Beware the American Muslim Vote
US 2012 elections and the American Muslim community
The Franco-American argument about which country deserves to lecture the other on everything from liberty to multilateralism—has raged for centuries, but France just won the latest round. In France the May elections exposed the self-defeating folly of attacking Muslims to rally xenophobic sentiment—a lesson that has so far failed to resonate with the American political establishment. With Muslims growing in numbers and organizational strength on both sides of the Atlantic, Nicholas Sarkozy’s ousting should be a cautionary tale to US presidential candidates, and the hundreds of congressman up for election this November—all must beware the Muslim vote.
Sarkozy’s late conversion to unashamed Muslim bashing was not the life raft it promised to be, instead helping to rally an estimated 2 million Muslims to vote against him and giving Francois Hollande a majority of 18 million votes, to Sarkozy’s 16.8 million.
In America, heading for a closely contested election, Muslim Americans could prove even more crucial in the upcoming vote.
The outcome of the US presidential election in 2012 hinges on a few key swing states, most crucially, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. No president since 1960 has won without taking at least one of the first three, with current polls citing microscopic gaps in support between the two candidates.
Unbeknown to most, Muslims have the potential to be the decisive voice in determining the results in all four. While the Muslim population at best accounts for a fraction of a percent nationally, in these key battlegrounds they make up some one percent of voters. Moreover, unlike other minority communities who are beset by low turnouts, Muslims have historically voted in block and in the last decade have started to vote in extremely high numbers.
If the race to the White House stays tight, this historically little-understood, sidelined and isolated demographic of Muslim Americans, could finally make an impressive debut onto the national stage.Muslim Americans and the Republican Party were not always the alien bedfellows they now appear.
This is not fear mongering nor wishful thinking —depending on one’s political preferences—Muslims have swung US elections before. The Muslim vote was instrumental in helping former President George W. Bush secure the controversial contest in 2000. Back then Muslims, who accounted for more than 100,000 registered voters in Florida, were the only minority to back the Texan en masse, giving him some 70 percent of their votes in a state decided by a mere 537 ballots. By winning the Sunshine State, Bush won the presidency while losing the popular vote to former Vice President Al Gore.
As strange as it may sound, Muslim Americans and the Republican Party were not always the alien bedfellows they now appear. Excluding the 20 to 25 percent of the Muslim population estimated to be African American (and known to be loyally Democratic), the sparse data that exists on US Muslims voting preferences indicates that most are favourable to Republican messages on free markets, low taxation and religious values. George W. Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, for one, was a firm advocate of incorporating Muslim Americans into the Republican fold—to counteract to the Jewish vote that, for all the right’s saber rattling over Palestine and Iran, has remained stubbornly Democrat.
But Rove’s union was not to be. The disastrous Bush-era wars in Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, not to mention the explosion in anti-Muslim fervour institutionalised by legislation such as the Patriot Act, aroused a political shift as marked as anything seen in US politics.
This post 9/11 fallout pushed Muslim Americans to organize, and become much more politically aware.
Slowly shifting their allegiance to the Democratic Party in the mid-2000s, their conversion to the Democratic camp was cemented by President Barack Hussein Obama, who wooed Muslims with his diverse heritage and initially reconciliatory language toward the Muslim world.
The alliance looks set to endure for the duration of Obama’s presidency, but beyond 2012 or 2016, Muslim voter loyalty will be far less certain. While many identify closely with Obama, they are far less sure of the Democratic Party, explains Farid Senzai a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and the author of a recent a report intended as one of the first comprehensive works on America Muslim voting behaviour.
Complicating this political differentiation further is the staggering diversity of the American Muslim demographic, which consists of old and new immigrant groups, coming from places as diverse as Morocco, Iran and Southeast Asia—not to mention the home-grown domestic population.
The community also suffers from huge wealth disparities. While Muslims largely appear to be more financially affluent than the average American—meaning that they have as yet largely untapped resources to bestow upon political allies—pockets of extreme poverty also exist. Although most American Mulsims prioritize the economy as an electoral issue, it is hard to isolate a particular economic message. For all the differences, however, one unifying issue prevails: Islamophobia.
In Florida, which has been plagued by instances of organized Koran burning, witnessed a bomb attack on a Mosque and where Christian communities have come together to try and ban the building of Islamic houses of worship, the rallying cry has been particularly loud. As such, the Florida Muslim community has grown into one of the most cohesive and vocal in the country.
The process has not been purely spontaneous, receiving a necessary boost from Muslim electoral advocacy groups such as Emerge USA that have sprung up in recent years and work to bolster political participation. With their assistance, however, the community’s political engagement is slowly becoming self-sustaining.
Since 2007 when Emerge first started conducting polls and doing outreach, the organization has managed to boost registration and turnout in targeted districts from almost zero to anywhere from 50 to 100 percent. According to Emerge USA vice chairman Khurrum Wahid, in Florida almost 80 percent of Muslims eligible to vote did so in 2008. This compares to 58 percent of voters overall. In non-presidential elections, the difference has been just as stark and in 2010 some 60 percent of registered Muslims voted in Florida, in contrast to 41 percent nationally. While it will be difficult to replicate the excitement of 2008, Emerge still expects Muslims to turn out in well above average numbers this November.
There remains huge room for organizational and institutional growth. The exact number of US Muslims is still small and, owing to the US Census’ omission of religious affiliation, notoriously hard to put a figure on. Estimates vary from the 2.75 million projected by the independent Pew Research Center in 2011, to almost 10 million suggested by some pro-Muslim groups. But, for all the uncertainty, one thing is undeniable; the Muslim American demographic is growing and growing fast. At an average population rate of increase of five to six percent, it laps the American average of less than one percent.
Ignoring these new voters, or worse, using them as tools to boost support among the right, threatens to prove politically disastrous. Gone are the days when Muslim bashing earned Democrats and Republicans alike a sure-fire ticket to Washington. Politicians in both camps better wake up to the reality soon, or face the consequences.