Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2003, page 29

Islam in America

American Muslims Ready to Fight Back Against USA PATRIOT Act

By Richard H.Curtiss

The annual three-day Labor Day weekend is a highpoint for Muslim Americans, particularly those who live in the Midwest and Canada. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people attended the 40th annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference, held at McCormick Place in Chicago from Aug. 28 to Sept. 1. A parallel event held in Chicago the same weekend by the American Society of Muslims, led by Warith Deen Mohammad, drew about the same number of African-American Muslims.

For the first time the two conventions, held just three miles apart, had one joint session. Leaders sought to introducethe American Muslims from overseas to the indigenous American Muslims who have been expanding their numbers exponentially within the United States. An unspoken but clear attempt was made to bring these groups closer together as rapidly as the two memberships were prepared to accept.

The mainstream African-American group the Nation of Islam was founded by Wallace D. Fard and his successor, Elijah Muhammad. At that time the group generally was referred to as the Black Muslims. Later, after W. Deen Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's son, assumed leadership in 1975, he went to Mecca, and began to understand the worldwide implications of Islam. He steered the group to Sunni Islam, founding the organization that became the American Society of Muslims in 1978. He has remained leader of the group, which now boasts 2.5 million members, ever since.

In 1978 Louis Farrakhan—who several years ago suffered serious health problems related to prostate cancer—took over the old Nation of Islam, now a considerably smaller organization. The group has become less militant over the years, and has organized highly successful and well-publicized peaceful demonstrations such as the Million Man March and a similar event for Black women.

For some time African Americans have hoped that the Nation of Islam and the American Society of Muslims might amalgamate. At this year's ASM Convention, Warith Deen Mohammad announced that he will be retiring but plans to remain active in the organization—perhaps as a kind of elder statesman—and asked his members to elect a successor. Thus, leadership changes can be expected in both groups.

Immigrant Muslim Americans have frequently expressed the hope that they might learn from the experience of African-Americans during the civil rights movement. The Chicago ISNA convention featured an extraordinary number of activities for immigrant Muslims and their American-born children alike. While most focused on proselytizing, making new converts, and reinforcing their members' convictions, there were panel discussions on politics as well.

Muslim Americans are prepared to work again for a bloc vote.

Muslims from different parts of the U.S. led serious discussions on the political implications of the upcoming 2004 elections just a little more than 12 months away. In the year 2000 national Muslim leaders decided to encourage their members to vote together as a bloc, although two previous such attempts ultimately had failed because of regional favoritism in different parts of the country.

It was hard to say whether most Americans noticed the Muslims' third attempt at a bloc vote. As a result of the extraordinary closeness of the election returns, however, specifically in Florida, the Muslim vote made all the difference between George W. Bush and his rival, Al Gore. For the first time most American Muslims realized that they really had the power to affect American elections.

During the 2000 race Bush backers made a serious attempt to woo Muslim voters. Gore and his Democratic Party, on the other hand, were deeply concerned that if they addressed Muslim issues they would lose the Jewish vote. Only belatedly did they begin to understand that, instead, they were going to lose the much larger number of Muslims, who probably have almost twice as many potential votes. Put another way, in the inimitable words of former Secretary of State James Baker III, "the Jews don't vote for us [Republicans] anyway," but the Arab Americans would.

Unfortunately, after President George W. Bush had made it clear that he planned to help address the concerns of Arab and Muslim Americans, the 9/11 attacks changed everything. Bush initially supported Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and helped those communities deliver their message that they were just as devastated as all other Americans by the terrorist attacks.

The president's words soon were belied by his administration's actions, however—particularly by the evangelical proclivities of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Because Ashcroft has not attempted to refute the racist inclinations and pronouncements of such Christian evangelists as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, American Muslims are deeply frightened by these born-again, mostly Republican right-wing fundamentalists. Even President Bush himself seems to tolerate such narrow-mindedness, although he himself does not purposely encourage it.

There are now some six million Muslim Arab-Americans, and another one and a half to two million Christian Arab-Americans. The majority of Muslims voted for Bush, and many Christian Arab Americans did the same. Both groups have been deeply disillusioned by what they have seen as clearly broken promises. Nevertheless, now that they have seen how election results can be affected by working together, Muslim Americans are prepared to work again for a bloc vote.

Concern for Civil Rights

They are listening carefully both to George W. Bush and the would-be Democratic presidential candidates to see what they are prepared to offer Muslim Americans—who are deeply concerned that Ashcroft has gone much too far in the direction of abridging civil rights for all Americans.

John Esposito, an Islamic scholar at the Center for Muslim and Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, addressed the concerns of Muslim Americans attending the ISNA convention. "It is incumbent upon Muslims to create a strategic response," he emphasized. "But when Muslims do what other ethnic groups have done, they find themselves under attack by those who want to discredit them or shut down their organizations."

Like other minorities before them, Muslim Americans must keep working—and voting—to protect their rights. 

Richard H. Curtiss is executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.