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Courting the Muslim Vote in U.S. National Elections

2012/05/19

This was a fairly open-ended assignment written for my transnational America class. I think I was just supposed to write about a current foreign policy issue. It written during the 2008 election, as is probably obvious.

In the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election, Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore both made overtures to Muslim voters, who were seen as potentially important in a very close election.[1] Green party candidate Ralph Nader promoted his Arab heritage on “Saturday Night Live.”[2] As a growing minority, and one who did not yet have established voting patterns, Muslim-Americans were a very politically desirable demographic and efforts were made to woo and mobilize them. Ultimately, Bush was successful at this and his support continued after taking office. However, due to the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in 2001, over the next eight years, while Muslim voters did become more engaged, party loyalties reverse, even as they felt increasingly unwelcome in the American political process in general due to a rising level of anti-Islamic rhetoric.

In the 1996 U.S. Presidential election was the first to see significant involvement by Muslim voters, but they voted in patterns roughly the same as the electorate as a whole, not as an identifiable bloc. Whether Muslims should be politically engaged at all was somewhat controversial at the time, with some authorities arguing the United States policies were corrupt and contrary to the principles of Islam and participation would only serve to legitimize the actions of the government, while others argued they had a duty to look out for the interests of Muslims and those of the population at large. Turnout is difficult to measure because of a lack of any reliable numbers as the number of Muslims in the U.S. and considerable variation in exit polls, but Muslim voters voted for Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton in somewhat higher numbers than the nation as a whole. Dole won some support with socially conservative views on topics like abortion, but Clinton was seen as having made more effort to reach out to Muslim voters. For instance, he always made sure to include them when talking about U.S. religious groups. Also, as with non-Muslim voters, Clinton was heavily favored on economic issues. While Dole made a last minute attempt to woo Muslims by criticizing the media for unfairly stereotyping Muslims and blaming them for violence, it was too late to swing things in his favor. The lack of cohesion was largely due to voters splitting along ethnic lines, with African American, Arab, Pakistani and Indian Muslims having different interests. This led to different groups endorsing different candidates. [3]

In the 2000 election year, Muslim activists made a decision to cooperate to increase their political influence. Any controversy about whether Muslims should vote had been resolved by this point with 89% citing participation in politics as important. Six major Arab and South Asian Muslim organizations formed American Muslim Political Coordination Committee with the intent of endorsing a single presidential candidate. Disputes over involvement were resolved by this time. One survey showed 89% of American Muslims believed it was important to be involved in politics. This would make their support valuable as Muslims were a large minority in several closely-contested states in a close election, particularly Michigan. This was an effective strategy. Representatives of both parties, including presidential candidates Al Gore and George Bush, met with AMPCC and other Muslim groups multiple times, encouraging Muslims not only to vote, but to run for office and both invited Imams to give invocations and their national conventions.[4]

AMPCC endorsed Republican candidate George W. Bush only two weeks before the election.[5] They cited Bush’s greater accessibility. He took the initiative to meet with them and promised to address their concern. Perhaps more importantly, he supported the Secret Evidence Repeal Act, which would repeal the controversial provision in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1995, which had been widely criticized for being used disproportionately against Muslims and opposed racial profiling.[6]

Other reasons for support of Bush included concerns that Al Gore was too pro-Israel, and that the Democratic Party in general was anti-Muslim. One way Muslim activists’ attempted to increase their influence in 2000 was to hold fundraisers for candidates. Most were not successful and raised only a pittance, but the American Muslim Alliance raised $50,000 for Hillary Clinton, then in her first run for the Senate. However, she returned the money after the group was accused of supporting terrorism, which at the time was mainly an issue in regards to Israel. The AMA protested that they did not support terrorism and took this as a rejection of their support.[7] Meanwhile, Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney had a history of endorsing Palestinian statehood before it was a popular case and criticizing Israel. Ultimately, Bush won 75-80% of the Muslim vote, with most of the remainder going to Green Party Candidate Ralph Nader and Democratic candidate Al Gore receiving support in the single digits.[8] Those who did not vote for Bush were largely the African-American Muslims who were left out of the coalition and tend to vote more or social issues than foreign policy.[9] This made Muslims Bush’s only solid voting bloc.[10]

Muslim support was somewhat controversial even at this time. As happened with Hillary Clinton’s donations, groups would find themselves being asked to answer for the words of particular members as if they represented the group and the idea had already been planted that there were good, moderate, secular Muslims who cared about the same issues as everyone else and just wanted their religious freedom and bad, extremist “Islamist” Muslims who wanted to remake the U.S. into an Islamic state. Moreover, many major groups were led by the latter group and it was up to the former group to make sure they were properly represented.[11]

