Calling themselves a "sleeping giant," Muslims gathered Saturday in Irvine to brainstorm ways to increase their clout in the U.S. political system and the November elections.
A bipartisan slate of speakers--from Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose) to California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres--encouraged Muslims to register to vote, volunteer on campaigns, donate money and forge personal relationships with elected officials.
In the daylong conference, Muslims debated political strategies, including organizing a bloc vote for the presidential election focused on California and 13 other states with many Muslim residents.
"What we're hoping to accomplish is our full rights of citizenship," said Agha Saeed, a UC Berkeley political science professor and head of American Muslim Alliance, which sponsored the gathering.
The alliance is promoting the goal "2000 for 2000," aimed at finding 2,000 Muslim candidates to run for office this year.
In six years, Saeed has built the group into a national political organization of 7,000 members, with 93 chapters in 31 states. He also helped establish the American Muslim Political Coordinating Committee, an alliance of four major Muslim organizations that expects to deliver the community's first presidential endorsement two weeks before the election.
Although the size of the Muslim American community is not precisely known, estimates range from 3 million to 10 million. Saeed said the number of registered Muslim voters in California could number 400,000. In any case, the growing political visibility of Muslim Americans is apparent.
In the past few years, Muslims have won elections at state and local levels. They have been appointed ambassadors and representatives to national commissions, state bodies and local boards. And they are beginning to join the staffs of elected officials: About a dozen Muslim aides now work on Capitol Hill, enough to start a Friday prayer service there.
For the first time, the Republican and Democratic national conventions this year had Muslims giving benedictions. Muslims are now invited to celebrate Ramadan and other Islamic holy days at the White House. And Muslims are beginning to score impressive political victories.
The most prominent victory has been their fight to abolish the use of secret evidence in deportation hearings, a little-known provision in federal immigration law that has been used almost exclusively against people of Arab and Muslim backgrounds. Earlier this week, the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure to limit its use, by a vote of 26 to 2--a result one Muslim leader called "beyond our wildest imagination."
"When we first started this, no one stood with us," said Sami Al-Arian, a professor at University of Southern Florida. He told the crowd of more than 100 people that the campaign against secret evidence took persistence and eventually generated more than 55 supportive editorials and 200 positive articles in U.S. newspapers that were instrumental in raising public awareness.
Campbell, delivering the keynote luncheon address, told the Muslim crowd that such political victories could be replicated--such as fighting to end sanctions on Iraq. Campbell, who is challenging Democrat Dianne Feinstein for a Senate seat, urged Muslims to set up volunteer networks to support candidates of both major parties in every congressional district.
Despite the gains, Muslims say they still have a long way to go. The community has not yet produced any national elected officials, nor any Muslims in key federal policymaking positions.
Saeed said his group managed to field only 700 candidates for office this year, one-third the original goal--a result he blames on his group's own skeleton staff and lack of follow-up.
Notwithstanding enthusiasm for a bloc vote, the community has not yet demonstrated a united front encompassing its diverse members--from American-born Muslims, largely of African ancestry, to immigrants from more than 60 countries.
Maher Hathout and Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles urged more active efforts to bridge the gap between immigrants and American-born Muslims. That gap was apparent at the conference, where few African Americans were present.
And some Muslims still believe it is haram, or forbidden, to become politically involved in a system they view as corrupt and often harsh to Muslim interests. But most Muslims said their "sleeping giant" is beginning to wake up and can no longer be ignored.
Iram Amin came to the United States from Pakistan as an infant and is studying psychology at Cal Poly Pomona. At 19, she already has volunteered to work on two elections--one local, one congressional--because, she said, "I think Muslims can make a difference."
"The critical mass has been achieved," Saeed said. "We are here to stay."