Election 2004:The Choice for American Muslims

By Karamatullah K. Ghori

Those of us old enough to remember the presidential election of 1968 would recall a Republican Party ad that seemed to make a bold and provocative statement.

It showed a very pregnant Afro-American woman with the following caption emblazoned on her swollen belly:

This time vote as if your whole world depended on it.

That was an apt and relevant statement of the times then prevailing in America. The country was deep into the vortex of a war fought thousands of miles away, in the steaming jungles of Vietnam. The war had badly divided the nation and truncated public opinion right down the middle. The youth-inspired anti-war sentiment had riven the country from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. The stakes were high and the political ambience was highly charged by sentiment.

The pregnant ad, with the Republican candidate Richard Nixon’s blessings, promised the birth of a new, enlightened, era in America and salvage it from the darkness in which the Democrats, then possessing the White House, had plunged it. The message, obviously, sank with the voters and they reposed their trust in Nixon to deliver them from darkness.

That ad of 36 years ago could still be relevant and appealing to at least one segment of the American electorate, the Muslims, which was almost non-existent then.

The Muslim presence in America has proliferated by leaps and bounds in the past 30 years. There are, today, 6 to 7 million Muslims in US, making up nearly 2 ˝ per cent of its population. At least half this number is entitled to vote.

Traditionally, American Muslims have shunned mainstream politics of the land they chose to make their new home. There were several reasons for it. A vast majority of these new Americans came to this land of opportunity to advance their economic fortunes and were least interested in partaking of its political life, which in any case seemed too alien and complicated for their taste.

There was another, powerful, element of naivety working on their individual and collective psyche.

Most had migrated to America from cultures with hardly any hue of democracy. The have had no participation in the political shenanigans of their home country, where autocrats and un-elected potentates hardly ever encouraged them to do so. Therefore, they felt no need, or compulsion, to dabble in the political stream of their adopted country. Why bother, was the stereotype, resigned, refrain swaying most new Muslim Americans.

There was also a glaring absence of organized effort to induce Muslim Americans to become more politically pro-active. Whatever scant and scattered groupings of Muslims there were mostly operated in isolated spheres with hardly much contact between them.

9/11 changed all that overnight and most dramatically. It landed the American Muslims, gratuitously, smack into the epicenter of American politics. The cataclysmic development put a definitive end to the torpor of Muslim Americans. Overnight, from their erstwhile role of silent spectators languishing on the fringes of mainstream America, they became unwilling participants in its ebb and flow. They became a cause celebre much against their inclination or will.

There could hardly be an argument with the overarching fact that Muslims of America were least prepared, by education and training to don the new mantle thrust on them by the sheer force of circumstance. Their political immaturity and naivete came, quickly, to haunt them in the wake of 9/11. To their horror and utter dismay, they discovered that the man whom they had given their trust in the 2000 presidential race by an overwhelming acclaim, George W. Bush, lost no time in donning the mantle of an anti-Muslim crusader and unleashing policies, at home and abroad, calculated to target them in whatever way possible.

Reminiscent of the Republican ad of 1968, the stakes couldn’t be greater for Muslim Americans in this election of 2004. There is no gainsaying the fact that it is the most important election in the 228- year history of USA as far as its Muslim electors are concerned. Their future, and that of their coming generations, depends on its outcome. Verily, Muslim electors ought to vote, as that pregnant ad exhorted the, as if their whole world depended on it.

Luckily, the aftermath of the initial shock of landing in the mainstream of American politics in the tide of 9/11 have injected a lot of awareness of their position and importance to Muslims of America, by and large. In the three years since that watershed, they have done quite a lot of organizational work. There is now more than a semblance of organized Muslim politics, despite the absence of too many Muslims taking an active plunge in the mainstream politics. However, the consciousness that they are now a part and parcel of US political dynamics, Muslims have taken measures to organize themselves, at least, at broad intelligentsia level, if not at the grassroots.

Sadly, however, the Muslim leadership still seems stranded between a rock and a hard place, as far as taking a categorical and bold stand on the crucial question of backing this or that horse in what is, for all intents and purposes, still a two-horse presidential race.

Saying this might seem a little too harsh to some, especially now that AMT-the umbrella organization sheltering under its wings a large number of Muslim groups from across the land-has belatedly endorsed Senator John Kerry as worthy of receiving the Muslim vote in this election.

But AMT’s endorsement still carries an unmistakable imprint of diffidence, which isn’t a healthy attribute for any organization, particularly one speaking in the name of so many. It ought to have taken the decision it took after a lot of huffing and puffing and foot-dragging, a lot earlier. Its alacrity of decision-making would’ve sent a positive signal of its being politically savvy and astute.

Muslim voters of America must understand, without equivocation or ambiguity, that theirs is a powerful vote that carries the potential in its womb, as was the message of the 1968 Republican poster, of making a major impact and radically influencing the outcome of the vote.

Indeed Kerry, by his acts of omission and commission, doesn’t deserve to be given a thumb up by Muslim voters of America. He has deliberately shied away from taking a stand on any Muslim or Islamic issue, be that in America or elsewhere in the world. However, his caution of not being counted as a supporter of Islamic causes is understandable. He would be loath to enrage his Jewish/Israeli supporters who have poured millions into his campaign.

Taking the example of 2000 election, Bush hadn’t deserved a categorical Muslim vote, by the same token. And yet Muslims voted for him because they had a faint hope he would be a safer bet than Gore, suspected of being a stronger votary of Jews and Israel.

In other words, Bush was a beneficiary of a protest vote; he reaped the bonanza from Muslim lack of trust in Gore.

Let this rule be the beacon for Muslims this time around too. Choosing between two negatives, Kerry is still a safer bet. Bush is unworthy of a second round of trust because his record is un-deserving of it. Let Kerry be given the benefit of doubt. A negative vote, yes. A protest vote, by all means. The bottom line for Muslim voters should be: Anyone but Bush.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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