While America's Muslim leaders are calling on Muslims to vote for Barack Obama, the Democratic Party's presidential candidate is trying to quash the belief held by many that he is a Muslim. Nevertheless, Obama is considered by many to be a real alternative. Mounir Azzaoui reports from Washington
In view of the fact that the race for the White House is now in full swing, it is unlikely that the Islamic Society of North America's (ISNA) choice of motto for its annual conference in Columbus (Ohio) was a pure coincidence. After all, "A Time for Change" is not only a reference to the fact that Ramadan is a time of spiritual renewal, it is also one of the mottos of the Democratic Party's campaign.
The election campaign, which has gathered pace since the official nominations of the Democratic and Republic candidates at the parties' respective conventions, was the dominant issue at the conference, which, with over 30,000 delegates, is the largest conference of Muslims in the USA.
The well-known preacher Hamza Yusuf, who is particularly influential among the young, received thunderous applause when he called on America's Muslims to vote for the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
Yusuf, who converted to Islam at the age of 17, said he was impressed by Obama's biography and drew parallels between the Muslim and the African-American communities' struggle for political recognition.
"Muslims for Obama"
Obama's pledge to withdraw US troops from Iraq is, according to Yusuf, reason enough to vote for him. Says Yusuf: "Iraq is the Arabic word for Vietnam."
Because of the tax-advantaged status of their organisations, representatives of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) - the two most important Muslim national political pressure groups in the USA - were more reticent about actually calling on people to vote in a particular way. Nevertheless, the message was crystal clear: "Muslims for Obama."
In recent months, both organisations have been strongly urging Muslim voters and mosque communities to participate in political discussions and to actually go out and cast their votes. According to a recent survey conducted by CAIR, the most important political issues for Muslims when deciding how to cast their vote are education, civil rights, and the relations between the USA and the Islamic world.
The Democratic Convention in Denver - which opened this year with an interreligious ceremony involving the president of the ISNA, a Canadian-born Muslim, Ingrid Mattson - ended just before the start of the ISNA conference. Said Mattson: "I welcome the recognition this gives Muslims in America."
First criticism, then praise
Of the 4,000 delegates at this year's convention were 47 Muslims who formally endorsed Barack Obama's nomination as the party's presidential candidate. For the first time, Muslim activists and office-holders established a network of Muslim Democrats in order to form a visible presence at the convention and increase their influence within the party.
Key figures in this network are the first two Muslims to be elected to Congress, the African-Americans Keith Ellison and André Carson. Only a few weeks ago, Ellison openly criticised Obama for the fact that two Muslim women wearing headscarves were barred from a Democratic Party rally because of fears that television viewers might get the wrong impression.
Following criticism from Ellison and Muslim organisations, Obama called the two young women to apologise and assure them that the decision to bar them from the rally did not in any way reflect his policy. As far as Keith Ellison is concerned, the matter has been dealt with. "I criticised him, but now I praise him. This episode is an illustration of the fact that Muslims have not been sufficiently integrated to date."
Obama considered by many to be a Muslim
According to Muqtedar Khan of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a Muslim think tank based in Michigan, Obama's election would bring about significant changes for Muslims in the USA: "It will send a message that the politics of fear-mongering have come to an end and anti-Muslim rhetoric and profiling at airports and elsewhere will reduce."
Khan understands why Obama has not yet shown himself in public with Muslims. In a recently published strategy paper, he cautions against making too much of the matter.
For months, Barack Hussein Obama - a self-confessed Christian with a Kenyan Muslim father and an Indonesian Muslim step-father - has been struggling to scotch rumours that he is a Muslim. According to a survey conducted by the renowned Pew Research Center last March, about ten per cent of Americans believed that Obama is a Muslim.
In recent months, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, has not only avoided all contact with Muslims, but has regularly provoked Muslim organisations by making statements in which he did not differentiate between Muslims and extremists or terrorists.
Shift of support to the Democrats
While a large number of the estimated six million Muslims in the USA supported the Republicans because of their conservative values before September 11, there has been a major shift in support towards the Democrats in recent years.
According to a survey of Muslims conducted by the opinion research centre Zogby International in November 2001, 40 per cent stated that they identified with the Democrats and 23 per cent with the Republicans. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2007 showed that 63 per cent of Muslims identified with the Democrats and only 11 per cent with the Republicans. The remainder were undecided.
Although the absolute number of eligible Muslim voters in the USA is low, their votes could be important, most particularly in important swing states like Florida and Ohio. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have safe majorities in these states, which are home to a high concentration of Muslim voters.
Mounir Azzaoui is the ERP scholarship holder of the German National Academic Foundation and is currently working as a research associate at the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington DC.
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan