The Muslim American Vote: A Lost Opportunity for the Right?

[ 0 ] November 4, 2012



With two weeks until the US Presidential elections, the Romney and Obama campaigns have been busy campaigning in swing states, and reaching out to key demographics such as independents, women, Hispanics and youth for their vote.

One group that neither party is wooing — Muslim Americans.

That’s because Muslim-Americans are mostly expected to vote Democrat, despite some level of dissatisfaction with the party and the Obama administration.

Between 85% and 95% of American Muslims will vote for Obama in the upcoming election, speculates Princeton University Associate Professor of Politics Amaney Jamal.

“It’s going to be a repeat of what we saw in 2008, and more or less 89% of Muslim Americans, who turned out, voted for Obama then,” Jamal said during a visit to Duke University on October 1 – where she was giving a public talk on Muslim Americans and the 2012 Elections.

This is despite the fact that many Muslim Americans hold conservative social and economic values — including on same sex marriage (against), abortion (against), and school choice (for) — and have supported Republicans in the past.

“If you look at the Islamophobic agitation that’s emerging from the right in this country, it’s really pushed the Muslim American constituency to the Democratic party,” said Jamal. “We don’t see values trumping individual concerns about welfare, and now Muslim Americans feel far more protected by Democrats in office than they would a Republican leader.”

Could the votes of this small, but influential community be considered a lost opportunity for the right ?

Numbering between 3 and 6 million, approximately one third of the Muslim American community is African-American, one third is of South
 Asian descent, one quarter is of Arab descent, and the rest are from all over the world, including a growing Latino Muslim population. About one half of this population was born in the U.S., a percentage that continues to grow as immigration slows and younger individuals start having families. (What is the Truth About American Muslims: Questions and Answers, produced by the Interfaith Alliance and Religious Education Project of the First Amendment Center )

According to a 2012 ISPU report their populations are concentrated in key swing states such as Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida.

About 70% of Muslim Americans lean democratic, 11% lean Republican and about 19% don’t lean either way, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study.

Muslim Americans voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush in the 2000 election; he got 70 percent of their votes nationwide, including 46,200 in the battleground state of Florida.  They voted 2 to 1 for Clinton in 1996 and 2 to 1 for George H.W. Bush in 1992.In fact George W. Bush was briefly referred to as  ‘America’s first Muslim president’. (Foreign Policy, August 23, 2010, ).

“Despite being very diverse and far from monolithic, this constituency is growing faster than any other religious community and has become increasingly visible and sophisticated in its political engagement,” notes the 2012 ISPU report.

Duke University Associate Professor of Sociology Jen’nan Read, who looks at Muslim American assimilation in her research and has studied their political participation in national elections, says “the Muslim population has mobilized much more than they ever had before 9/11 and they increasingly have done so in swing states.”

However, with 43% of the population feeling at least a little prejudice towards Muslims (Gallup, 2010), Jamal argues that “Islamophobia” is still the overall context under which we operate today.” In fact it might be what prevents both parties from actively courting their vote.

“It is a liability to be linked, associated, or even sympathetic toward Muslims in this political age in the United States, ” she said, referring to the post-9/11 period. “We see this in the Islamophobia, in my opinion, which has spiraled out of control in the last several years, emanating from the right in this country, especially the tea party. We’ve seen this in these anti-Sharia campaigns.”

She believes both parties consider Muslim Americans “a liability.”

Mainstream public opinion, government policies, and policy statements by government leaders (including Democrats) feed anti-Muslim sentiment.

“This is a community that has been under the heavy hand of the security state since 9/11,” she said, and “they continue to be held responsible for the acts of these few terrorists.”  Americans by and large, she said, support these security policies.

Jamal pointed to a 2010 Gallup survey (2010) that found 71% of Americans favored the use of profiling to single out airline passengers for more intensive security searches before they board U.S. flights, based on their age, ethnicity, or gender.

This tells us, she said in her talk, that “while racism is no longer tolerated in the United States, anti- Muslim rhetoric is acceptable and in fact seen now as a measure of patriotism.”

