Why “Qualified” Muslim Support for Kerry?

By Lisette Poole

Newark, CA: American Muslims have put the US presidential candidates on notice that the winner will have to deal with the deep discontent in their community, and nation-wide, over broad, arbitrary, surveillance measures enforced by the present administration.

This stance was announced by the American Muslim Taskforce (AMT) in a statement calling upon its members and supporters to vote in protest of the Bush administration’s civil right policies by giving “qualified” support to Sen. John Kerry at the November 2 voting booth.

AMT is an umbrella organization of ten largest Muslim groups in the United States. It has stated that since September 11 its community members have complained that their homes and personal records have been searched without warrants, people have been detained without access to lawyers, and mosques have come under surveillance

“American Muslims are being treated like second-class citizens,” declared the AMT statement read at a press conference in Washington, DC by organization chair Agha Saeed. “We believe that our vote is the best guarantee of our civil rights and the best expression of our citizenship.”

The AMT endorsement has turned an expected popular vote for Kerry into a bloc vote. “A bloc vote”, says AMT chair Dr. Agha Saeed, “takes place when most members of a group vote together for a common purpose based on a negotiated understanding.” By linking the Muslim vote to the demand for restoration of civil liberties and human rights, the AMT statement has galvanized the Muslim community around a unified action agenda. It has premised the relationship between the Kerry campaign and the Muslim voters on respect for the Bill of Rights. “Because pluralism is based on partial agreements, support for Sen. Kerry is premised on our overall effort to help restore liberty and justice for all,” the statement reads, implying that this is going to be a performance-based relationship.

The AMT enjoys the support of nation-wide organizations seeking to preserve constitutional rights even as the nation adopts security measures to protect against further terrorist attacks. The Green, Libertarian, Reform and Independent parties have all voiced support for AMT. In addition, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said earlier this week that it is asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation to release information about its questioning of Muslims and Arabs at their homes, workplaces and mosques.

“By linking the need for freedom with the electoral process, the AMT has imbued the Muslim community’s vote with relevance, purpose and power,” Dr. Shabbir Safdar commented in a telephone interview. “This position resonates in our community and gives legitimacy to our demands.” He is a member of the AMT board, and a professor of clinical medicine at Washington University Medical Center.

The “qualified” endorsement, AMT declared sends a message that it expects a possible Kerry administration to reciprocate by rolling back parts of the USA Patriot Act in affirmation of due process, equal justice and other constitutional norms. It also implies that the community relationship with a new administration may remain lukewarm until action is taken, community leaders say.

Community expectations

Muslim immigrants, like others, come to the United States in search of freedom, said chairman Saeed, who teaches at the UC Berkeley’s African American Studies Department.

To illustrate the depth of this point he tells a story about a conversation between America’s Nobel Prize winning novelist William Faulkner and a Russian critic. “The Russian critic, commenting on the works of William Faulkner, once observed that many people were ‘Americans’ even before they got to America as immigrants. How could one be an American without ever having visited America? someone asked. “Well, by their longing and commitment to freedom” was the Russian critic’s reply.”

The US Muslim community has been antagonized by the administration in numerous ways during the past three years. The treatment has led major organizations to conclude that their support for the Republican Party in the 2000 election was a serious error. “The Bush administration has been insensitive to the civil liberties and human rights,” of Muslims since the September 11 attack, the AMT statement said.

Saeed and others believe that the community now wishes to see corrective action taken by the next administration to restore civil liberties, provide jobs, education, health care, economic development of inner cities, end of war and occupation of Iraq, improve relations with the Muslim world, and work towards international peace and justice.

AMT and the vote

By linking its endorsement of Kerry to civil rights, the AMT has accomplished one of the goals it set out to fulfill when it was launched in December 2003. It has placed civil rights in the forefront of the public awareness, and has set it on the table of the presidential agenda. It is the result of tireless effort that the AMT has succeeded in channeling the community’s anguish and anger into a voting strategy.

AMT’s leadership, determined to establish internal consensus, launched 50 town hall meetings across the nation, built civil rights coalitions with like-minded organizations and negotiated with all candidates for support of the American Muslim community’s needs. The 12-month effort culminated in 70 town hall meetings, the establishment, in California, of the California Civil Rights Alliance and the public support from the Green, Libertarian, Reform and Independent parties.

AMT continues to enjoy broad-based support among its ethnic components. Just a week ago an impressive constellation of Pakistan-American organization had announced its support for the AMT by exhorting:

“An election, among other things, involves opportunities for 1) agenda-setting, 2) coalition-building, 3) capacity-formation (gaining knowledge and skills to influence the political system), and 4) negotiated achievement of community interests.

“Endorsement without negotiation is meaningless, negotiation without quid pro quo is a failure, and any quid pro quo that does not benefit most of the community is elitist. An endorsement must meet the litmus test of translating personal contacts into community benefits otherwise it is a sham.

Through its principled, nuanced, and skillfully crafted stand, the AMT has fulfilled all of those expectations. Now, as he looks at the post-election picture, Saeed says AMT will continue working towards several goals: building a nationwide coalition of civil rights, education and empowerment of the American Muslim community, electoral defeat of the neo-conservatives, consolidation of AMT and its organizations, consolidation of AMT’s relationship with its own base. (Lisette B. Poole, a freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay area, also lecturers at CSUH)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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