While George Bush continued to make overtures to the Muslim community after the September 11th attacks of 2001 and assure them he did not blame Islam, his policies did not necessarily reflect this. For a few days after, there was a flood of anti-Muslim violence, much against people who were not actually Muslim, but “looked it,” meaning the victims were South Asians, Arabs and others from the Middle East, regardless of religion.[12] The narrative of rescuing the civilizable Muslims from their anti-modern Islamist oppressors drove his entire foreign policy.[13] Only a few days after the attacks, hoping to stem the rising anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. President Bush made a speech to the nation assuring them that “Islam is peace” and that the terrorists were not representative of Islam.[14] He also held a feast at the Whitehouse with ambassadors from Muslim countries to celebrate breaking the Ramadan fast.[15]

However, at this same time, policies were being formulated which discriminated against Muslims or those from majority Muslim areas. Many members of the Muslim Community reported multiple FBI visits and repeated questioning about terrorist activities or whether they knew terror suspects, which they regarded as motivated part of a program of government harassment rather than actual search for terrorists.[16] Additionally, local law enforcement and the FBI were flooded with claims of “suspicious” Muslims and charges of terrorism, often based on mundane activities. The police were not necessarily any help, sometimes arresting and threatening the accused without evidence.[17] Mukit Hussein, president of the Muslim American Political Action Committee, says the government had “targeted the whole community for the acts of a few criminals.”[18] Note that this had happened in previous cases with religiously motivated Christian terrorists, most prominent Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph. Bush’s Muslim support soon evaporated.

Attempts to expand the new power of the Muslim voting bloc into running more candidates in 2002 did not work out because of widespread voter hostility. Only ten Muslim candidates were elected to any office in that year, with no position higher than state senator. The election two years earlier had seen more than fifteen times this many Muslims win elections.[19] Feelings of political isolation grew.

By the 2004 presidential election, Bush was deeply unpopular with Muslim voters. The most prominent aspect of his foreign policy, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was almost universally opposed in Muslim circles. A 2004 poll showed that 38% of U.S. Muslims considered part of a war on Islam, rather than terror and only 11% actually supported it.[20] The Patriot Act, Bush’s centerpiece anti-terror legislation, was disproportionately applied against Muslims and had been used to detain more than a thousand American Muslims without evidence, contrary to the early assessments that Bush would be sensitive to human rights concerns. The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, which involved sexual humiliation of Muslim men, only deepened these problems.[21] Muslim voters worried that they could be arrested on false charges and never given a chance to defend themselves and that no one was protecting their civil rights.[22]

Further deepening the division between Muslim voters and the Republican Party, many of their prominent supporters engaged in anti-Islamic rhetoric. Evangelist Franklin Graham referred to the religion as “very evil” and commentator Ann Coulter endorsed forcibly converting all Muslims to Christianity and characterized the conflict as a war with Islam.[23] Muslim leaders were frustrated that these comments did not get them excluded from polite society, meaning they were apparently acceptable.

In 2004, Muslims again voted in a bloc, but party allegiances had changes. Democratic candidate John Kerry now got 93% of the Muslim vote against incumbent Republican George Bush. Ironically compared to the 2000 election, this was largely because of concerns Bush was unfriendly to their political goals and was authorizing secret detentions and racial profiling. This was not because of any particular enthusiasm for Kerry, but the fact that many of them had experienced discrimination or knew someone who had and blamed Bush.[24] Bush still made overtures to their support, but was spectacularly unsuccessful in this regard. Muslims were still the most cohesive voting bloc in the U.S., but had experienced an unprecedented reversal[25]

In the 2006 election, Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison became the first Muslim elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. However, support in his home district does not imply any sort of reversal at the national level. He took his oath of office on a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s version of the Koran, which caused a great deal of controversy in some circles. Dennis Prager argued that this should not be allowed. He decried it as “an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism – my culture trumps America’s culture.”[26] Implicit here, and in much of the political commentary of the time, is the idea that while Christianity is perfectly compatible with the concept of America, Islam is contrary to it and all adherents must pick sides. This is merely an assumption in the piece, not a position Prager feels he needs to argue for.

