Monday, June 12, 2006

Muslims try to regain their foothold in politics

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Of the 11,754 Americans who have served in Congress since the nation was founded, only one has specified a religious preference other than Christian or Jewish.
If Keith Ellison of Minneapolis makes it through the primary and general elections in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District, he would make history by becoming the first Muslim member of Congress.
But in another way, he would not be alone.
After losing political ground in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, American Muslims are trying hard to regain traction in the 2006 elections.
Many Muslims say they've been the victims of more hate crimes and discrimination in recent years and that the only way to fight back is to become more engaged in politics. They're doing just that, holding voter registration drives and running candidates from City Hall to Capitol Hill.
"As Muslims, we need to take our souls to the polls on Election Day," said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Washington-based Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation.
The number of Muslim candidates for various offices across the nation hit an all-time high of about 700 in 2000 but then declined dramatically, to about 70 in 2002 and about 100 in 2004, according to the American Muslim Alliance, a national organization that supports Muslim candidates. No comparable figures are available for 2006.
Ellison, the DFL endorsee to replace the retiring Rep. Martin Sabo, says he has never made his religion a public issue.
"Here's the thing: When we win this thing, I'm going to be the first black person (in Congress) in the state of Minnesota," said Ellison, who has been a state representative since 2003. He faces at least three opponents in a September primary and, if he wins, opponents from three other parties in November. "And the thing that I find quite fascinating is that there's more conversation about my religion than my race. And I guess in some sense that means we've made a little progress on the racial front."
Bray said there are about 100 elected Muslims holding offices across the nation today, from precinct captains to school board members. According to Bray, the top Muslim officeholders are Ellison and Larry Shaw, a Democratic state senator from North Carolina. There are seven or eight Muslim mayors, 15 to 20 city council members, and many state and county level officials, including eight Muslims holding state office in New Jersey, three in Missouri's state assembly and several county officials in the Detroit area.
Hesham Hussein, president of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said at least two Muslims are running for office in Minnesota this year: Ellison and Farheen Hakeem, the 2005 Minneapolis mayoral candidate who's running for the Hennepin County Board with the backing of the Green Party.
Some Muslim candidates say that their faith should not be discussed in campaigns.
"To be honest with you, I don't know why they label people like me," said Ahmad Hassan, a Texas Republican and a Muslim who's running against Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. "I don't label myself as Muslim. I'm American."
Hassan, whose wife is a Christian, said religion has no place in politics and that he does not represent Muslims, who he said are misunderstood by most Americans. "The Muslims I know are kind. They're sincere. They don't hurt anybody. They help everybody. But unfortunately in America, most people have their own impression. ... The Muslims, to them, are the bad guys."
Mohamed Khairullah, mayor of Prospect Park, N.J., was attacked in an anonymous mailing last year as "a betrayer living among us" who would "try to poison our thoughts" about the United States. He's a native of Syria who moved to the United States in 1991.
"I felt disgusted," he said. "I've been living in town for 15 years. ... I'm a teacher; I educate children. Nobody had an issue with my beliefs or what I'm all about throughout all these years, but then when it comes to being in a position of a mayor, somebody felt that I shouldn't be there."
Khairullah, a Democrat who faces a primary election today, (Tuesday) said it's important for Muslims to get involved in politics to counter the public's misconceptions.
Recalling how Congress killed the proposed Dubai ports deal, which called for an Arab firm to manage the operations of some key U.S. ports, Hussein said that many politicians wanted to exploit anti-Muslim sentiment for political gain.
"This is the sad part," he said. "Even the president, who is not necessarily pro-Muslim, agreed with the deal. ... That shows you how vulnerable the situation is."
Ellison, a Muslim since age 19, said there were attempts to smear his name when he ran for the Legislature in 2002. He found flyers on cars showing a picture of Ellison with Muhammad, his Muslim name, written on them.
He said that his religion has prompted some people to "make assumptions that they shouldn't make." For example, Ellison said, he backs a two-state solution in the Middle East, defending both Israel's right to exist and to defend itself and "the national aspirations of the Palestinian people."
"I really am one of those people who believe that whether you're Jewish, Muslim or Christian or Buddhist, that your behavior is the measure of your faith," he said.

No comments: