THE DEMOCRATIC National Convention in Denver, Colorado opened with a huge interfaith gathering on Aug. 24, featuring remarks and readings by rabbis, imams, ministers and community leaders. This was the first time a celebration of this nature has been part of a Democratic National Convention, and it was symbolic of the party's intentions to bring multiple communities together under its "big tent."
Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, observed to a huge audience at the convention center's interfaith event that when she has traveled abroad since the 9/11 attacks she frequently is asked, "How are Muslims doing in America?"
The professor, who teaches at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said her response is, "There are problems, but I will tell you this is the best place in the world to practice our faith." That's because, the Canadian-born Muslim convert explained, Americans defend religious diversity: "Christians and Jews have stood up for my community every day."
According to the Muslim Americans in attendance, not a single Islamaphobic word was uttered at the DNC, from beginning to end. Time and again in Denver, Arab- and Muslim-Americans said they believed that Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama would be president for all Americans.
In the past, Muslim Americans—who, like Hispanic Americans, place great importance on strict family values—have tended to vote conservatively. In recent years, however, the hard-line stances many Republicans have taken on immigration, civil rights, health care, education, the economy, and foreign policy have driven many conservative Arab- and Muslim-Americans away from the party.
Among the variety of caucuses which met at the Democratic National Convention was, for the first time, the American Muslim Democratic Caucus, which sponsored an Aug. 25 luncheon to honor the more than 50 Muslim delegates from 20 states. Organizers emphasized the growing political influence of American Muslims and gave reporters a crash course in politics before the lunch even started. Dr. Inayat Lalani, communications director for the Caucus, spelled it out in no uncertain terms: "The media talk about the Latino vote and the black vote," the retired surgeon said. "You analyze the women's vote, and the blue-collar vote. Then there's the senior citizen vote, and the under-30s vote. But you never mention the impact of the Muslim-American vote. That is politics of exclusion—and exclusion, my friends, is un-American."
Another organizer, Sarwat Husain, president of the Texas Democratic Caucus, told reporters that, as a result of conversions and immigration, Islam is the fastest growing religion in America today. Not only is Islam the second largest religion in the U.S., she added, but Muslims are a highly educated, affluent community. There are from 7 to 8 million Muslims living in the U.S., with close to 3 million registered voters—many of them concentrated in the six battleground states. "There are also thousands of Muslims serving in our Armed Forces, and our bodies are coming back in bags like other Americans," Husain concluded. "Here's a message for our leaders—don't think you can ignore our vote. The Muslim vote counts."
An Eloquent Congressman
Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), who in 2006 became the first Muslim American elected to Congress, spoke passionately at the luncheon about the need for Muslims, as well as other minority groups, to increase their political involvement by voting, participating in local politics, and running for political office. "America, our great country, needs the Muslim community," said Ellison, who was sworn into office using a Qur'an once owned by Thomas Jefferson—proving, as he said, that there is nothing un-American about Islam.
Warning Muslims that they cannot afford to be captured by any one political party, Ellison said that, instead, every political party, every candidate for office, should be coming to Muslims for their political support. Turning the discussion to civil liberties and justice for every religion and race, Congressman Ellison added, "When you are challenged, you can get bitter, or you can get better."
By getting involved, minority groups challenge the government to make things better for all Americans, he pointed out. "Voting is critically important. It is the kindergarten of politics," he noted. Without going to kindergarten you cannot move up. But you cannot finish kindergarten and say, ‘I'm done, I'm educated.' We are just getting started when we vote."
Ellison stressed the importance of local grassroots politics and encouraged both young and old alike to work in government, including on local school boards. He also called upon Muslims to improve their community from within, and to include more women at meetings. "Our faith is not sexist but some of our practitioners are," Ellison said. "Men of all faiths are infected with sexism. Muslims don't have a monopoly on the problem.
"Some day I'm going to walk out of a room if there are no sisters in it," he warned.
Ellison introduced André Carson (D-IN), as another Muslim "who proves I'm no fluke." Along with subsequent speakers, Carson, who won a House seat in a March 2008 special election, addressed charges that Senator Obama has purposely steered clear of Muslims. "We all hope that one day Barack Obama will step up to a microphone and say, ‘I'm a little rusty but Salaam Aleykum' (Peace be with you)," Carson said. "Muslims have been in America since the beginning and we should be proud."
Eddy Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who also is African American but is not a Muslim, said that when she introduced the first international Ramadan resolution three years ago, she couldn't get it out of the rules committee. "Last year, it came to the floor with three major sponsors," she said, to thunderous applause. "We all need to work together against racial profiling and celebrate diversity."
Obama has been pressed to say he isn't Muslim, Johnson noted, asking, "What difference would it make?" There will be much more dirt to come, she warned. "Every excuse will be played instead of admitting it's just racism. I never thought I'd live to see the day when I had the opportunity to vote for an African-American president. It couldn't have happened without a diverse America."
Next to speak was Chicago lawyer Mazen Asbahi, whom the Obama campaign appointed volunteer national coordinator for Muslim-American affairs on July 26, but who voluntarily stepped down on Aug. 6, after a Wall Street Journal article quoted nonsense from an Internet publication tying him to a "fundamentalist" imam. He didn't want to become another distraction for voters, Asbahi explained. Now, however, he admitted, there are three people liaisoning with the Jewish community and no one working with theirs. While the Obama campaign has had some hiccups in its outreach to Muslims, it's moving past that, he added. "You will have a seat at the table in an Obama administration," Asbahi said. "I'm still 110 percent behind Senator Obama. I hope you will be, too."
Joshua Dubois, national director of religious affairs for the Obama campaign, began his remarks by saying, "Peace be upon you." Obama's faith grounds him, Dubois said, and the senator believes all faiths should engage in the public square. Assuring listeners that Obama recognizes the contributions of Muslims, Dubois went on to address Muslims' gripes about perceived slights. On the July 15 "Larry King Show," he pointed out, Obama once and for all debunked rumors that he was Muslim and discussed the offensive New Yorker magazine cover, remarking that it is not a smear to be called a Muslim.
"You know, this is actually an insult against Muslim Americans," Obama said, "something that we don't spend a lot of time talking about. And sometimes I've been derelict in pointing that out. You know, there are wonderful Muslim Americans all across the country who are doing wonderful things. And for this to be used as sort of an insult or to raise suspicions about me I think is unfortunate. And it's not what America is all about."
In June two Muslim women from Detroit wearing hijab were told by Obama campaign workers that they could not sit behind Obama and in the line of TV cameras. Obama personally called to apologize, Dubois reminded listeners, but people are purposefully distorting that incident and saying Obama is not engaging with Muslims. In fact, one of those women in hijab is now a top field organizer in Michigan, Dubois said.
Next to address the Muslim Democratic Caucus was Justin Rockefeller, 29, youngest son of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and co-founder of the non-partisan GenerationEngage, which aims to draw young voters into the political process. "Democracy should be a dialogue, not a monologue," Rockefeller said, adding that young Muslim Americans have much to do. He told a story about catching a cab soon after 9/11 and noticing the cabbie's sign which said, "I'm a Sikh, not a Muslim. Please don't hurt me." Rockefeller had to pause a moment to contain his emotions, then concluded with great feeling: "America is better than that."
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the first African American to hold that office, and the third black governor in U.S. history, said that Obama's is the most diverse campaign in history. "We are a stronger party and nation when we make room for the talents of every community. This is a once-in-a-generation nominee. Barack Obama can help us find our way back to each other."
Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), which has advocated civic and political empowerment of Americans of Arab descent since 1985, also spoke. "At 3 a.m. when the phone rings, I want the smart guy who understands the complexities in the world to answer the phone," Zogby quipped. "John McCain the tough guy should stay asleep.
"We have to put Obama over the top," he urged listeners. "When he wins we all win. We've suffered as a country for eight years," Zogby concluded. "He's not just the lesser of two evils. We've never had as good a candidate since I can remember."
Washington Report staff did not attend the Republican National Convention (although the magazine was distributed in both Denver and Minneapolis). While we cannot, therefore, provide a first-hand report on Muslim- and Arab-American discussions (or arrests) on the other side of the aisle, we are proud to report that there were superb AAI and American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT) events hosted at both conventions, just as there have been for years.
This publication has long understood that Muslim- and Arab-American voters are a key demographic in several battleground states, including Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Their votes and views matter. It's past time for America's politicians and mainstream media to take them seriously as voters and pay close attention to their concerns.
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.