Ellison himself partially defended Bush and noted the dichotomy in Bush policy in an interview. He praised Bush’s willingness to talk about Islam and meet with Muslim leaders, but added that the Iraq War had “been enormously bad for the American image in the Muslim world… If you blow up a whole village of Muslims, that makes people feel you are anti-Islam… He’s probably the worst President in American history. But he did appoint an envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.”[27]

In early 2008, Indianapolis Democrat André Carson won a special election to become the second Muslim elected to the U.S. House. While unlike many Muslim politicians in the U.S., he did not face significant allegations of ties to terrorism, he did face demands that he repudiate Louis Farrakhan, apparently based on the fact they were both black and Muslims rather than any solid connection between the men. Right-wing news outlet PipeLine.org published a story on his runs with the headline “Andre Carson Joins Ellison’s Stealth Jihad in Congress.[28] The AP’s coverage of his campaigned centered almost entirely on his religion.[29]

Leading up to the 2008 Democratic primary, rumors began circulating that Barack Obama, one of the party’s leading candidates was secretly a Muslim. Obama had been elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, the same year Keith Ellison was elected to the House of Representatives. However, no rumors about secret Muslim beliefs appear to have circulated until he announced his intentions to run for the presidency in 2007. These rumors were always in a context that made implied this alone disqualified him from the presidency.[30]

While anti-Muslim attitudes may be most visible of late in the Republican Party, they are hardly confined to there. As early as January 2001, conservative commentator John Gibson criticized Hillary Clinton, then seen as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, for allegedly outing Obama for attending a madrassa in Indonesia when he was young and trying to play the “Muslim phobia card.”[31]

I early 2008, pictures of Obama in “Muslim garb” began circulating the internet, allegedly after being initially pushed by the Clinton campaign.[32] While reporting on this focused on the idea that foreign dignitaries often wear local traditional clothing when visiting another nation, and how this was the context in which the picture was taken, none seem to explicitly challenge the whole concept of “Muslim garb.”[33] None of the clothes had specific religious significance. Interestingly, when the President of Iran wears a Western suit, as he often does, news outlets do feel the need to explain why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is wearing “Christian garb” or that he is really a Muslim despite the clothes.

Clinton, for her part, did denounce the rumors on several occasions. Still, several members of her staff were caught forwarding e-mails claiming Obama was a Muslim and wanted to destroy America. She did force them to step down.[34]

Obama denied the rumors forcefully. His denials received considerable news coverage, but rarely with any challenge of the underlying assumption that he would be a lesser president if he were, in fact, a Muslim. On his campaign page, he referred to the rumor as a “smear.” “A lot of us are waiting for him to say there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim,” commented Keith Ellison. Safiya Ghori of the Muslim Public Affairs Council joked to the New York Times the best way for her organization to get their candidate elected was to endorse the other guy.

Anti- Muslim politics continued into the general election, largely in the form of rumors. On an October 10th campaign stop, Republican candidate John McCain attempted to Barack Obama, now the Democratic Party nominee. When a woman in crowd referred to Obama as an Arab, McCain corrected her saying, “He’s a good family man.”[35] We can presume from this exchange that neither McCain nor his supporter knew the difference between an Arab and a Muslim. The majority of American Muslims are not Arabs and the Majority of American Arabs are not Muslims.[36] Beyond that, apparently, whatever was meant was incompatible with being a good citizen. The assumption behind the remark went unquestioned at the times.

Barack Obama also faced considerable criticism for Muslim voters for his apparent rejection of them. Some of his staff would not allow veiled Muslim women to sit of the stage with him, apparently because they were afraid it would produce another photo that could be used in claims that Obama is a Muslim. The Obama campaign later apologized for the incident. Obama himself asked Ellison to not appear at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to campaign for him citing “a very tightly wrapped message.” Essentially, the negative publicity and effect on the general electorate would outweigh any advantage among Muslim voters, many of whom felt they were being taken for granted and left out of the political process.[37]

The 2008 elections saw the highest turnout among Muslim voters to that point with Obama receiving 89% of votes. Despite this, Muslim voters are largely concerned that they are still not genuinely politically engaged and that an Obama administration is not going to be a lot better than a Bush administration.[38]

In conclusion, due to the unfair conflation of Islam with terrorism, which greatly intensified in the wake of the September 11th attacks, Muslim Americans are heavily marginalized and held to a double-standard in modern U.S. politics even as they make significant gains in participation, election of representatives and political organization. This is also partially due to the fact the their votes were only courted while they were up in the air and now Democrats may have a sense the votes are guaranteed and therefore there is no need to pursue them, which is contrary to the original aims of organization, but apparently true given the results of the 2008 election. Reaching out consists of promises to guarantee constitutional rights, which is normally a given. This is only possible because of the current political situation and may change in the coming years as the war on terror fades and new issues take hold.


[1] Alexander Rose, “How Did Muslims Vote in 2000?,” Middle East Quarterly 8:3 (2001).

[2] “Saturday Night Live” Season 26, ep 1, 7 October 2000.

[3] Khalid Durán, “Muslims and the U.S. Election on ’96,” Middle East Quarterly 4:2 (1997).

[4] Rose.

