Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2004, pages 32-33

Election Watch

Muslims Promise a Whirlwind of Activity To Get Out the Bloc Vote on Election Day

By Delinda Curtiss Hanley

Muslims debated who should receive the gift of their bloc vote, but no one suggested waiting this election out. (L-r) Dr. Agha Said, Eric Vickers and Dr. Shaista Usmani (photo credit D. Hanley).

RICHARD CURTISS, executive editor of the Washington Report, this writer, and staff member Laila Al-Arian were invited to address the annual American Muslim Alliance convention on Sept. 25 at the Wyndam Hotel in Orlando, Florida. AMA chairman Dr. Agha Saeed told the audience that for nearly two decades, in speeches, articles and private meetings, Curtiss had advised American Muslims to form a voting bloc in order to make a difference in U.S. politics. Despite the hurricane forecasts, magazine production conflicts, health constraints, and disappointment in the major candidates, we just had to see for ourselves what the Muslim community would do in the upcoming elections.

By the time we left Florida—later than we’d planned, thanks to Hurricane Jeanne—we were all fired up and optimistic that, once again, this voting bloc could play a major role in history. The following are some of the inspiring Muslim voices we heard:

“In the past six weeks four hurricanes have swept though Florida,” civil rights attorney Eric Vickers told AMA members from around the country who had gathered in Florida to discuss the bloc vote, as Hurricane Jeanne roared toward Orlando to join them. “In the next six weeks there will be a bigger whirlwind of activity within our community,” Vickers promised the crowd. “We can do something to change the course of this country.

“This election can be won at the grassroots level,” Vickers said. “Plenty of voters are yearning for a sea change—both activists and silent voters who care about this country.”

Although Muslims won’t make a decision to endorse a candidate until Oct. 15, Vickers, saying, “I’ll be candid here,” acknowledged, “My objective is to get President George Bush out of the White House. The attorney general incarcerates and stereotypes people because of their thoughts or statements. I want John Ashcroft to wake up on Nov. 3 out of a job. This administration is now engaged in an egregious, immoral war in Iraq. I want Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld out of work on Nov. 3. We clearly have what it takes to make it happen,” Vickers assured the cheering crowd.

“We Muslims can stand for truth with a moral voice,” he continued. “We can form alliances with other minorities and together we can change the leadership of this country.

“When you go back home, work your hearts out to get out the vote,” Vickers urged. “We can show every vote matters. It’s on our shoulders to make this nation great again. A hurricane, a whirlwind can blow through this community to help blow out this administration,” he concluded.

“The year 2000 was a watershed. It’s the first time Muslims delivered a bloc vote,” Dr. Shahid Usmani reminded attendees. “We lived up to our part of the bargain. Bush did not.”

“Our vote is the best guarantee of civil rights and the best expression of our citizenship,” argued AMA chairman Dr. Agha Saeed. He charged every participant to mobilize and motivate his or her community, gather votes and money, and also to keep working between elections. “Muslims need to plan for 2008,” he explained. “As our bloc’s numbers increase our voices will increasingly be heard.”

Speaking later to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Dr. Saeed added, “We can send a message: The Muslim vote does count. It can help change our government. We aren’t aligned on principles with either major party. Last election we voted Republican, this time we may choose a Democrat. We’re a powerful disciplined swing vote that can be mobilized at a moment’s notice. But our candidate needs to earn our vote.”

Jo Chamberlain, the national co-chair for the Green Party, and Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian party presidential candidate, each presented their platforms and pointed out the goals they share with Muslims. Independent candidate Ralph Nader was unable to attend the AMA conference.

The American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), an umbrella organization representing 10 major Muslim organizations, has held 50 townhall meetings across the country and passed out surveys to determine what their community wants to do on Nov. 2. No one can complain that Muslim leaders endorsed a candidate in 2004 without asking their constituents. Muslims are encouraged to go online to fill in the survey at <http://americanmuslimvoter.net>.

At a townhall meeting during the AMA’s annual conference, a microphone was passed down every row in the room. The bloc vote itself was not an issue. Everyone agreed that a solid bloc vote and endorsement is vital for the future of the Muslim community. Despite the recent Zogby International poll that found 76 to 77 percent of American Muslims support John Kerry, there is still some internal debate about whom Muslims should endorse. When Ralph Nader is included, Kerry’s lead is cut to 68 percent, with 11 percent favoring Nader.

The first comment from an audience member was: “Our vote made the difference in 2000. If whoever gets our vote this year actually wins again in Florida, future candidates will begin to listen.”

“You sound like my dad,” a young man interjected. “He says we have to vote for someone who can possibly win. Why should we support the system that helps get men like Bush or Kerry in?” he asked. “Since 9/11 no one will touch us. Muslims have no place in the big parties. We need to get heavily involved in every party in the political system.”

“We have to vote on the basis of our principles,” another person argued, “regardless of electability.”

Advised another, “We should go with the devil we know. Kerry could be even worse!”

In the opinion of another audience member, “We have to make our vote count and give it to the candidate who is most likely to benefit from our vote. If we give it to the Green Party or Nader the other two will say, ”˜We could have had that vote!’”

Who will be the 44th president of the United States? The choice Americans make on Nov. 2 could affect the civil and human rights of everyone at home and abroad, this writer told attendees.

“The next president could bring an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine; U.S. occupation of Iraq; and help solve the long-simmering crises in Kashmir, Chechnya, Sudan, Morocco, and other strife-torn countries. By working to right wrongs and pledging, from here on in, to support international law and forge a new moral foreign policy, the next president could annihilate support for terrorism without ever firing a shot.

