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U.S. Muslims Struggle for Political Unity

In its first such action, a coalition backs Bush, calling him more responsive than Gore. But disagreement from blacks within the religion shows the difficulty of creating a bloc vote.

October 28, 2000|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

When a coalition of Muslim American leaders delivered its first unified presidential endorsement this week--backing Republican candidate George W. Bush--the move marked an important moment in the community's long struggle for unity and a greater presence on the American political stage.

"There is a tremendous awakening in our community," said Saed Moujtahed, 39, a Syrian-born entrepreneur. Once politically apathetic, he intends to back Bush and has put his telecommunications business on hold to raise more than $80,000 in his first political campaign ever, supporting San Jose Republican Rep. Tom Campbell's bid for the U.S. Senate.

The potential size of the Muslim voting population in America is unclear. Estimates of the Muslim American population range from a few million to 10 million, with anywhere from 22% to 42% of them African Americans.

Despite the promise, the effort to unify that vote has not been without obstacles. Disagreements with the endorsement from African American Muslim leaders, most of whom support Democratic nominee Al Gore, highlight a division within the community.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 8, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Muslim Americans--An Oct. 28 story on Muslim Americans' political activity incorrectly described Agha Saeed of the American Muslim Alliance as a political science professor at UC Berkeley. Saeed teaches ethnic studies at Berkeley and political science at Cal State Hayward.

And within days of the endorsement, both the Bush campaign and Hillary Rodham Clinton's New York Senate campaign said they would return contributions from two groups in the Muslim coalition--the American Muslim Alliance and the American Muslim Council. Both campaigns said they objected to statements the groups' leaders had made about the Mideast.

The dispute over the statements began with a New York Daily News article recounting remarks made a few years ago by Agha Saeed, a UC Berkeley political science professor and chairman of the Muslim Alliance.

Saeed had supported a 1975 United Nations resolution affirming the right of resistance, including armed force, for Palestinians and others living under occupation.

The attacks on his remarks were engineered as a "backlash from the pro-Israel lobby to keep us out of politics," Saeed objected. "This is Islamophobic McCarthyism, and we have every intention of fighting it." Saeed has been a driving force behind the coalition, the American Muslim Political Coordinating Council.

'Invited to a Table With No Food on It'

The internal division was highlighted when the nation's largest African American Muslim organization was not included at the podium when the coalition's endorsement of Bush was announced.

"We felt slighted," said A. Ali Khan, who heads the political action arm of the Muslim American Society, a largely African American organization headed by Imam W.D. Mohammed. "It was like being invited to a table with no food on it."

The slight was the unintended consequence of miscommunication, leaders of the coalition said, and the two sides quickly made up and appeared together at an evening forum that day.

But the incident made clear that with a diverse community of immigrants from more than 50 countries and a sizable African American population, creating a Muslim bloc vote will be no easy task.

"Muslims are fiercely independent in our thinking," said Khan, adding that such attitudes are embedded in the non-hierarchical character of Islam itself.

Unlike Jews, who have overwhelmingly voted Democratic for decades, Muslims face an immediate stumbling block in their quest for political unity: the social, cultural and political differences between immigrants and their African American brethren.

Differences in political attitudes are readily apparent. The immigrant-led Muslim organizations that endorsed Bush this week said the decision was based on grass-roots feedback from straw polls and town hall meetings. But the views are decidedly different among African Americans: Khan said a survey of 5,000 members of his group in seven major cities showed that 84% supported Gore, compared with 9% for Bush.

The Muslim leaders who endorsed Bush lauded the Republican's accessibility to them, saying Gore has not responded to their invitations to meet. But the vice president has met twice with Najee Ali, a leading African American Muslim activist who heads Project Islamic HOPE in Los Angeles. Gore also included Mohammed of the Muslim American Society in a conference call with clergy leaders last week.

Political priorities are different too. In their endorsement, the immigrant leaders cited Bush's responsiveness to their concerns over the use of secret evidence in deportation cases, a provision in U.S. immigration law that has been employed almost solely against Muslims and Arabs. That issue, however, is not a burning priority among most African Americans.

What is? Jobs, education, affirmative action and "other things that have to do with poor folks," said Imam Haroon Abdullah of Masjid Al-Shareef in Long Beach, who expects to vote for Gore.

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