[5]Abdus Sattar Ghazali “American Muslims in Politics,” American Muslim Voice. http://www.amuslimvote.amuslimvoice.org/html/us_muslims_in_politics.html (this is an online publication for American Muslims.)

[6] AMPCC press release found at WebArchive.org. (The original site no longer exists.) http://web.archive.org/web/20010505003401/http://www.amaweb.org/election2000/ampcc_endorses.htm

[7] Dean E. Murphy, “Mrs. Clinton Says She Will Return Money Raised by a Muslim Group,” New York Times, 26 October 2000.

[8] Rose.

[9] “The American Muslim Vote,” Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, 20 October 2000. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week408/cover.html This is an online supplement to the TV show.

[10] Ghazali.

[11] Rose.

[12]“Hate Crimes Up in Wake of Terrorist Attacks,” CNN, 17 September 2001. http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/16/gen.hate.crimes/

[13] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004), 17-23.

[14]George W. Bush, Islamic Center, Washington D.C., 17 September 2001.

[15] “Bush Hosts Ramadan Dinner,” BBC News Online, 20 November, 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/low/world/americas/1665740.stm

[16] Nadine Naber, Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects, ed. Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 290.

[17] Amaney Jamal, Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects, ed. Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 114-115.

Naber 290.

[18] Liza Porteus, “Muslim American Vote Shifts Toward Kerry,” Fox News, 19 October 2004.

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,135970,00.html

[19] Ghazali.

[20] Jim Lobe, “Muslim-American Support for War on Terror Plummets,” Inter Press Service, 21 October 2004.

[21] Don Lattin, “Muslim Voters Turn Away from Bush, Survey Finds,” San Francisco Chronicle, 30 June 2004.

[22] Stephen Magagnini, “Muslim, Arab American Vote Shifting to Kerry, Polls Show,” The Sacramento Bee, 18 October 2004.

[23] Sue Pleming, “Muslims at Pentagon Incensed Over Invitation to Evangelist,” Reuters, 16 April 2003.

Ann Coulter, “This Is War,” The National Review, 13 September 2001.

[24] Porteus.

[25] Lisette Poole and Tahir Ali, “2004 Election Sees Second American-Muslim Bloc Vote,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2005, 25.

Lorraine Ali, Tamara Lipper and Mehammed Mack, “A Demographic Shift,” Newsweek, 144:17, (2004): 12.

[26] Dennis Prager, “America, Not Keith Ellison, Decides What Book a Congressman Takes His Oath On,” Townhall.com 28 November 2006. http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2006/11/28/america,_not_keith_ellison,_decides_what_book_a_congressman_takes_his_oath_on (This is a political blog)

[27] Amitabh Pal, “Keith Ellison,” Progressive, 72:10 (2008): 33-37.

[28] Beila Rabinowitz and William Mayer, “Andre Carson Joins Ellison’s Stealth Jihad in Congress,” PipelineNews.org 14 March, 2008.

http://www.pipelinenews.org/index.cfm?page=carson3.14.08.htm An explicitly right-wing news source

[29] Ken Kusmer, “Muslim Has Eye on Congress,” Associated Press, 23 February 2008.

[30] “Who Is Barack Obama?,” Snopes.com, 15 January 2008. http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/muslim.asp (Snopes is an urban legends history resource)

[31] “The Big Story with John Gibson,” 19 January 2007.

[32] James Joyner, “Obama in Muslim Garb,” Outside the Beltway, 25 February 2008.

http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/obama_in_muslim_garb/ (This is a Political blog)

[33] “Kenya Photo Worth Several Sharp Words From Clinton, Obama Camps,” Fox News.com, 25 February 2008.

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/elections/2008/02/25/photo-showing-obama-in-somali-garb-circulated-by-clinton-campaign-source/ Geoff Earle, Sandra Hurley and Maggie Haberman, “Backlash at ‘Garb’age,” The New York Post,27 February 2008.

http://www.nypost.com/seven/02272008/news/nationalnews/backlash_at_garbage_99488.htm

[34] “Clinton Staff Fired for Obama Email,” Aljazeera.net 2 January 2008.

http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2007/12/200852514502205357.html

[35] Ed Henry and Ed Hornick, “Rage Rising on the McCain Campaign Trail,” CNN, 10 October 2008.

http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/10/10/mccain.crowd/

[36] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Background on Arab, South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh Communities in the United States,” Civil Rights Concerns in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Area in the Aftermath of the September 11, 2001, Tragedies, June 2003.

[37] Andrea Elliot, “Muslim Voters Detect a Snub from Obama,” The New York Times, 24 June 2008.

[38] Wajahat Ali, “Is Obama the Muslim World’s Superman?,” Counter Punch, 18 November 2008.

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