November 9, 2008

Islam and Obama

By Lorraine Ali | NEWSWEEK

For the past few months, not a day went by without the words "Muslim" and "Obama" being mentioned in the same sentence. From the divisive shouts and jeers at McCain rallies to the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times to an interview with Colin Powell on NBC's "Meet the Press," Muslims—or at least the mention of them—have been more prevalent this campaign year than "Joe the Plumber."

But beyond the use of the term Muslim as a pejorative, and accusations by the far right that Obama was himself a secret follower of the Quran, what did real Muslim-Americans think of the Chicago senator? And how did they vote? The American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections released a poll today of over 600 Muslims from more than 10 states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, and it revealed that 89 percent of respondents voted for Obama, while only 2 percent voted for McCain. It also indicated that 95 percent of Muslims polled cast a ballot in this year's presidential election—the highest turnout in a U.S. election ever—and 14 percent of those were first-time voters. The Gallup Center for Muslim studies estimates that U.S. Muslims favored Obama in greater numbers than did Hispanics (67 percent of whom voted for Obama) and nearly matched that of African-Americans, 93 percent of whom voted for Obama. More than two thirds who were polled said the economy was the most important issue affecting their decision on Nov. 4th, while 16 percent said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan informed their vote—numbers that put Muslims roughly on a par with the general population.

Many Muslim Americans also changed their party affiliations for this election. The country's Muslim population, estimated at between 7 to 8 million, has traditionally voted along conservative, Republican lines. Today, more than two thirds of American Muslims polled say they consider themselves to be Democrats, while only 4 percent see themselves as Republicans (29 percent identified themselves as Independents.) The shift began in 2004—in part because of the GOP's mishandling of civil liberties, from wiretapping American citizens to detaining Muslims in the United States and Guantanamo without trial, and because of the war in Iraq. This year, many more were drawn into the Democratic party by Obama himself. Muslims across the country were captivated by the senator's promise of unity and hope. On the Muslim-Americans for Obama Web site (, their mission statement includes the following: "That we support Barack Obama because, among other reasons, he rejects the politics of fear, challenging our nation to embrace its collective identity, where each American has a stake in the success and well-being of every American."

"All the Muslim Americans I know were excited and electrified by him," says Salman Ahmed, the New York-based guitarist and singer of the Pakistani-American rock band Junoon. He's dedicated several recent concerts to getting the vote out for Obama. "It was not like 'Good, Obama gets the Muslim world.' It was 'Oh my God! Here's a guy who understands the world, us, America.' Voting for him was a no brainer."

But many Muslims kept their presidential preference a secret in the months leading up to Super Tuesday, fearing that an endorsement from them might in fact work against Obama. After all, this was an election year in which the word "Muslim" was used as shorthand to connote anti-American leanings and a hidden love of terrorism. A recent study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a media watchdog group, found that the mainstream press didn't do enough to challenge the election-year smears of Islam by such conservative talk show hosts as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, or counter accusations that Obama was "one of them" by detractors such as "Obama Nation" author Jerome Corsi. "We are the bogeyman now," joked a secular Muslim woman last month during a conversation regarding Obama (she preferred to remain anonymous). "Yes, I want to shout my endorsement of him from the rooftops, but I do not want to mess up any chance of Obama becoming the next president. How crazy is this position we've been put in?"

But the ploy to connect Obama to a demonized Islam may have backfired. Weeks before the election, a nonprofit group which calls itself the Clarion Fund sent out an anti-Muslim DVD titled "Obsession" in Sunday papers across America; copies were also mailed to various voters in swing states. The DVD paired images of Nazis with images of Muslims, over and over and over again. Its arrival on the eve of the election was clearly intended to scare voters into supporting McCain, turning them against the candidate whose middle name happens to be "Hussein." "It was intended to be a way of linking Obama to Islam, but it backfired when a lot of people began saying wait, what's going on?" says Jen'nan Read, a professor of sociology at Duke University. "It not only mobilized many Muslim-American voters, but brought out other undecided voters in support of Obama rather than McCain."

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