested in domestic concerns and specifically with the economy. On that topic the broad support would be for the liberals, however on social issues their interests fall heavily with the conservatives. In the post-9/11 distancing from the Republicans Muslim leaders allowed the social issues to drop from discussion. New USCMO’s discussion on “Muslim complacency in the face of mounting social problems” and goal of “Creating community-wide dialogue on key social issues” suggests that the trend is changing.  An opening opportunity for the Republicans if they were interested. The issues of the Muslim communities wide opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq would be the anchor for the Democrats, if Obama’s reliance on drones has not shot them in the foot.

One big loss, already, for everyone is that the younger generation is going to be a lot harder to reach on any level. The suspicious and unwelcoming atmosphere of American culture has raised the younger generation of American Muslims to identify as separatists rather than in their American identity. While their parents were children civic involvement was not pushed until the last two decades, but with this upcoming generation the push is against a hesitant, and cynical view. They will not easily bond to any one side.

American Muslim Bloger Mozaffar in his article Should we Muslims be Liberal or Conservative explained that “I cannot justify any sort of serious participation with the Political Right any time soon. More importantly, it is my personal preference to be on the Political Right.” His conclusion was he would wait to see what each was selling each time. Depending on what the new USCMO finds he may or may not have some interested vendors.