Mosques and Muslim student groups continue to be surveilled by law enforcement agencies.  However, referencing a 2012 study on homegrown terrorism by UNC Sociology Professor Charles Kurzman, she said,  “its not clear that overly surveilling the Muslim community has really weeded out the terrorist problem.” .

This study may not have reached mainstream America, though.

“The average American has bought into this idea that if you see a Muslim, if you see a mosque, if you see a group of Muslims, obviously the only thing they could be doing is conspiring to sabotage US interests and take away US life,” Jamal said.

Mitt Romney, while governor of the Massachusettes, advocated wiretapping mosques.

In a 2005 Heritage Foundation speech on homeland security, then-Governor of Massachusettes Mitt Romney , said: “We have 120 colleges and universities in Massachusetts, roughly. How many individuals are coming to our state and going to those institutions who have come from terrorist-sponsoring states? Do we know where they are? Are we tracking them? How about people who are in settings–mosques, for instance–that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror? Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping?”

It is these kinds of pervasive Islamophobic attitudes toward Muslim Americans, she said, that have led to a series of hate crimes against the community that have increased year in and year out since 2003.

Meanwhile, the Muslim American community continues to have a complex relationship with national security.

Doesn’t this surveillance put them off supporting the Obama administration?

“It certainly does put them off,” Jamal said. “There is a consensus amongst certain sectors of the Muslim American community that although surveillance is basically horrible because it violates the community’s rights and freedoms and basically just personal lives, the number one beneficiary of a secure United States is the Muslim American community…because the Muslim community cannot afford another terrorist attack.”

At the same time, the US government and local law enforcement agencies, like the Los Angeles Police Department, are also actively involving US Muslims in intelligence gathering.

If you go to the Arab American festivals, or other large organizational gatherings, it’s common to find the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) there with a recruiting booth, said Jamal. The Muslim community welcomes this — seeing it as a way of “proving their loyalty to the community.”

Jamal believes that there are a high number of Muslim Americans working for DHS, which has prompted her and others to pressure the department to release those numbers, in what she says might be an “act of desperation”, but nevertheless a strategy that would be great for “winning public opinion.” So far, no numbers have been released.

While she acknowledges that key Muslims, like Farah Pandith (appointed Special Representative to Muslim Communities in June 2009), have been appointed to public, very prominent roles in the US administration, she said, “Unfortunately President Obama has exhibited little public defense of Muslim Americans.”

When people allege that Obama is Muslim, for example, the response from the White House is “no, no, no, he’s really Christian,” which stops short of saying there’s nothing wrong with being Muslim.

Admittedly there was “significant Muslim representation” at the Democratic National Convention, said Jamal — more than in 2008, and definitely more than at the Republican National Convention — but she’s not satisfied that that ‘inclusion’, in terms of seeing those Muslim faces in the crowd, is in itself enough.

“My worry is this idea that ‘if you are going to be involved, you need to be silent’. Inclusion means also allocating voice, empowerment, and I don’t think the Muslim community has felt very empowered as of late, ” she said.

“They (the community) could have tried to be more savvy about demanding public recognition instead of staying silent and getting swept away with the tide.”

She believes the Muslim American community has bought into this idea that they’re a liability to the Democratic Party, and that the Muslim American leadership is not checking this.

“If you look at a lot of the key Muslim American organizations in the United States, they’re disappointed that there aren’t more public or positive statements coming out of the White House or other units in government to counter this Islamophobia,” she said. “There’s not much going on to defend Muslim Americans, at least at the elite level. Every now and then John Stewart will have a funny clip or the Colbert Report will do something funny, but it’s not coming from the key elite figures of this country.” (She doesn’t see enough Muslim voices in the media either).

“When you critically discuss this with the Muslim American leadership in this country ‘like why don’t you call out these leaders’, they’re response is ‘Well we can’t say anything because we don’t want to hurt Obama in the election’,” she said.

“Accepting such subordination in the meantime has contributed to a political environment that already holds Muslims in a negative light.”

