By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY
TEANECK, N.J. — The mayor of nearby Prospect Park is a 30-year-old high school business teacher with a young son. He was a volunteer firefighter at 18 and has been active in his community ever since. But when he sought the mayor’s office last fall, voters received anonymous fliers calling him a "betrayer" tied to the 9/11 terrorists.
Why? Because he is a Syrian-born Muslim named Mohamed Khairullah.
"I was worried for my family," Khairullah says. "Any crazy person could have just driven by and done something. But we just had faith and went on doing what we had to do." The result: he got the job, open because the previous mayor had moved away, and now is running to keep it.
The 9/11 attacks have had a curious double-edged impact on the political emergence of American Muslims. They are up against more stereotyping and backlash, which they perceived recently in the furor over a Dubai company’s thwarted plan to take over port operations in several U.S. cities.
At the same time, the 9/11 attacks jolted Muslims into realizing that they needed to make themselves known to their neighbors and heard by their government. They are voting, running for office and getting more involved in civic and political life at every level, from PTAs and school boards to town councils and state legislatures. At least two — Texas Republicans Amir Omar and Ahmad Hassan — are running for U.S. Congress.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which promotes Muslim political activity, has opened 23 of its 31 U.S. chapters since 9/11. In the 2004 election, two studies found, one in five Muslim voters were first-time voters.
"There was a silver lining. We became more public," says Aref Assaf, president of the New Jersey-based American Arab Forum.
This large-scale entry of Muslims into public life is not only testing the courage of Muslim candidates and the tolerance of voters. It’s also prompting politicians to take notice of a community that has growing clout and is open to appeals from both parties.
Could decide close races
American Muslims are hard to count. Many immigrants have Muslim names, but African-American Muslims often don’t. For example, one of the highest-ranking Muslim officials in the country is North Carolina state senator Larry Shaw.
Based on tallies of mosque membership and Muslim names, several national organizations estimate there are 4.5 million to 6 million American Muslims. Most live in a dozen big states, giving them the potential to make a difference in tight races. Aslam Abdullah, editor of the weekly Muslim Observer newspaper, says there are about 15 close races for Congress in districts where Muslims are concentrated and could cast decisive votes.
Mosques, numbering more than 1,200 across the country, are "the grassroots center of our political empowerment," Assaf says. They hold voter-registration drives and policy discussions. They invite candidates to speak, offering access to large crowds at Friday prayers.
Up to a third of American Muslims are African-Americans who vote mostly for Democrats. The rest come from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. Many lived in dictatorships or theocracies and did not participate in politics in their homelands. "It is definitely a new idea," says Mohamed El Filali, outreach director of the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson.
The immigrants are in tune with Republican conservatism on issues such as abortion, gay rights and religion, say analysts such as Georgetown University professor Zahid Bukhari. But they agree with Democrats on civil liberties and government social programs.
At this point, Muslims aren’t firmly allied with either party. Bush won backing from Muslim leaders in 2000, before 9/11, and outperformed Democrat Al Gore among Muslim voters, polls and studies found. Four years later, dismayed by the Iraq invasion and what they saw as civil liberties abuses under the USA Patriot Act, the leaders endorsed Democrat John Kerry, and he won a majority of Muslim voters.
Sherine El-Abd, 60, an Egyptian immigrant and prominent Republican who lives in Clifton, personally tried to convince a number of Muslims to switch back to Bush. It was, she admits, an uphill battle: "There were more that didn’t go."
Analysts say the shift is likely to be temporary. "I wouldn’t call it a realignment," CAIR research director Mohamed Nimer says. "What we’ve seen is just a one-time deal."
Muslims are comparable to Hispanics, a much larger swing voter group, in their diversity and their compatibility with positions of both parties. Analysts say they’re also similar to Hispanics in that they are young and likely to wield increasing influence.
Mohamed Elibiary, president of the Freedom and Justice Foundation in Dallas, a statewide Muslim advocacy group, cites a 2002 Cornell University finding that 60% of the U.S. Muslim population is 30 or younger: "You have this huge bulge that over the next 10 years is going to mature politically" and be far more active.
His foundation gave that process a jump-start after 9/11. In June 2002, the group held a candidate forum at Texas Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys play. It drew 7,000 Muslims and registered 2,000 new voters. "It was a reaction to … feeling like their loyalty to their country was being questioned," Elibiary says. "What could they do? Get politically engaged to prove how mainstream they are."