“Or he could start new conflicts in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Syria, creating a never-ending cycle of violence, pitting the United States against the Islamic world,” this writer said.

Here at home the PATRIOT Act and ridiculous excesses in the name of homeland security are threatening the freedom and civil liberties of every American. Indeed, we heard some horror stories at the conference. Someone actually called the police to cross-examine a “Middle Eastern-looking” man seen reading a newspaper article about Osama bin Laden in a Florida public library.

Another Floridian said Homeland Security confiscated a brand-new Dell computer being sent to his friend because when he purchased the computer online he mentioned in a survey that he sometimes travels to Pakistan. No money back and no recourse.

Laila Al-Arian, daughter of Prof. Sami Al-Arian, who will have spent two years behind bars under terrible conditions before his expected January trial, told the AMA audience that every one of them is at risk under the policies of the current administration. She described the shocking arrest of her father in front of his children in the middle of the night. “This scene occurs all over the United States,” Al-Arian said. “Civil rights should be our number one issue in this election. This war on terrorism has become a war on our civil rights.

“We’re seeing a trend,” Al-Arian warned. Ashcroft holds a press conference and points a finger at a Muslim terror suspect. He instills terror and fear among us. Cases are built on secret evidence we cannot dispute. We never hear when the case falls apart and the charges are dropped. “Meanwhile another Muslim name is tarnished and a life ruined,” she concluded.

Four Years Later

Who could imagine the last time Americans went to the polls that, four years later, Muslim-American leaders would land in U.S. prisons and government watch lists would prevent scholars, peace activists, and even singers from visiting the land of the free?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on July 28 revoked a visa previously granted to Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan, a well-known Islamic scholar who was due to begin teaching nine days later at the University of Notre Dame. Ramadan, who is one of Europe’s most prominent Muslim reformers, was forbidden entry on the basis of national security without further explanation.

The next Muslim leader to fall afoul of the DHS list was peace activist Yusuf Islam, known as singer Cat Stevens before his 1979 conversion to Islam. The singer/songwriter/speaker has used his voice to inspire audiences with words of peace and justice for four decades.

As Islam and his daughter flew on a United Airlines flight from London to Washington, DC on Sept. 21, Customs and Border Protection agents compared the airplane’s passenger manifest with the DHS watch list, flagged Islam’s name, and made a decision that has alarmed and infuriated Muslims and civil rights advocates—not to mention countless 40- to 50-year-old music fans. The Transportation Security Administration diverted the plane to Bangor, Maine, detained the famous British-born singer of Greek descent, and sent him back to London the next day.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) held a Sept. 22 news conference at their offices to protest this decision. “Islam is one of the most widely known and respected Muslims in the world,” CAIR’s communications director, Ibrahim Hooper, told the packed room. “He has a long history of promoting peace and reconciliation and condemning terrorism. If this kind of thing can happen to Yusuf, who is safe?”

Warned CAIR executive director Nihad Awad, “Treating mainstream and moderate Muslims like Yusuf Islam as if they are criminals or terrorists, without bringing charges or allowing for due process, sends the wrong and disturbing message to the Islamic world that even those who seek peace or condemn terror are not fit to enter the United States.

“It doesn’t help our war on terror,” Awad added. “It makes it harder. This is not the way to win the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide.”

How did Islam, who had visited Washington, DC without incident in May, get on the DHS list in July? U.S. officials aren’t talking. They say they cannot provide specifics on the new information regarding Islam’s alleged ties to potential terrorists that placed him on the “no fly list.” The answer may be found by comparing the DHS list with Israel’s. Several years ago Islam was denied entry into Israel after he was accused of making charitable contributions to “militant“ Palestinian groups. He denied those allegations and was never charged.

No one will say what Islam is accused of doing or which country provided the new information. There are only vague allegations, according to Hooper, “a smoke-screen of suspicion.” Since Islam is not charged with any crime, he can’t clear his name.

“Which experts in what agency decide who is a moderate Muslim and who is an extremist?” Awad asked. “All we ask is that there are checks and balances. A person on that list or considered for deportation should have a fair hearing.”

Calling this “a sad day for America,” Muslim American Society director Mahdi Bray said this should be a wake-up call for America. President George W. Bush has dramatically overreacted to the Sept. 11 attacks. It is bitterly ironic that it was Bush’s statements condemning secret evidence and profiling that earned him the endorsement of the Muslim-American bloc vote in the last elections, and today his administration uses these practices with reckless abandon.

Bush has actually pledged to expand the PATRIOT Act because, he says, it doesn’t go far enough. Democratic candidate John Kerry has failed to offer a satisfactory alternative. He voted for the PATRIOT Act, but promises to modify some of the provisions.

Independent candidate Ralph Nader supports the repeal of the PATRIOT Act and an end to secret detentions, arrests without charges, and the use of secret evidence.

Muslim observers told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that if Kerry goes on the record during the debates or elsewhere and says the following, he’ll have the Muslim bloc vote: “America has always stood for civil liberty and human rights for all. As the next president I will not stand for ex post facto laws, secret evidence or secret trials.” Voters, Muslim-, Arab-Americans and people of conscience should expect these words from every candidate.

As Nov. 2 approaches it becomes increasingly apparent that each vote will count. Every eligible voter must register, do the research, make an informed selection, go to the polls and make a choice. As we leave the polling station, throw your modesty away, walk up to any journalists or exit pollsters you see, introduce yourself and tell them who you voted for and why. Maybe this time the media will report that Muslim- and Arab-Americans, and peace activists, voted overwhelmingly for one candidate and explain why. 

Delinda C. Hanley is the news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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