Islamophobia Impacts Foreign Policy

Islamophobic attitudes in the US have far reaching, and damaging consequences for both political parties.

Jamal said that Islamophobia in the US — whether it be the insulting YouTube “Innocence of Muslims” trailer, anti-Islam campaign rhetoric, inflammatory billboards by Pamela Geller’s group, or Quran burnings — has been damaging to US foreign policy, and heightened anti-Americanism in the Middle East.

This is a region where US policies such as the handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the impact of drone attacks on civilians, and the presence of US troops on the ground in several countries are already unpopular.

So when parts of the Arab population staged violent protests in the streets and at US embassies in the region, following the release of the anti-Islam video, they were expressing viewpoints that for decades had no outlet, Jamal said.

“The Islamophobic current in the US does not advocate democracy there (in the Middle East) — and is mobilizing against Obama because he came down on the side of protestors (during the Arab revolutions).”

Since the protests happened, in fact, there has been speculation in the media and scholarly debate as to whether these countries are ready for democracy and whether Islam and democracy is compatible.

“Obama must tread carefully because Islam is a liability and that liability is going to directly impact the way he or any future president deals with democratization in the Middle East,” she says.

Jamal explained that in some circles there has been talk that by supporting the protestors, “we (the US) basically unleashed citizens who cannot rule themselves and worse, they can’t even be democratic.”

“Mainstream Americans still see Muslims as this suspicious other. There’s this underlying worry that Muslims hold illiberal values, that at the heart of it, if you brought a bunch of Muslims in a room you will just see how undemocratic they are, and we don’t know why this claim persists by the way, that Muslims are anti-democratic. There are several countries that are majority Muslim and are democratic, so it’s not clear why this continued assertion goes unchallenged in popular discourse in this country.”

Where do Muslim Americans go from here?

New on the mobilization scene, Muslim Americans have, since 9/11, spent a disproportionately large amount of its resources, Jamal said, — “millions and millions” — on countering discrimination whether it be mounting public information campaigns, taking out ads, or making “I’m not a terrorist” videos.

Said Frances Hasso, Director of Duke’s International Comparative Studies Program, “An argument for inclusion (in mainstream U.S. society) that is premised on ‘we’re safe, we’re all the same, we’re loyal citizens’ — is the terrifying and upsetting reality.”

“They’re obviously not winning,” Jamal said. “They need coalitional partners.”

“I have to say this is not only a Muslim problem. This is really an American problem. We’ve seen this in the civil rights movement. We’ve seen this with other minority groups. Forget about the Muslim Americans for a moment. When Bill Clinton took the stage at the National Democratic Convention and said ‘we are stronger when we are together than when we’re divided’ I thought—when was the last time we heard that reconciliatory tone in American politics.”

Concluded Director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, Gilbert Merkx, “Given the changing demography of the U.S., a party that limits its base to white Protestants and Catholics will have a shrinking base.”

“A party, like the Democratic Party, that is inclusive of all minorities, including Muslims, will have a bright future.”

Duke’s Imam Abdullah Antepli, a national figure in interfaith relationship building asked Jamal to speculate if the situation for American Muslims might improve, (as some in the community are predicting or hoping) if President Obama is re-elected.

Answered Jamal, “I sure hope so but I’m not sure.”

Duke’s professor Read, who organized the talk, weighed in.“I think the expectation that Obama is going to do anything different, is just wishful (thinking) over coffee talk. Until the Muslim population becomes larger, and not just larger but more impactful, he’s going to do what all elected officials do.”


Amaney Jamal is Associate Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a Carnegie Scholar. Her current research focuses on democratization and the politics of civic engagement in the Arab World, and she directs the Workshop on Arab Political Development. She extends her research to the study of Muslim and Arab Americans, examining the pathways that structure their patterns of civic engagement in the US.  Her latest book, published this year, is Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All? (Princeton University Press).




Jen’nan Read is associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University, and Associate Director for Special Initiatives at the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Her research focuses on how culture and religion shape the assimilation experiences of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, and she has analyzed Muslim voting patterns in the 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections. She is also a Carnegie Scholar.






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