The ultimate form of involvement is running for office, and by that measure, Muslims are still recovering from 9/11. According to Hazem Kira of the California Civil Rights Alliance, in 2000 there was an "all-time high" of 700 candidates across the country. That plummeted to 70 in 2002 and rose to about 100 in 2004.
There are no statistics yet for 2006. Bukhari, co-director of a project called Muslims in the American Public Square, says grassroots activity is pushing the trend upward. "Muslims are becoming more involved at the county and state level," he says. He says there are three Democrats running for county council and the state legislature in Montgomery County, Md., in suburban Washington, and "that never happened before."
Muslim immigrants who become candidates tend to be observant but not orthodox, and many have U.S. educations. "They are more Americanized," Assaf says.
Of this year’s candidates, at least one — Khairullah — is divorced. At least one is a woman: Democrat Ferial Masry, a teacher making her second run for the California State Assembly from suburban Los Angeles. In Saudi Arabia, where she was born, women cannot vote.
Like Masry, whose district leans Republican, Muslims often run as underdogs. The Dallas Morning News endorsed Omar, son of Iranian and Palestinian immigrants, over two rivals in his GOP congressional primary. If he wins a runoff April 11, he’ll face a popular Democratic incumbent in a Democratic district.
Khairullah, a Democrat, was in his second term on the Prospect Park Borough Council when the mayor moved away. The flier that said Khairullah should not be living in "our clean town," that contended he would "poison our thoughts" about America, did not stop his four fellow council members from picking him for the mayoral slot.
"They were disgusted by the letter," Khairullah says. "I’ve been living in the community the longest out of all the council members. The entire community knows me."
About-face on Bush
In the months before the 2000 election, Muslim leaders were worried about a law allowing the government to use secret evidence in immigration hearings. Leaders
were ignored when they approached Gore, says Boston activist Tahir Ali, but Bush was accessible.
In the second presidential debate, Bush criticized the Secret Evidence Act as a form of racial profiling and said he supported repealing it "to make sure that Arab-Americans are treated with respect."
El-Abd, watching at home, says she cried with happiness when she heard Bush acknowledge her community. Ali, author of a book on the Muslim vote, says "we had to go with him" because he seemed responsive to Muslim concerns.
The euphoria of having helped elect a winner quickly dissipated as Bush invaded Iraq and expanded the government’s investigative powers under the Patriot Act. Some Muslims refused to get a library card or register to vote, scared of "anything that will put them on a list (that) is retrievable" by the FBI, says Abdul Waheed, 59, a Pakistani immigrant running for Teaneck City Council.
Others were more angry than fearful. Assaf says he was "a lifelong Republican" who voted for Bush in 2000. Now he accuses Bush of a "post-9/11 frenzied attack on Islam" and "purely anti-Arab, anti-Islam" policies.
Ali is also having buyer’s remorse, mostly over a war many Muslims tried to avert with calls to contain or oust Saddam Hussein in ways that wouldn’t be so hard on ordinary Iraqis. "I go to a lot of communities, (and) people say, ‘You are the reason we voted for Bush, and look at what happened,’ " Ali says. "I’m feeling ashamed."
Elibiary stuck with Bush in 2004, mostly because he was lukewarm on Kerry. But he says Bush "is about as popular in the Muslim community as he is in the African-American community. Single digits."
That remains true even as Muslims say Bush was right to defend a Dubai-controlled company’s plan to take over some U.S. port operations. "The Arabs are coming, the Arabs are coming," says Paterson councilman Aslon Goow, 47, a Syrian-American, mocking the uproar that killed the deal.
A self-described independent, Goow voted for Bush in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. When he ran for re-election to City Council in 2004, he said rumors spread that "because I was a Muslim, I was a terrorist." He says that may be why he won with fewer votes than the first time.
Waheed, the Teaneck council hopeful, was doing business in a building across from the World Trade Center on 9/11. He saw bodies falling from the towers and escaped in a cab driven by a Sikh.
He’d had the same clients for decades; they knew he was Pakistani. A lot were friendly after 9/11, he says, but "there were a few customers who were not. You can sense certain things. Discomfort." He sighs. "Islam is the most misunderstood religion, and Muslims are the most misunderstood people."
Waheed says he is a Democrat, but "on certain issues, I have been in bed with the Republicans." Collecting signatures for the May 9 town council election outside a supermarket, he talks to voters about education, business development, preserving green space. In his baseball cap, holding his clipboard, he could be any candidate anywhere.
"I am running because I am very conscious of the issues of the town," he explains. "I am not running because I want to represent Muslims."